Rarely in the annals of terrorism is there a case where a group with virtually no known terrorist antecedents and, at worst, a marginal presence within the domestic conflict dynamic, bursts out into the open with a catastrophic act of terror comparable to the serial bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka (April 21, 2019). At the time of writing the death toll in these coordinated attacks had already risen to 359, with many of the wounded still critical, making it by far the worst terrorist incident in the country.
Rarely, again, does a state have such specific intelligence repeatedly communicated to it by a friendly power, so far in advance and in unprecedented detail, identifying the date, the locations, the nature of imminent attacks, the perpetrator group and, indeed, the identities of individual perpetrators.
Rarely has a state failed so comprehensively to react even minimally to such specific intelligence, and to initiate even the most rudimentary preventive measures.
While the non-governmental strategic community was taken completely by surprise by the Sri Lanka serial bombings, it must be abundantly clear that there were no rational grounds for the Sri Lanka intelligence and enforcement authorities to be caught unawares.
Indeed, the failure of the intelligence and enforcement apparatus goes much deeper than the scandalous neglect of detailed intelligence provided by ‘a foreign agency’. Terrorist groups do not appear abruptly, fully formed and capable. The capacities demonstrated in the Easter bombings will have evolved over extended periods of time, and from lesser patterns of malfeasance.
While the National Thawheed Jamaath, the first group identified in the Easter Sunday attacks, has little documentation in the English language open source, there is certainly a history here of which the Sri Lankan intelligence community could not be unaware.
The Thawheed Jamaat is a fractious Salafist complex of many splinter formations, and has been involved for years, both in sectarian conflicts between various Muslim groups, as well as escalating, invective riddled, and fitfully violent confrontations with militant majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhists. Every faction of such groups would be expected to be under vigorous surveillance, and their drift towards terrorism, particularly any linkages to entities abroad – including any linkages or extraordinary interest shown in the Islamic State (also known as Daesh) in sustained internet searches – well documented.
There is little evidence in the wake of the serial suicide attacks of April 21 that the Sri Lankan intelligence community had any significant details on the activities of the National Thawheed Jamaath or the second affiliate now named in the attacks, the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. Zahran Hashim the leader of the National Thawheed Jamaath and believed to be one of the suicide bombers, had a long history of preaching hatred and violence.
It now emerges that one of the suicide bombers had, in fact, been arrested for acts of vandalism in a Buddhist temple, but had been let off, reportedly due to ‘political pressure’. Such actions are unsurprising, but the complete lack of effective surveillance and intelligence gathering on such volatile organisations and individuals is incomprehensible, as, indeed, is the paucity of documentation, reportage and research in the open source.
Processes of extreme radicalization, the preparation of multiple suicide cadres, the complex conspiracy leading up to the eventual attacks, and the logistical chain that would have gone into the acquisition of necessary know how, materials and assembly of multiple explosive devices, also appear to have completely escaped the attention of Sri Lankan security agencies.
Two top officials, Hemasiri Fernando, the defence secretary, and Pujith Jayasundara, the Inspector General of Police, have been directed by President Maithripala Sirisena to resign. There are fears that associates of the Easter bombers may still be active, and these were reinforced by an explosion on April 25 at Pugodo town, east of Colombo, though there were no casualties.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, with video’s and photographs of the bombers swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as evidence, but no logistics chain has yet been established between the local conspirators in Sri Lanka, and international Daesh leaders or actors. Investigations are in early stages, and much will emerge over the coming weeks and months.
Whatever the outcome, the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka raise larger issues for CT agencies across the world. The most significant of these is the phenomenon of a terrorist group or cell crystallizing domestically to a high level of capability, entirely unnoticed by local agencies; and the related challenge of defining the stage and scale of intervention appropriate to lawfully constrain groups that propagate ideologies of hatred and that advocate – as against explicitly incite or engage in – violence.
With the global rise of regressive right wing ideologies, much of the precursor behaviour of potentially terrorist groups is akin to what many ‘mainstream’ political formations engage in. Moreover, the Christ Church mosque shootings in New Zealand on March 15, 2019, among other incidents, demonstrate that it is not sufficient to focus on Islamist terrorist groups alone. Sri Lanka’s present tragedy is a warning to intelligence and CT agencies across the world, of the increasing complexity of terrorist threats everywhere.
Dr. Ajai Sahni is an author and expert on counter-terrorism, and serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website focusing on terrorism in South Asia. Author also edits ‘South Asia Intelligence Review’ and ‘Faultlines’.