The terror attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka have once again exposed the country’s vulnerability to political violence and highlight the specter of mass-casualty terror attacks in South Asia.
Here are four major points that are noteworthy about the attacks.
Unprecedented magnitude and scale
Even in a country that has been plagued with mass terrorist attacks, perpetuated in the past by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka were unprecedented in scale and scope. These attacks were very ambitious and reflected a sophistication that could only come from having some level of military training and expertise as well as centralized control.
The bombings were well-coordinated simultaneous attacks involving more than 20 individuals, including seven confirmed suicide bombers. Targeting churches and hotels frequented by foreigners, militants using suicide vests trigged seven simultaneous blasts in the cities of Colombo, Batticaloa, Negombo and Kochchikade. The death toll from the attack has risen to more than 350 so far, with hundreds of others injured.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were also discovered near Colombo’s international airport and other areas, but they failed to detonate.
Simultaneous attacks, major casualties
Simultaneous attacks offer myriad advantages, such as a broader target, flexibility during the operation, and the opportunity to inflict large numbers of casualties and thereby generate extensive worldwide media exposure.
The attacks were extremely simple but highly effective. Their objective was to inflict a large number of casualties. The suicide vests were detonated in crowds of people, a perfect place for a mass-casualty event when leveraging a small IED. The bombs were also reinforced with pellets and nails to inflict further human injury.
The attacks in Sri Lanka are a somber reminder of the difficulty of preventing such assaults against buildings where there is a significant civilian presence. As security at military bases, embassies, and other government facilities increases, there has been a trend among terrorists to attack softer targets. Such targets as hotels and religious institutions tend to be chosen because of the high density of people present. Since these locations are open, it is difficult to exclude individuals who have hostile intentions.
Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community was the main target of the attack. It is not a coincidence that the attacks were timed for Easter Sunday, when Christians traditionally congregate at their religious institutions and perhaps enjoy Sunday brunches at hotels. This suggest that the likely perpetrators are within the jihadist milieu.
This is a very interesting point, as Sri Lanka does not have much of a history of radical Islamic militancy. The country is predominantly Buddhist, with significant Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities. Muslims in Sri Lanka have never resorted to violence to assert their position in their country. Concerns of an armed movement emerging among Muslims in the country have been present since the early 1990s, but such movements tend to be small and highly fragmented. Most Muslims have remained committed to focusing their efforts through the political process and negotiating with the government and Tamil militants at different times in history. The attacks on Easter Sunday look to have changed this assessment.
According to the Sri Lankan government, more than 40 people have been arrested in connection with the bombings. While their identities have yet to be disclosed, the individuals have been linked to National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a small Sri Lankan radical Islamic group that has no history of significant terror attacks in the country.
Three days after the tragic events in Sri Lanka, the extremist militant group that calls itself Islamic State (IS) took credit for the attacks via its news service Amaq, claiming they were in retaliation for the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. If this claim is substantiated, this would confirm the assessment of many counterterrorism experts that it is likely that NTJ received logistical and technological expertise from an external source.
Moreover, the horrific attacks on churches and hotels may also confirm that while the IS caliphate in western Iraq and Syria has ended, it remains unbowed. The group continues to provide ideological and perhaps even operation support. In the near term, IS will continue to spread its virulent ideology and engage in violence far from its former battlefields in the rest of the world.