by Austin Bay
April 23, 2019
Within Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, the Easter Sunday terror massacres have stirred embittering memories of suicide terror atrocities perpetrated during the nation's 26-year-long civil war (July 1983 to May 2009). The Easter bombings killed at least 321 people and injured over 500.
Understand that the stark and numerous differences between 2019's horror and the terror campaigns waged by ethnic Tamils during their secessionist insurgency are historically and politically salient. When it comes to capturing and/or eliminating 2019's perpetrators, the differences will be determinative. I'll sketch the key ones in a moment.
However, the terrorists' callous, suicidal commitment to ensure sensational communal slaughter has a definite civil war echo.
I think this similarity isn't merely a tactical coincidence (suicide bombers savaging defenseless citizens) but a propaganda ploy by 2019's mass murderers with the goal of exploiting Sri Lanka's ethnic and religious divisions. Three decades of domestic bloodbath leave psychological and political wounds that 10 years of fragile peace cannot heal. Violent megalomaniacs, sectarian and secular, have apocalyptic goals. It's conceivable the terrorists hope their crime will reignite the civil war.
About 23 million people live in Sri Lanka. Over 70 percent are Buddhist Sinhalese. Thirteen percent are Hindu (most ethnic Tamils). Ten percent are Muslim and seven percent Christian (of various ethnic origins but many native Sinhalese).
The civil war's arch terrorists were Tamil Hindus belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE wanted a Tamil state carved from the island once known as Ceylon. In July 1983, LTTE insurgents ambushed an army convoy and killed 13 soldiers. The ambush triggered anti-Tamil riots (most rioters were Buddhists) that killed at least 2,500 Tamils.
Thirteen dead followed by 2,500 dead. Civil war erupted. Ethnic and sectarian lines weren't absolute, but they were real. Ceasefires and peacekeepers came and went. In 2009, a brutal scorched-earth offensive by government troops crushed the last LTTE enclave.
During the civil war, the LTTE began conducting terrorist attacks where the terrorist detonated a bomb that killed him as well as his targets. Thus the Tamil Tigers are credited with "operationalizing" suicide bombing as a modern terror tactic. In 1991, an LTTE suicide terrorist killed then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1993, a suicide bomber killed Sri Lanka's president. It also sent the political message that the LTTE would fight relentlessly.
Other extremist groups adopted the tactic, among them the ultra-sectarian militant Islamists in Al Qaida who staged 9/11.
Now for the differences. The Sri Lankan, Indian and U.S. governments believe Islamist jihadis perpetrated the Easter atrocities, not LTTE holdouts. The government suspects the Islamist National Thowheeth Jama'ath (National Unification Group) is responsible. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's accusation was unvarnished: "What was supposed to be a joyful Easter Sunday was marred by a horrific wave of Islamic radical terror and bloodshed."
The major targets (as icons) support the Islamist jihadist accusation: three Christian churches (on Easter) and three hotels. Jihadists wage war on Western tourism. Four of the bombs detonated near simultaneously, which suggests sophistication and expert help. Islamic State group propagandists claim credit for the attack and say Christians were specifically targeted. ISIS, however, always makes claims. There are also claims the attack was retaliation for the March terror attacks on two New Zealand mosques perpetrated by a single racist crank. At least 50 people died in the attacks.
Sri Lankan officials acknowledge an intelligence failure by their police and military. On April 4, they received warnings of a potential attack from India and the U.S. Ugly and divisive political recriminations have begun. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena are political enemies. Now one blames the other for their nation's disaster.
Belatedly, security is high island-wide, particularly in the capital of Colombo. Government officials have authorized the military to make arrests, a power it had during the civil war but lost after 2009. Perhaps the terrorists sought that echo as well.