The incident as we understand it thus far
Eight locations across three cities in Sri Lanka have been struck. The attackers used a combination of suicide bombs and remote IEDs. The initial wave was composed of six attacks, three of which were hotels, and three of which were Christian churches. All three of the hotels that were attacked (The Kingsbury, The Cinnamon Grand, and the Shangri-La) are located in the capital of Colombo. One of the churches (St. Andrew’s Shrine) is also located in Colombo. The other two churches are St. Sebastion in Negombo and the Zion church in Batticaloa. These initial attacks were all coordinated to strike simultaneously as Easter services were beginning.
Later in the day, two additional locations were hit. The first was the reception hall of a hotel in Dehiwala, and the second targeted police at a housing complex in Dematagoda. There was also an IED recovered at Colombo’s international airport, but it did not detonate. These incidents occurred as a massive manhunt was underway to apprehend the suspects. It is believed that these last two attacks were intended to divert the attentions of the police pursuing them.
The death toll currently stands at 207, but authorities expect that it will continue to rise as more bodies are recovered from the rubble. More than 450 people are injured, many of whom are at risk of dying. Local hospital systems, particularly thos in Negombo and Batticaloa, are struggling to cope.
Who is responsible?
We do not yet know. It is likely that authorities are aware of the culprits, but that information has not yet been shared with the general public. Thirteen people have been arrested. Authorities say that they have not yet identified any international connections amongst the attackers, and that the perpetrators they have identified thus far were all acting locally.
There are three likely culprits: National Thowheeth Jama’ath, Bodu Bala Sena, or the Tamil Tigers.
National Thowheed Jama’ath is an Islamic militant group based out of the Tamil nation in India. It has since spread globally through the Tamil diaspora, which is how it came to establish a presence in Sri Lanka. There have been fears that NTJ has absorbed some of the returning militants who fought for ISIL and fled after the caliphate fell. However, there are several reasons why we need to be careful about connecting these attacks to ISIL. 1) NTJ is a distinct group with its own particular identity and motivations, 2) there were relatively few ISIL militants from Sri Lanka, and 3) NTJ unlike ISIL has its origins in the Islamic students movement and is also closely involved in community work and organizing. While NTJ has been associated with violence in the last year, this has primarily consisted of opportunistic attacks and vandalism. They have never been connected to anything on this scale.
Bodu Bala Sena is an extremist Buddhist faction most notably associated with organizing anti-Muslim riots. On at least two occasions (2014 and 2018) the BBS participated in the razing of Muslim homes and places of worship on a massive scale, displacing tens of thousands of people. The BBS has also had an antagonistic relationship with Christianity, following out of a conspiracy theory that Christians were forcibly converting Buddhists in secret. Acts of violence against the Christian community have not been unheard of, though they have been smaller-scale. One of the sites of today’s attack (the Cinnamon Bay Hotel) was previously attacked by Bodu Bala Sen in response to what they claimed was religious blasphemy. Bodu Bala Sena is particularly notable for using facebook as its principle vehicle for organization and communication. The government has shut down facebook in the aftermath of these attacks.
The Tamil Tigers are a Tamil Hindu militancy who were involved in the Sri Lankan civil war. This group involves a lot of history, so the explanation will be quite long. Sri Lanka consists of two major ethnicities, the Sinhalese (who make up about 85%) and the Tamil (who make up 15%). However, most of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern coastline is principally settled by the Tamil. While the Sinhalese and Tamil have each historically inhabited Sri Lanka for centuries, and have largely been at peace for that time, pro-Sinhalese policies under British rule helped to stoke ethnic tensions which carried over into the independence era. In 1948, immediately after independence was granted, the Sri Lankan parliament passed a law withholding citizenship status from approximately 700,000 Tamils (or 11% of the population then), leaving them stateless. Over the next decade, nearly half of the Tamil population was removed from Sri Lanka through various forms of ethnic cleansing. Other actions by the Sinhalese government included the banning of the Tamil language, preventing the Tamil from studying at public universities, and massive confiscations of Tamil-owned land to be turned over to Sinhalese farmers. In response, the Tamil Tigers declared the formation of an independent Tamil state to be named Tamil Eelam. This movement quickly began to spiral out of control, expanding first from separatism into a campaign of assassinations against politicians, and eventually degenerating entirely into unchecked massacres of Buddhist civilians. In response, the Sri Lankan government launched an offensive into Tamil Eelam, and the war turned conventional. This period is characterized by three main points. 1) the Sri Lankan military managed to successfully recover large amounts of territory and besiege some of the Tamil Tiger’s most important strongholds, 2) the Tamil Tigers turned their militancy into an insurgency in these occupied territories, resulting in the largest sustained campaign of suicide bombings in human history, and 3) the Indian nation of Tamil Nadu mobilized to ally with Tamil Eelam, and the Indian armed forces entered the war on the side of the Tamil Tigers. In 1987, the Indian government agreed to withdraw from Sri Lanka in exchange for equal rights being given to the Tamil people, which was backed by the civilian leadership of Tamil Eelam and Tamil Nadu. However, the Tamil Tigers refused to accept this compromise. Not only did they continue their militancy, but they also turned against the Indian government, and later assassinated Rajiv Gandhi (the Prime Minister who negotiated the peace accord). At the time, India was responsible for administrating the former Tamil Eelam (as the Sri Lankan side of the peace agreement had not yet gone into effect). In response to the assassination, India withdrew entirely from Sri Lanka, and the Tamil Tigers consolidated their control over Tamil territory. With this level of control, the Tigers embarked on a project of ethnic cleansing to eliminate the Sinhalese and Muslim Tamil populations. In response, the Sri Lankan government began a renewed offensive against the Tamil Tigers, but this time they were unable to retake any significant amount of territory. Between 1991 and 2006, the two sides remained at an impasse, with the Tamil Tigers controlling large areas of the country, and the government unable to gain territory. This period was characterized by a cycle of intermittent small-scale wars and peace agreements. In 2006, however, following a series of terrorist attacks by the Tamil Tigers deep in government-held territory, the Sri Lankan military changed its strategy to no longer focus on the safety of civilians. Between 2006 and 2009, the government launched two massive sustained ground and air campaigns which resulted in the eventual destruction of the Tamil Tigers, but only at the cost of massive civilian causalities and refugee displacement. The war killed over 100,000 civilians, and was the deadliest conflict of the modern era before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.
Can we narrow down who is responsible any further?
About one week ago, security forces in Sri Lanka received foreign intelligence that NTJ (Islamic militants) were preparing to launch a campaign of suicide bombings, which would seem to suggest that they are responsible. Unfortunately, this information did not reach counterterrorism forces because Sri Lanka’s government is very fragmented right now in the aftermath of the civil war.
While this appears fairly damning, there’s also a number of factors which just as easily might instead point to the Tigers or BBS.
1) Among the targets of the attack were three Christian churches. The Sinhalese are almost entirely Buddhist, whereas the Tamil are nearly all Hindu. However, the Christian population is about evenly split between Sinhalese and Tamil. Consequentially, Christians occupy a unique position in Sri Lankan society which allowed them to facilitate negotiations between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus during the civil war. The targeting of Christian churches might be intended to carry the larger symbolism of attacking the peace itself.
2) We don’t know exactly how sophisticated the explosive devices were, but the attacks themselves were major and well-coordinated across three separate cities. ISIL has shown the capacity to launch attacks of this scale before, such as with the Bataclan, but that was at the height of their power and it was in Europe, where a lot of their fighters have their roots. It’s not that there aren’t Sri Lankan fighters in ISIL, but they certainly don’t have major infrastructure in place across Sri Lanka, and these would be returning fighters fleeing the fall of the caliphate with no foreign support. By comparison, the Tamil Tigers more or less controlled the entire north of the country, and they had enough military capacity in Sri Lanka to wage a thirty year war against the government. The Buddhist militants are actively engaged in violence across Sri Lanka at this point in time, and they have the full power of Sinhalese institutions behind them.
The Sri Lankan government has characterized the attackers as religious and racial extremists, which could just as easily apply to any one of the three groups.