Easter 2019: Sri Lanka’s 9-11 moment


Easter Sunday is one date many Sri Lankans wished they could forget, provided they can.

Christians of every denomination around the world celebrated Easter on 21 April 2019. They were commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead three days after his execution. Needless to say, churches were packed full of worshippers during morning services. It was meant to be a joyous occasion.

Churchgoers being led away from one of the three churches targeted by suicide attackers in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. (ABC News)

For the people of Sri Lanka, this day would turn out to be something quite different, not to mention tragic. Suicide bombers with ties to feared Islamist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) simultaneously targeted three churches in the country as well as three hotels in the capital city of Colombo on Easter morning.

Worshippers were in attendance at the Shrine of St Anthony in the Colombo suburb of Kochchikade at quarter to nine in the morning when the first bomb went off. At least fifty died in the attack on the national shrine. Simultaneously, the upscale Kingsbury Hotel was also targeted. St Sebastian’s Church in the satellite city of Negombo close to the country’s main airport was also hit. Media reports said there were 93 fatalities, of which 27 were children.

What a way to start the day, you might say. However, the attackers were not done yet. Five minutes later, they struck at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel on the main Galle Road. It was the second major terrorist incident at the hotel since 1984. Back then, the country was in the midst of a civil war between government forces and Tamil rebels. The suicide bomber who was responsible for the Easter attacks had earlier checked into the Cinnamon Grand under an alias. He blew himself up while standing in the breakfast queue, killing one of the managers instantly. Popular actress Raadhika Sarathkumar had just wrapped up a film shoot on the premises. She narrowly escaped the carnage that unfolded.

Seven minutes later, tragedy would unfold at the Shangri-La Hotel just up the road. This hotel had only been open for over a year and it was immensely popular with foreign visitors, like the other two named above. The Table One restaurant on the hotel’s third level was packed with tourists at the time of bombing. Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter were among the victims, along with three of the four children of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen. Sri Lankan cricketer Hasitha Boyagoda was luckier as he escaped unhurt from the blast. Some of his family members who were with him were hospitalised for several days. The bomber was identified as Ilham Ibrahim, the son of one of the nation’s richest men. MYM Ibrahim had built up a spice trading empire from scratch. His son Inshaf had been groomed to take over the family business. However, Inshaf and his two brothers Ilham and Imsath were recruited by a little-known Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), itself having close ties to ISIL. The person who checked into Cinnamon Grand using a fake ID was Inshaf.

On the east coast, the evangelical Zion Church in Batticaloa was not spared either. A suicide bomber entered the church compound on the pretext of filming it but was denied access due to the ongoing service. He then detonated himself in the churchyard, killing at least 27, most of them children. It was believed that the culprit intended to strike at the Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral. However, the service at the cathedral had finished by the time he got there.

What started off as a bad day was only to get worse. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the one-star Tropical Inn in the southern municipality of Dehiwala near the National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka some five hours after the initial bomb blasts. A couple who just checked in half an hour ago died. His initial target had been the luxurious Taj Samudra in downtown Colombo but his device failed to detonate.

After the authorities worked out that the Ibrahim brothers were behind some of the deadly attacks, they surrounded the family home in Dematagoda. Fatima Ibrahim, the wife of Ilham, was not one who would give herself up peacefully. She blew herself up, killing her three children and taking three police officers down as well. Her father-in-law MYM Ibrahim was taken into custody, with associates fearing the worst for him. They believe the Ibrahim family patriarch had no idea what his sons were up to.

In subsequent developments, it was revealed that the government had information that a major terror attack on the country was going to take place, but did nothing to prevent it. Following a series of raids on terrorist safe houses across the country, 150 suspects were taken into custody. The investigation was led by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Sri Lankan police, with support from international police agencies. The suspects were all Muslims, and included four women. Nine of them are expected to face charges in court.

Five days after the Easter bombings, security forces raided a property in Kalmunai on the east coast where suspected jihadists were holed up. They were mostly family members and associates of NTJ leader Zahran Hashim, who had detonated himself at the Shangri-La Hotel. As the security forces approached the property, the suspects blew themselves up, killing twelve of them, including three women and six children. A further three more militants were killed by government troops in the ensuing firefight.

The brutal nature of the attacks have shaken Sri Lanka to the core and shocked the world who are still reeling from the Christchurch mosque attacks. Attacks on houses of worship during religious services are nothing new, with Operation Blue Star being one of the most infamous. Most of the victims were members of the local Catholic community in Sri Lanka, with the rest made up of Western tourists. Catholics make up a tiny minority of Sri Lanka’s population, majority of whom are Buddhists. There are also Muslims who make up about 9% of the population but predominate on the east coast. This dates back to the days when the Portuguese expelled them from Colombo, only for the Kingdom of Kandy to allow them to settle in what is now the Eastern Province. The Muslim community had seen attacks on them by predominantly-Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists recently. In retaliation, the NTJ under Hashim vandalised Buddhist statues. There were claims made by ISIL members that the Easter attacks were a direct retaliation for the Christchurch mosque shootings, but no evidence pointed to that. It is believed that the church bombings were planned in advance.

There are strong motives for targeting churches and hotels. Churches are the places of worship for Christians, who hail from at least three ethnic communities in Sri Lanka. Striking on Thaipusam or Vesak Day will not have such a strong impact. The idea is to inflict maximum damage. Hence the three hotels popular with Western tourists were also hit. Islamists generally see Westerners as supporters of Zionism. Most visitors from the West incidentally happen to be Christians too.

The attacks have also resulted in heightened suspicion of Muslims in Sri Lanka, even though religious leaders have condemned the bombers. In short, it has made what was already a bad situation worse. Although the suspects were not known to have outright foreign links, the scale of the bombings would mean some sort of foreign backing may be involved. Like the Jemaah Islamiyah members arrested in Singapore in the aftermath of 9-11, the Sri Lanka bombing suspects were homegrown. None of them were foreign fighters. The bombings marked the first instance in the decade since the conclusion of the Eelam War that large-scale senseless violence reared its ugly head in Sri Lanka.

It would not be an understatement to say that what happened on 21 April 2019 is Sri Lanka’s 9-11 moment. The death toll, the subsequent operation to mop up the radicals and the likely impact on the country and her neighbours puts it in the same league as the 9-11 attacks in the United States of America back in 2001. It is something that the world must accept as the “New Normal”.

In the short term, the tourism industry is going to feel the burn. It is likely that travel advisories will be issued against Sri Lanka and the number of visitor arrivals may drop. This will certainly have a flow-on effect on the country’s economy. The end of the Eelam War brought a certain degree of stability and encouraged economic growth, much of which was credited to former president Mahinda Rajapakse.

In addition, there is also the possibility of civil liberties being curtailed. A state of emergency has been declared following the tragedy. Police have been given sweeping powers to deal with possible threats to national security. This move, while necessary, opens up the possibility for abuse of power. On the outset, emergency regulations are meant to be confined to dealing with terrorism. However, there is no guarantee that such legislation may be used to crack down on free expression later down the track. The President could declare that all editorials critical of his rule are to be classified as fake news, thus putting himself above the Constitution and not subject to accountability. There is also the remote possibility of the upcoming presidential election being postponed indefinitely. If it does go ahead, it may see Gotabhaya Rajapakse as the biggest winner.

The events that unfolded in Sri Lanka over Easter may send shivers down its neighbours’ spines. Myanmar, itself already facing a crisis involving the Rohingya community, may feel the heat. Like Sri Lanka, Myanmar has a Buddhist supermajority and Christian and Muslim minorities. Most Burmese Muslims are Rohingya. It may incite fresh violence by Burmese Buddhist nationalists against the beleaguered Rohingya, causing more boodshed. It may also play right into the hands of the Singapore government, already under fire due to a series of mis-steps by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over the past two years. Confidence in Lee’s leadership has reached an all-time low and this may well be his party’s last-ever term after holding absolute power for more than five decades. With an upcoming opposition party led by a former ruling party insider, this does not bode well for Lee at all. It will be tempting for him to exploit the tragedy in Sri Lanka for his own political gain. Like his predecessor Goh Chok Tong did during the 2001 general election held soon after 9-11, Lee will certainly talk the ruling People’s Action Party up, saying only the PAP can protect Singapore and its citizens from a catastrophe of such a scale. A vote for the opposition, is therefore, an invitation to terrorists to attack us because all the opposition parties are supposedly weak. This is enough to cow the older generation and uneducated voters into giving Lee’s party another ill-deserved term in office, where they can do everything they want without having to shoulder any form of accountability.

It is disturbing that the Sri Lanka Easter bombers were fans of controversial Islamic scholar Dr Zakir Naik. Dr Naik is a leading proponent of Salafi thought and founder of the Peace TV channel. Due to the controversial nature of his teacings, they are banned in several countries, including his birthplace of India. Sri Lanka now became the latest county to ban his channel after the Easter attacks. Dr Naik is currently a permanent resident in Malaysia. His passport had earlier been revoked by the Indian authorities, who have been looking at extraditing him. He has expressed views that can be construed as sexist and been accused of hate-mongering. While he has not been directly linked to terrorism, many terrorists have confessed to being followers of him. Hence, he can and should get done for inciting violence and promoting genocide. The fact that he can live peacefully in Malaysia without being charged with sedition is perplexing. Non-Muslims have faced charges of sedition for offences far less severe than what Dr Naik has committed. Netizens have in fact applauded Malaysian authorities for apprehending one of Dr Naik’s followers for insulting Hinduism. What Alvin Tan and Vivien Lee did is nothing compared to that of Zamri Vinoth but they still had to face trial. Dr Zakir Naik should really thank his lucky stars Chin Peng did not manage to win the Emergency.

All that being said, Sri Lankans of all ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds should rally together and rebuild their shattered country. Peace is fragile and unity is strength. May the Lord bless the country and keep is people safe from harm, be it from within or without.