Sri Lanka: Jihadist Violence Erupts in a Country Riven by Communal Tensions

4 MINS READApr 22, 2019 | 20:37 GMT
The Big Picture

While Stratfor has long highlighted Sri Lanka's deep and abiding ethnic and sectarian tensions, the eruption of jihadist terrorism attacks is an anomaly for the country, jeopardizing its postwar ethnic balance and economic reconstruction efforts.

What Happened: Almost exactly 10 years after the close of its decadeslong civil war, an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks has struck Sri Lanka. Targeting Easter church services and hotels frequented by foreigners, eight blasts went off in Colombo, Negombo, Kochchikade and Batticaloa, most of which appear to have been carried out using suicide vests and shrapnel. Explosive devices were also found near Colombo's international airport and other areas, but they did not detonate.

The bombings killed at least 290 people and injured 500 others. According to official releases, the dead included 31 foreigners, with a further 14 unaccounted for. The U.S. Department of State confirmed that the dead, injured and missing included several U.S. citizens and issued a Travel Warning regarding Sri Lanka, saying additional attacks could occur there.

Why It Matters: For the first time, Sri Lanka must contend with an ongoing threat of Islamist terrorism, jeopardizing the country's vital tourist sector and much-needed foreign investment. In the near term, the nature of these attacks raises the possibility of further flare-ups in communal violence, and of emboldened Buddhist nationalist politicians and inflamed Tamil-Muslim tensions. The sitting government's failure to act on warnings about the risk of impending attacks will surely be a boon to opposition challengers in national elections later this year, including former longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Sri Lankan government said the attackers had links to transnational groups, although the extent of these links remains unclear. The degree of sophistication in the making of the bombs indicates that the attackers did in fact have help from outside Sri Lanka, which could have come via coordination with external militant groups such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State, from Sri Lankan fighters returning from battlefields in Iraq and Syria, or from a combination of the two. (According to the Sri Lankan government, 32 nationals traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State.) Clarity on the nature of such networks, however, will have to wait for the emergence of more details about the attacks.

The Sri Lankan government said the attackers had links to transnational groups, although the extent of the links remains unclear.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam militant group carried out numerous suicide attacks throughout the 1983-2009 civil war, but none with this scope, scale or degree of coordination. Authorities have so far arrested 24 suspects in connection with the bombings, all of whom are Sri Lankan nationals. According to anonymous sources, Sri Lankan police issued an internal memo April 11 that an unspecified foreign intelligence agency had warned that hard-line Islamist group National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) was planning suicide attacks on the High Commission of India in Colombo and on churches. Whether NTJ in fact was involved in the attack, however, remains unclear. A shift toward such violent tactics would mark a major departure for a group heretofore known for vandalism and hard-line rhetoric.

Context: Sri Lanka has a deep history of ethnic cleavages and intercommunal violence. Most of this has involved tensions between the majority ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and ethnic Tamils, but the much-smaller Muslim minority (around 10 percent of the population) has found itself caught in the middle of the complex communal balance. Intensely persecuted by the Tamil Tigers during the civil war, many Muslims went abroad, and many returned with more austere forms of Wahhabi Islam to their mostly Sufi communities. Muslims have also borne the brunt of Sri Lanka's rising Buddhist nationalism, which saw Sinhalese and Muslims engage in back-and-forth riots in March 2018, as well as numerous smaller incidents of intercommunal unrest before and since.

Much like in Indonesia, Sri Lanka's Muslim community has not been particularly drawn to extremism, with Muslim groups reportedly even being the source of some of the warnings about National Thowfeek Jamaath. The country's limited pool of potential extremists and a renewed Sri Lankan government focus on counterterrorism — decades of civil war counterinsurgency and intelligence have already bolstered the country's security forces — will be a limiting factor on any jihadist militant group's ability to launch a sustained campaign of attacks.

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