By H.L.D. Mahindapala
April 30, 2019
The history of terrorism in Sri Lanka
reveals a clear pattern. The first to take up arms in the post-Independence era
were the misguided Sinhala youth. They were educated youth desperately running
in search of a quick solution to establish their classless paradise. Their
violence did not take them anywhere.
The Tamil youth were the second to take up
arms. Most of their cadres too consisted of educated Tamil youth running in
search of a speedy route to establish their mono-ethnic paradise. At the end of
a three-decade war they sank to the bottom of the Nandikadal Lagoon.
Now the Muslim youth have bombed their way
into global headlines. They shot into the limelight on the morning of Easter
Sunday taking everyone by surprise. Unlike the two preceding terrorist groups
the local Muslim terrorists who carried backpacks loaded with explosives seem
to be dummies carrying out the orders and agenda of a hidden hand directing
them from abroad.
To begin with, they were echoing the
imported hate politics fed to them by the extremist local agents running
fragmented jihadist cells. Nor have they produced a calculated, well-defined
ideology against the state, like the other two terrorist organizations, arguing
that it should be destroyed and replaced with their political models.
However, it is known that the preachers in
their cells and madrassas have been indoctrinating the youth with violent
interpretations of the Koran with the aim of converting Sri Lanka into an
Islamic caliphate. That constitutes a part of the larger agenda of IS, without
any local content in it.
Running through all three violent movements
of the youth is a manufactured ideology tailored to radicalize and convert them
into violent politics as the solution to their indoctrinated, imagined and real
The Sinhala youth took to Marxist
revolutionary ideology reduced to five lectures. The Tamil youth took to the
ideology of the Saivite Jaffna Vellala supremacists to create Eelam — the
paradise of mono-ethnic extremism. And the Muslim youth seems to have jumped
into a similar ideology believing that they could achieve their Islamic
salvation at the end of violence.
If history is any guide then the preceding
two violent movements point to a bitter end. Like the other two preceding
terrorist groups the Muslim terrorists too are doomed to end up achieving
nothing. Besides, the odds are tilted heavily against the Muslim terrorists,
both internationally and locally.
They began with a big bang which has echoed
round the world. That is about all they could achieve: making big noises if
they are to continue down this path of violence. Whether they have the capacity
to sustain the violence of the Easter Massacre on a mass scale for a prolonged
period is questionable.
Based more on the historical evidence of
the past two youth revolts than on the skimpy details available on the Muslim
youth, my conclusion is quite simple: neither the prevailing hostile
international climate against every kind of Muslim violence, nor the national
ethos of a thriving and conservative Muslim trading community dependent on
peace and stability, is conducive for the Muslim youth to sustain their
campaign of violence for long.
Changed Muslim Image
Besides the wobbly Yahapalanaya Sri Lankan
government, which was going softly-softly on rising Muslim radicalization and
violence, has at last woken up to the grim and destabilizing realities that had
blown their tops off. It is the magnitude of the simultaneous explosions
hitting three points of the compass — east, west and the immediate north — that
shook the foundations of the Sri Lankan establishment.
The Easter Sunday blast is likely to change
— at least in the short run — the conventional image of the Muslims. They were
seen as the more emancipated and liberal Muslims not committed to radical
Islam. But after the East Sunday Massacre it is likely that they will be
bundled with the rest of the ideologically driven Muslim fanatics abroad
committed to irrational violence.
The latest Reuter’s report which reveals
the IS hand behind the Easter Massacre can only reinforce the image of being
ruthless religious fanatics.
Radicalization takes sense and sensibility
out of the minds of the impatient youth looking for instant solutions. And
politicized religion is packed with hate. Both are incendiary forces that can
drive the impulsive youth into insane fits of violence.
Of course, the initial blast that shook Sri
Lanka on Easter Sunday was massive and impressive. The 1) precision timing that
went off like clockwork; 2) the gigantic scale of the blasts hitting targets in
east, west and the near north simultaneously; 3) the selected targets of
Christian churches and hotels packed with Western tourists; 4) the
organizational capacity to piece together the various arms of the
military-style operation that exploded on Easter Sunday; 5) the blind faith of
the suicide bombers that walked the lethal distance to their fatal end and that
of 350 other victims, point clearly to hidden brains beyond the borders of the
There is, no doubt, that the suicide
bombers were on a political mission. But what was it? Also, terrorist acts are
executed to convey a political message. What is the message behind the biggest
ever terrorist operation on Sri Lanka soil?
This explosion which hit like a bolt from
the blue makes no sense in the Sri Lankan context. Apart from sporadic tensions
— some of which have been caused by National Thowheeth Jamaat (NTJ) —
Sinhala-Muslim relations had not stretched to breaking point to provoke an
attack of this magnitude.
Mainstream Muslim politics was for
co-existence without resorting to extremist violence. Interventions at the
highest levels from both sides have succeeded in snuffing out any communal
conflagration and containing the violence.
In fact, Muslim leaders have been
complaining to the authorities that the NTJ is a serious threat to their lives
too. Nor has there been a mass following for Islamic extremism either at the
top or at the bottom layers of Muslim society.
As of now Muslim violence has been confined
to a minority. But it is a minority that has crept up, sedulously and
surreptitiously, to parts of the higher layers of the Muslim hierarchy. If
allowed to go unchecked, it can become the majority.
The description of this group given by
Ruwan Wijewardene, State Minister of Defense, is revealing and alarming, to say
the least. He said: “What I can also say about this group of suicide bombers is
that most of them were well-educated and come from middle or upper middle class,
so they are financially independent and their families are quite stable
financially. That is a worrying factor in this. Some of them studied in other
countries, they hold degrees and were quite well-educated people.”
This explains the background and the
potential threat to the future but not the cause behind the stunning Easter
Sunday massacre. Invariably, political protests and violence target the state.
But the Muslim suicide bombers did not target the state per se. They went
straight to two non-state, non-Sinhala-Buddhist targets: the Christian churches
packed with Easter Sunday devotees, and the hotels packed with Western
holiday-makers lining up for their Sunday breakfast. Both targets were selected
to make global headlines in the Christian West.
Any harm to the Christian worshippers
inside churches in one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar and
Western holiday-makers would instinctively tug at the heartstrings and the
conscience of the West.
It is the selection of these two targets
that do not make sense. Why should local suicide bombers target the churches
and the hotels when their grievances are supposed to be against the
Sinhala-Buddhists with whom they have been having some sporadic sparring in
Besides, none of these two institutions has
rubbed against the local Muslims. So why did the strategists behind Operation
Easter Massacre target the churches and the hotels? Isn’t the message coded in
these two targets?
It is at this point that Ruwan
Wijewardene’s explanation gains credibility. He said that the targets were
chosen as retaliation for the massacre of the Muslims at Christchurch by the
Australian white-supremacist Brenton Hanson Terrant. But is the local Muslim
that concerned about what happened in faraway New Zealand to blow up churches
and hotels? No.
But the vindictive politics of their
masters in the failed Islamic State, pursuing anti-American, anti-Christian
agenda, are bent on targeting the sacred symbols of the West. Since the Sri
Lankan Muslims are committed ideologically to follow the political line laid
down by their Islamic masters abroad, they became the latest suicidal
messengers of death to the West. They even went as far as imitating their
counterparts abroad by videoing their martyrdom, a la the jihadists in the
Second, the Easter Massacre was to deliver
a political message to Donald Trump. He was boasting that the IS is dead. On
the morning of Easter Sunday, they told him that they are still alive and
kicking. The ideology behind the Easter Massacre is clearly expressed in the
two main targets allied to Western interests. It also contains a direct message
to Trumpian braggadocio and arrogance.
They picked Sri Lanka because it was fast
turning into a base for American expansion in the Indian Ocean. The signals
radiated by the bombs have already hit the American radar. They have now
cancelled the joint naval exercises scheduled to be held in the east.
Like all terrorists they have picked the
most iconic targets for maximum impact in the minds of the West. Targeting them
selectively on one of the holiest days of the Christian world delivers an
unambiguous political message to the West saying: If we can’t get you in the
West we can get you in soft spots prepared by incompetent, complacent and
back-biting rulers in the East who, incidentally, are cozying up to the West.
The tattered remnants standing as sad ruins
of churches and hotels and the 350 victims debunk the usual fiction spun by
some local political pundits who continue to blame the Sinhala-Buddhists. Their
spin is to whitewash the Muslim terrorists saying that the suicide bombers were
on a mission to get even with the Sinhala-Buddhists for sporadic attacks that
had occurred in recent time.
This line of attack on the Sinhala-Buddhists
runs against the evidence of the bloody ruins staring in their face. If the
Easter Massacre was to teach the Sinhala-Buddhists a lesson, why did they
attack the Christian churches and hotels packed with Westerners? This is the
most notable facet of the Easter Sunday attack.
The suicide bombers skipped the
Sinhala-Buddhists, they skipped the Hindu Tamils and they went straight for the
Christians in churches and the Westerners holidaying in hotels.
If the Easter Sunday massacre was to send a
clear message to the West, then the international and local agents have
succeeded beyond their expectations. This initial message is now reverberating
globally. It says unmistakably that the jihadist power, packed with religious
fanaticism, has found a new base to attack the West. But what is going to be
their next step? Will they turn inward and intensify their attacks against the
Violence of any sort will not take the
Muslim terrorist anywhere. If the other two varieties of terrorism (Sinhala and
Tamil youth) failed to win against the state what are the chances of the Muslim
The state is sufficiently prepared and
experienced now to meet challenges of terrorists, having beaten the world’s
deadliest terrorist, the LTTE. Most of all, it has the tacit support of the
majority of the Muslims in the mainstream.
IS and its local agents have had some
beginner’s luck by taking the state by surprise. But the chances of Muslim
terrorists becoming a formidable challenge to the state are very remote.
Besides, before they take on the state they will have to grab power from the
established Muslim hierarchy. They will also have to combat the anti-Muslim
counter-terror forces of the West and also India.
The upshot of the Easter Massacre has been
to increase and reinforce Islamophobia. Until Easter Sunday, the Muslims in the
democratic mainstream have been a formidable force, negotiating craftily behind
the scenes with both main parties bargaining with the non-violent votes.
But the exploding bombs have devastated
their image and reduced the power of bargaining with both major parties. They
cannot be seen to be honeymooning, or playing footsies with the Muslims after
the backlash of Easter Sunday sweeping the nation. The government, in
particular, will have to face the charge of putting Bodu Bala Sena in jail and
letting NTJ run amok without any restraint.
The state is now in a favourable political
climate to crack down on Muslim extremism with hardly any pressure from
international or national interventionists. Besides, the Muslim terrorists can
never reach the militarized power of the Tamil Tigers and challenge the state
to yield to their demands, whatever they may be. Of the three varieties of
terrorism, the Muslims will be the weakest, purely on demographic counts.
When the dust settles, the democratic state
of Sri Lanka will rise again triumphantly, hoping that the last remaining
Indian Tamil youth will not decide to go the way of the other three failed
H.L.D. Mahindapala is a Sri Lankan journalist who was editor of the
Sunday Observer (1990-1994), president, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’
Association (1991-1993) and secretary-general, South Asia Media Association