Who’s Behind the Attacks in Sri Lanka?

April 23, 2019

Muslim-Christian Conflict in Sri Lanka is unprecedented, so who is behind the attack? We discuss the horrific attack with Sri Lankan journalist Sunanda Deshapriya

In a series of coordinated attacks on Easter Sunday across central Sri Lanka, in Colombo, Negombo, Batticaloa and Dehiwela, more than 350 people have been killed and more than 500 people injured. Bombs were placed in three churches, three hotels, and one housing complex, and while no organization at this time has taken responsibility, Sri Lankan authorities have announced that the organization is the group National Thowheeth Jama’ath.

Sunanda Deshapriya told The Real News Network's Sharmini Peries that the focus on both churches and hotels—a clear attempt to destabilize Sri Lanka and its tourism industry—and the scale of the attacks suggests an “international dimension,” and that the attacks were coordinated with outside help. Together, they unpacked the ethnic and political complexities of the attacks.

Deshapriya explained it should be in part seen as a response to how Muslim youth are treated in the Sri Lanka.

“Nobody took interest about that growing militancy among the Muslim youth. One has to understand that radicalization of Muslim youth happened within Sri Lanka because of the injustice that the Muslim community faced in Sri Lanka. There's a total impunity in Sri Lanka against all the attack against minorities,” Deshapriya said. “Muslim people have faced...gang violence but nobody has been convicted. Nothing has happened. They have not had any justice on this issue. So that's the context of radicalization of Muslim youth in the country.”

Deshapriya explained that Sri Lanka's history of war and political violence must also be considered.

“We need to understand also Sri Lanka has 30 years of war. And from 1970, we had three major armed struggles. So, making bombs and using arms is part of the culture, the political culture of Sri Lanka actually,” Deshapriya said. “I suppose you can easily find material also to make this kind of very dangerous explosive bombs in the country because of our past situation and the war situations we've had in Sri Lanka.”

Peries pointed out that churches have not been a target of attacks in Sri Lanka in the past. Moreover, the Tamil are also Christians and were also victims of these recent attacks. For the most part, violence in Sri Lanka has been between Muslims and Buddhists (National Thowheeth Jama’ath, allegedly responsible for the attack, gained notoriety for defacing Buddhist temples).

"Targeting churches cannot be only a local reason, because there isn't any conflict between the Muslim community and the Christian community in the context. The Christian community has been very neutral during the war, as well as in the ongoing sporadic attacks against the Muslim mosque in the country,” Deshapriya said. “In that sense, I think this has an international dimension and it is the message it is attacking in the West, because Christianity comes from the West. But on the other hand you'll see that in Batticaloa Tamil, predominantly Tamil area, are also targeted, and there almost everyone who died is the Tamils. So, it is a combination of local and international situation. They want to send a message to Tamil people as well, I think, that's why they targeted some Batticaloa churches.”


Who’s Behind the Attacks in Sri Lanka?

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In eight coordinated suicide attacks in central Sri Lanka, 321 people have been killed and that toll is rising with more than 500 people injured. The attacks took place in several locations in Colombo, Negombo, Dehiwala, and Batticaloa. The bombs were placed in three churches, three hotels, and one housing complex. No organization has taken responsibility for the attacks, but Sri Lankan authorities have announced that the organization National Tawheed Jamaat is suspected of orchestrating these attacks and they are religiously motivated because many of these attacks were against churches on Easter Sunday. Forty suspects have been apprehended, but it is still unclear who is really responsible for these attacks. International intelligence organizations have criticized Sri Lankan security apparatus, claiming that they were pre-warned that such attacks may occur and that they didn’t take proper precautions or security measures. Sudesh Kolonne is a survivor of the attacks. He lost his wife and child in the attacks.

SUDESH KOLONNE I went, I went with my daughter and wife and I was also inside the church at that time. And it’s the end of the ceremony and I just walk outside. And then in five minutes time, there’s a bomb blast. I heard about a huge noise, and I jumped into the church and I saw that my daughter [voice breaks] and my wife is on the floor. I don’t know what to do. And I was, just saw my daughter on the floor. And I tried to lift them. It’s already, exactly the same, next to my wife is there. That’s the end of the story of my daughter and wife.

SHARMINI PERIES On to make sense of these attacks with me today is Sunanda Deshapriya. He is a Sri Lankan journalist and former Editor of Yukthiya newspaper. He is a founding member of the Movement for Interracial Justice and Equality in Sri Lanka. He’s also a member of the Editors Guild. Sunanda, good to have you here. My condolences to our country and all of those who were affected by these horrific tragedies. Anyway, welcome and thank you for joining us today.

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA Yes.

SHARMINI PERIES Sunanda, there are many, many questions pending. Let’s begin with what we know about the attackers who were responsible and what were their objectives in doing this?

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA We exactly don’t know who or what organization is responsible. But now the CCTV footage and other evidence has pointed towards a small Islamic group in Sri Lanka who has been in Sri Lanka for a long time. This is not just a new organization. They have been there since 2017. Their evidence now, people from the Kathankudy area where this is a stronghold of this Jamaat organization, has been complained to the government about their violent behaviors. So nobody took interest about the growing militancy among the Muslim youth. One has to understand that radicalization of Muslim youth happened within Sri Lanka because of the injustice that the Muslim community faced in Sri Lanka. There’s a total impunity in Sri Lanka against all the attacks against the minorities. Muslim people have faced a number of gang violence, but nobody has been convicted. Nothing has happened. They have not had any justice on these issues. So that’s the context of radicalization of Muslim youth in the country. But this kind of violent suicide bombing cannot happen without international or some outside coordination because no group in Sri Lanka has this capacity to do eight bombs, suicide bombs most of them. I would say seven of them are suicide bombs. There’s CCTV footage to show bombers going into the churches, but this is really well-coordinated with a strong command and commitment to do destruction. So this cannot happen only because of the Sri Lankan situation. I think there definitely must be international extremist ideology and organizations that must have had some connections with this.

SHARMINI PERIES National Tawheed Jamaat, as you say Sunanda, has some sort of international support to be able to carry out these kinds of coordinated attacks with the kinds of bombs that were used. This requires a certain sophistication. And you also say that international security or intelligence services had prior knowledge of this and they were notified. The police chief in Colombo were notified. Now can you tell us first of all, who are the international bodies that you think are involved in training, development, and funding National Tawheed Jamaat and why these kinds of escalated attacks and training would even be undertaken in a place like Sri Lanka?

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA It’s very difficult to pinpoint who really was the international connection who gave them the training, but definitely we all know that there are Islamic international organizations that train people to attack other faiths and other countries. So they must have some kind of contact with them. But on the other hand, we need to understand also Sri Lanka had 30 years of war. From 1970, we had three major armed struggles. Making bombs and using arms is part of the culture, political culture of Sri Lanka. And so, anyone who really has some understanding of how these things are done, how to make a bomb, and how to explode them, there is so much information within the country. I suppose you can easily find material also to make this kind of very dangerous explosive bombs in the country because of our past situation, the war situation we had in Sri Lanka. It’s a combination…

SHARMINI PERIES Sunanda, one unique element about these attacks is that it was orchestrated, as far as we know, by a Muslim group with international connections. But they attacked Christians, mostly churches, and a few hotels of course, but the churches have never been targeted in any attacks in Sri Lanka. So in that sense, it is very unique. So what are the ethnic dimensions here in terms of the Tamils who are also Christians and why target the churches specifically?

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA Targeting churches— it cannot be only a local reason because there isn’t any conflict between the Muslim community and the Christian community in the country. The Christian community has been very neutral during the war as well as in the ongoing sporadic attacks against the Muslim mosques in the country. So in that sense, I think this is an international dimension and the message is, it is an attack against the West because Christians came from the West. But on the other hand, you’ll see that in Batticaloa, a predominantly Tamil area was also targeted. And almost everyone who died is Tamils, so it is a combination of a local and international situation. They want to send a message to Tamil people as well. I think that’s why they targeted some Batticaloa churches.

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA Sunanda there’s been a great deal of political conflict leading up to these attacks in Sri Lanka mainly between the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, involving parliament and an overthrow of the prime minister, and then a reinstatement of the prime minister. Then we also learned after these attacks that the chief of police in Sri Lanka had been notified by foreign intelligence, mainly Indian intelligence services, that there will be some attacks on churches, the Indian embassy, and perhaps some hotels. Now they had prior knowledge and they were warned, but the police chief— besides notifying the government apparently— didn’t take any action of his own in order to prevent these attacks. So what’s going on politically here?

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA As you said, there’s clearly a strong conflict between the president and the prime minister. They don’t see eye-to-eye on any choice in the country today and the police comes under the president. Police should have been under the prime minister, but the president has taken over the police department also after the October constitutional coup. When this news came in the 4th of April and the 11th of April the memo was sent to the security divisions, this memo was not sent to the prime minister’s security division. Even when the bomb attacks took place, the prime minister tried to convey to the Security Council. All the Security Council— like the navy, army, air force, and police commanders— refused to come to the prime minister’s office. He had to go to the defense ministry to meet them, so we can see a kind of anarchic situation in that sense even after such a tragedy has taken place. Our political leaders are not trying to come together. Even today parliament sessions took place and what we saw was that political parties tried to blame each other. There’s no unity to face this situation and see how we are going forward in this situation. Politically we are very divided. Keep in mind this is going to be an election year, so every political party is trying to score points on this tragedy. That’s a most unfortunate situation of what is happening in the country today.

SHARMINI PERIES And Sunanda, a bit more context in terms of what is happening between the prime minister’s office and the president’s office. We had learned that the president was actually out of the country while these attacks took place. Why is there such a rift between these two offices?

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA There are a few reasons. One is that the president is coming from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which is more towards nationalistic and social welfare-oriented policies, and the prime minister is a neoliberal and has neoliberal policies. The prime minister comes from a western background, while the president comes from a village background. There is a personality conflict as well as a policy conflict. They came together only to defeat the Rajapaksa regime, which has been running the country from 2005 to 2015. But after that, I think the two of them policy wise they could not agree to each other and this personality conflict came together. That’s how this October constitutional coup took place and then the president had to take it back because the Supreme Court decided that he cannot dissolve the government nor dis-appoint another prime minister. I think this has become very bitter. Relations are very bitter between the two of them. Every time the president goes to public meetings, he’s tried to attack the prime minister. The prime minister has been trying to be conciliatory and trying to work with the president, but the president has not really given in. He has his whole plans. In Sri Lanka we have seen, as I said, we have seen so many deaths and wars and everything. In all these years, what have seen is no political unity, no national unity in the face of tragedies in our country. That’s what is happening now also.

SHARMINI PERIES Alright, Sunanda. We’ll leave it there for now, but obviously there needs to be so much more discussion about what’s going on politically— the upcoming elections and follow up on who actually orchestrated these attacks and the tragedy that the country is facing. Thank you so much for joining us today.

SUNANDA DESHAPRIYA Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.