The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka was first organised attack by an Islamic terrorist group. These attacks also followed a pattern of the 2017 Holey Artisan attack in Dhaka.
One year after the attacks, is there sufficient information about who the perpetrators were, why did they carry out these attacks, and whether there were early warnings that the society and the State missed?
Both these attacks refute the thesis that the terrorists mostly belong to a particular class, uneducated and unemployed. The suicide bombers of Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were well educated and belonged to the middle and upper class.
In the case of Sri Lanka, it is evident that beyond the great divide of geography is the unity of ideology.
Who were the perpetrators? Who financed them? And who motivated them?
There were nine attackers; the identity of those was clear within the week. They were from different cities in Sri Lanka and within the age group of 20-33 years. As Meera Srinivasan, the Hindu columnist, rightly states, “they were bound by ideology and connected by technology.”
According to Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), all nine were part of two jihadist organisations, namely, National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ), and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI).
The NTJ was led by Zahran Hashim, the ringleader of the attackers. Hashim was a 33-year-old radical preacher from Kattankudy, in eastern Batticaloa. He absconded in 2017, following a clash with a fellow priest who challenged his interpretation of Islam. His radical beliefs were the cause that he never got accepted in his hometown, a predominantly Muslim town. He was the prime motivator.
Nevertheless, this did not deter several youngsters from getting attracted to his beliefs and teachings online. The nine attackers were among this group, who got radicalised over different periods and found Hashim as a mentor.
The finance for the attacks was provided by Ilham Ibrahim, a 31-year-old married man; his family managed a spice export business. He was known to others as an introvert and religious man, who kept to himself. Unlike him, Inshaf Ibrahim, his elder brother, was friendly, respectable to his staff and liberal. Their father MA Ibrahim is a millionaire and owner of a renowned spice exporting business. Ibrahim is also known around Si Lanka as a philanthropist. Hence, the involvement of his second son Inshaf and third son, Ilham was shocking.
Unlike Ilham, Inshaf was not a part of NTJ, and most probably was roped into the plan later, as he had booked tickets a few days before the attack to travel to Mecca with his family. But there were changes noticed in them, in 2018, both the brothers had resigned from their post of the board of directors of their company. This was an outcome of their objection to their father’s practise of taking short-term loans on interest for rotating cash. They claimed this was against the religion and resigned.
However, Inshaf continued to manage his own business of copper production in Wellampitiya. Abdul Latheef Jameel Mohamed, a 29-year-old man, belonged to the same place. Jameel, a friend of the Ibrahim brothers, similar to them, was well educated and affluent. He pursued aerospace engineering at London and higher education from Melbourne. His family noticed stark changes in him since his return from Australia. He had linkages with the IS recruiter Neil Prakash, one of Australia’s most wanted jihadists. During his stay in London, he also was motivated by the British Islamist Anjem Choudary. So no wonder, after his return to Sri Lanka, he found solace in the radical preaching of Hashim.
Alawdeen Ahmed Muath, unlike Jameel and Ibrahim brothers, did not belong to a wealthy family. Nevertheless, he was well educated-graduated in law from a college in Colombo. He was residing in Sainthamaruthu, near Kattankudy, since his marriage a year back. He met Hashim in Sainthamaruthu and got influenced by him. On 21 April, he ended up taking several lives along with his in St Anthony’s church in Colombo. Similar to Muath, Mohamed Hasthun, and Mohamed Nasser Mohamed Asad belong to middle-class families and from the Batticaloa province, of which Kattankudy is a part.
Not much is known about the eighth attacker, Mohamed Azam Mohamed. Fatima Ilham, Ilham Ibrahim’s wife, was the ninth attacker. On 22 April, she blew herself along with her children and three police officers when their house was raided.
Did the society and state miss the early warnings?
In retrospect, there were several warning that both the Sri Lankan society and the State have missed.
The society missed reading the signs in growing differences between generations within the communities. The perpetrators were all born during the late eighties and early nineties, hence, had witnessed a different attitude towards their community when in comparison to their previous generations.
First, attack by the LTTE during the Elam War in the early 90s, for example, the Mosque massacres in Kattankudy and Eravur in 1990. Then, later in the post-war phase, the victimization of the community by the radical Sinhala group had aided their radicalisation process.
The 2018 vandalisation of the Buddha statues in Mawanella by Mohammad Sadik Abdul-Haq and Mohammad Shaheed Abdul-Haq started immediately after the 2018 attacks on the Muslims in Digana, a place close to Mawanella. Even Mawanella experienced an anti-Muslim series in 2001. These attacks on the Muslims and sometimes on Christians by the Sinhala radical groups created a fault line. These pushed a multi-cultural society to shift towards a situation where each community sees another community as an ‘other’.
Not only the Muslim but also the other Sri Lankan communities closed their eyes to the above changes.
Similarly, the precision and organization of the attacks would highlight months of planning; perhaps, dedicated planning for years. The intelligence failure even after an external input, should underline where the State has failed to take the warning seriously.
On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured.
One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on “One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka” is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security and justice.