Sri Lanka Terror Attacks Break From Past Patterns

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The wave of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday feels awfully familiar, as is the government’s assessment of who is to blame: local jihadists, in cahoots with international terrorist networks. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told a press conference in Colombo that the National Thowheed Jamath—a small, hitherto little-known group—was behind the bombings, which have killed some 300 and wounded 500.

But, he added, “We don’t see how a small organization can do all of this. We are now investigating international support for the group and their other links.”

No group has as yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, which is atypical, but not unheard of. As Mia Bloom, author of “Small Arms: Children and Terrorism,” points out, groups sometimes wait to “to take the temperature of how the attack is received, and occasionally make cost-benefit calculations.” (Another reason to hold off is more ominous: the operation is incomplete, and more strikes are planned.)

Suspicions have inevitably fallen on the various franchises of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. With some reports suggesting that the Indian High Commission in Colombo was one of the targets, Pakistani terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed must be added to the list of suspects.

So far, so predictable. International jihadist organizations routinely team up with local actors—whether radicalized individuals or small groups—to conduct terrorist attacks. The targets—hotels and churches—are familiar, too.

But under closer examination, the attacks in Sri Lanka diverge from the pattern in significant ways.

Start with the NTJ. Until Sunday morning, the group was known—to those who knew it at all—mainly for some attempts at defacing Buddhist statues. It had no track record of serious acts of violence, much less suicide operations. It had no credibility among Sri Lankan Muslims, some of which reported the group’s activities to the authorities. Al Qaeda or the Islamic State would hardly entrust a major, multi-pronged suicide operation—the most complex, most ambitious terrorist strike ever carried out in Asia, and also the deadliest—to this kind of organization. 

The other mystifying element of the Easter Sunday attacks is the lack of local motivation. Typically, when Al Qaeda or Islamic State uses a local proxy to carry out an attack, it counts on that proxy to be nursing deep local grievances—a history of oppression by the state, or long-festering sectarian wounds. In such an operation, the proxy group is pursuing some specific agenda while also serving the global-jihadi objectives of the larger organization.

But even by the twisted logic of jihadist groups, the motivation for the attacks in Sri Lanka is hard to see. True, there has been some jihadist radicalization among Sri Lankan Muslims: a few joined the Islamic State in Syria. But it is one thing to travel to the Middle East for a “holy war” against forces you believe to be enemies of Islam, and quite another to murder neighbors who represent no threat.

Muslims in the island nation have no history of rancor with the Christian community—both are small minorities. In recent years, violence against Muslims has mostly been committed by Buddhist extremists. During the decades-long civil war that ended in 2009, Muslims were sometimes targeted by Tamil separatists, who were for the most part Hindu.

Why, then, did the attackers chose to attack churches? Certainly not because of a scarcity of Buddhist or Hindu targets. The churches and hotels were not merely targets of opportunity: this was an operation that required planning and coordination, reminiscent of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, where Pakistani planners spent months scoping out targets and arranging logistics. On that occasion, the terrorist group—Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba—required little local help.  

The next few days will reveal a clearer picture of the who and why of the attacks. For now, the government’s claim that this was a Sri Lankan operation, with some outside help, is hard to take at face value.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.