Easter Terrorism: The Islamic State Fans the Flames of Minority Religious Extremism in Sri Lanka

Nicole.jpg

By: Nicole Campbell, Class of 2020

As millions around the world celebrated Easter, tragedy broke the joyful holiday’s peace in Sri Lanka, where horrific bombings killed over 300 people gathering in churches and hotels. As the country of 21.4 million went on lockdown, it was revealed that an intelligence memo warning a potential attack was circulated ten days earlier. Titled “Information of an alleged plan attack” and signed by Deputy Inspector General of Police, Priyalal Dissanayake, the revelation raised immediate questions as to why it wasn’t treated more seriously by government officials.

A multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multicultural country, Sri Lanka has seen relative, if fragile, peace during the past decade. While violent attacks were common during its 25-year civil war, which ended in 2009, the country has become a popular tourist destination and won “Best Place in the World to Visit” by Lonely Planet in 2019. In all, eight bombings occurred in four cities, half of which took place in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. In the wake of the horror, Sri Lanka authorities shut down social media access and imposed a country-wide curfew.

photo_33555_20140820.jpg

Easter is celebrated as the resurrection of Jesus after dying on the cross by Christians around the world.

In choosing to bomb two churches and a religious shrine on Easter Sunday, ISIS has taken responsibility for the attacks, targeted Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community, which comprises only 7.4% of the population. Somewhat surprisingly, given the attacks’ engineers, just under 10% of the population is Muslim, according to census data. With 12% identifying as Hindu, the remaining 70% majority is Buddhist. In addition to its vulnerability to the Islamic State, the country has surged in ultra-nationalist Buddhism led by the Bodu Bala Sena, Sri Lanka’s most powerful Buddhist organization, led by monks. In 2014, this group rallied following Muslim youths’ alleged assault on a monk which led to mob violence killing at least three and injuring upwards of eighty people, looting and burning homes and shops in primarily-Muslim areas.  

The ignored intelligence memo was not the first warning from within that the country was in danger. Many Sri Lankans knew of ISIS’ growing presence within their borders and are furious that multiple warnings essentially went unheeded culminating in so many lives lost. As early as late 2016, Parliament knew that over two dozen citizens had joined the Islamic State, described as a “grave problem.” Later in early 2017, moderate Muslims gave police eleven dossiers on local Islamic extremists, which identified Easter suicide bomber and possible ringleader Zaharan Hashim as leading the country’s ISIS faction. Hashim had been a years-long, well-known threat, yet moderate Muslims’ concern failed to convince police to arrest him. It was also known that men from affluent families had been increasingly seduced into extremism, and for a while, the military consciously followed radical university students and online postings with no resulting actions.

Now, those same moderate Muslims report feeling targeted and fearful to leave their homes. The most-contentious security measure taken by Sri Lankan government in the panicked days following the attacks was the Parliament’s ban on women wearing burqas, which cover the wearer’s whole body and face. Ashu Marasinghe submitted the motion stating it is “not a traditional Muslim attire,” and has some support within the local Muslim community. The Sri Lanka Thauheedh Jamath (SLTJ), which denies any links with the bombers, supports the ban with secretary Mohamed Faseeh stating, “There is national security to consider. Just take the burqa off.”

photo_41809_20151001.jpg

Catholic Cardinal Malcom Ranjith of Colombo urged the government to swift resolution before people take the law into their own hands.

Cardinal Malcom Ranjith of Colombo urged the government to bring the perpetrators to justice, stating, “If the current regime doesn’t have the adequate structures to fight terrorism,  it will be impossible to contain the masses in the future.” He implored officials to put aside political differences to create a solution to national security instead of merely shifting and evading blame for the tragedy “in order that the people don’t take the law into their own hands.”