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A year since the Easter Sunday attack; some lessons from the tragedy

21 April 2020 09:44 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


A year ago, at 8.25 a.m. on this day, Alawdeen Ahamed Muaath, a 22-year-old law graduate turned suicide terrorist detonated an explosive-filled rucksack amid a throng of Easter Sunday worshipers praying at St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade. The explosion killed more than 50 people and wounded scores more. Within the next hour, multiple coordinated suicide attacks ripped through the churches and tourist hotels, unleashing serial carnage. Suicide bombers of a little known homegrown Islamist group, National Thawheed Jamath (NJJ) attacked St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Zion Church in Batticaloa, and three luxury hotels -- Cinnamon Grand, Kingsbury and Shangri-La in Colombo. Two hundred and fifty-nine people, including 49 foreigners were murdered in cold blood; more than five hundred were wounded. A failed suicide bomber blew up at a lodge in Dehiwala, reportedly while fixing a faulty switch on a bomb. The pregnant wife of another terrorist, the youngest of millionaire Ibrahim brothers, Mohamed Ibrahim Ilham Ahamed, detonated a bomb, killing herself and three policemen after the police raided their luxury residence in Dematagoda. 

Amid hellish horror, a worse calamity might have been averted by sheer luck. The St. Anthony’s Church suicide bomber arrived in an explosive-laden van, parked it in the vicinity of the Church, and set the timer of the bomb for 8.45 am. The target was the rescue workers who would rush to the bomb site. By a technical fault, the bomb did not explode and the police found the van a day later.

Nine suicide bombers blew themselves up that day. They were all educated young men and a woman from affluent and well-connected Muslim families. They were members of an Islamist cell led by a radical preacher in Kattankuddy, Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zahran, who blew himself up in the Shanrgi-la attack.

The Easter Sunday attacks changed Sri Lanka beyond even what the bombers might have expected. It was a harbinger of many things, including the final fatal blow on the Yahapalana government and resulting in the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who solely relied on a hardened Sinhala electorate. The attacks set off a fresh wave of Islamophobia, pushing the wider Muslim community against the wall. They were forcibly held responsible to the crimes of a fringe group. 

The bombs wiped out entire families. Survivors were left with life-long trauma and debilitating injuries. Children were orphaned, at least 81 children were injured. The tourism industry took the brunt of the economic shock. Though it recovered somewhat by the end of the year, much damage was done. 

Sri Lankans are still grappling with the unanswered questions of the Easter Sunday horror. What went so horribly wrong? In Sri Lanka, the blame game is cheap. A Parliamentary Committee on Easter Sunday attacks interviewed numerous stakeholders and in their final report provided incisive insights into the whole debacle. Then, the committee pondered over the rhetorical and self-serving question: “It is also paramount to question the role of some sections in the intelligence apparatus and their attempts to shape security, the electoral process, political landscape and the future of Sri Lanka.” 

It noted that if the information shared by a foreign, presumably Indian, intelligence service about a pending terrorist attack was followed up by the Chief of National Intelligence and the then director of the SIS, ‘steps may have been taken to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks.’

While a timely follow up could probably have averted the Easter Sunday attacks, it was only the last in a series of oversights leading up to the attacks. The Easter Sunday attacks were in the making for more than a year. In March 2018, Zahran went into hiding after a clash with religious rivals in Kattankudy.  Some of his followers were arrested and later released. Two of them blew themselves up on Easter Sunday.

In January 2019, a police probe into vandalizing of Buddhist statues in Mawanella led to an 80-acre coconut cultivation in Wanathawillu in Puttalam where the cops found buried in the ground a large cache of explosives consisting of 100kg of C4 explosives, 75kg of ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride and six cans of 20 litre nitrate acid. Investigators knew those were meant to make Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Four individuals were arrested. However, the key suspects were at large. Later Mohamed Naslim, who aided the police to track down the vandals of Mawanella was shot at his residence.  

These were the looming evidence of a much larger plot by Islamic extremism. However, the local intelligence and security apparatus were reluctant to follow up, proactively. That reluctance should not be interpreted as sabotage. It was a result of years of politicization of intelligence. Yahapalana which heavily relied on minority parties was not keen to upset the apple cart. It also distrusted the intelligence agencies and their top brass for being willful accessories of the previous Rajapaksa regime. In return, the intelligence apparatus fed the government what it wanted to hear and acted on the matters that were in congruence of the government’s political interests. 

If there is anything to learn from this intelligence failure it is the need for the de-policization of the national intelligence apparatus. Another unintended vindication of the Easter Sunday attack was that Islamic radicalization in Sri Lanka was real. That is the grim reality that many people, including policymakers and security planners, refused to acknowledge until it was too late. When I was writing about the gradual Arabization of the local Muslims, almost a decade ago, I was criticized as catering to a Western agenda. Years later, when I pointed out that Islamic radicalization is no longer a possibility, but a fact, with Sri Lankan Muslims going to Syria, I was told ‘we do not want to put stray snakes under the sarong.’  At the end, those snakes bit.

The Easter Sunday attacks were the coming of age of militant Salafi Jihadi radicalization in Sri Lanka, however, by some quirk, it happened rather prematurely. In most countries in the West, mass attacks happened only after imported Salafism/wahabbism took roots there, built its infrastructure and brought a sizeable portion of the local Muslim population, especially the second-generation Muslim youth under its wing.Wahhabism and Salafism are two ultra-conservative and austere brands of Islamic ideology and were the ideological fountainhead of Al Queda and later IS led global Salafi Jihad.  

In Sri Lanka, Wahabization had not reached its threshold of mass radicalization, by the time of the Easter Sunday attacks. However there was an incremental shift. Paradoxically, the increased public scrutiny after the Easter Sunday attacks pushed back this trend. 

While the liberal literati fret about restrictions on Burka, the growth of popularity of this signature dress of Salafi Jihad is a measure of domestic Islamic radicalization. Traditional Sri Lankan Islam was displaced. It was replaced by imported Wahabbism and Salafism. Many observers have raised concerns over unregulated Islamic Maddrassas, which in most countries became breeding grounds of radicalization.  However, in Sri Lanka, a bigger concern should be Muslim International schools, which exercise an extreme notion of gender segregation, promote Burka and Niqab as a dress code and teach an excessively religious curriculum. Those are pivotal drivers of radicalization. Ideological radicalization and nonviolent extremism is a precursor to its violent manifestation. Sri Lanka ignored that, and hundreds of innocent men, women and children paid with their lives and limb for that failure.There is another grim fact: No country that underwent a major homegrown Islamist terrorist attack had managed to avoid a repetition. From Spain to France to London, terrorist attacks have become frequent. 
That is because extremism has built its own infrastructure and support network. Most of these take a form of non-violent extremism, but they cross feed violent extremism. Sri Lanka might still have a chance to avoid repetition. Rightly or wrongly, the scrutiny after the Easter Sunday attacks also has a restraining effect on the radicalizing drivers and agents. 
Sri Lanka, its government and the wider Muslim community should keep an eye on the militant extremism as well as more mundane ideological radicalization, which produces the next generation of terrorists. The government should support the mainstream mosques, provide financial help to the clergy and religious students, regulate Maddrasas and their curriculum. The mainstream Muslim groups should counter imported implants. Muslim political elites should give up their earlier habit of condoning or turning a blind eye to Arabization as an electoral strategy. 

However, Islamist extremism cannot be defeated by demeaning fellow Muslims. Islamophobia and stigmatization of Muslims by dog-whistling Television channels, social media, and misguided official policies are playing into the hands of radicalizing agents.  As much as Yahapalana failed to confront Islamic radicalization for political reasons, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration has failed to combat Islamophobia due to similar political calculations. Some of its vocal acolytes are also self-acclaimed bigots. They inadvertently are enablers of the next wave of Islamic extremism.

On this day of a monumental tragedy a year ago, Sri Lanka should vouch, never again. 

Follow @ Rangajayasuriya on Twitter

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