Arie Kruglanski, Malkanthi Hettiarachchi, Michele Gelfand
of Sri Lankans the Easter Sunday tragedy must have seemed a nightmare come
true, a frightening déjà vu of the rampant violence this island nation has
known for thirty years of LTTE terror (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
horrific attacks in which estimated 253 lost their lives and many hundreds were
wounded signaled that the decade’s calm that prevailed after LTTE’s 2009
destruction by Sri Lanka’s Army is over.
time, victory over the LTTE inspired confidence and heady optimism. A 2012
defence seminar in Colombo (in which two of the present authors participated)
heralded “Peace and Stability” as its core theme and the “Five Rs”
(Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reintegration and
Reconciliation) as the imperative agenda for Sri Lanka.
The mood at
the time was upbeat and the country’s future seemed bright. The safety of the
post-war period brought to the country millions of tourists (2.1 million in
2017 alone) and the reconstruction of Sri Lankan economy and infrastructure
the horrific Easter disaster, this process has come to a grinding halt. And the
troubling question is what developments allowed it to happen. SECONDS
There is no
unique answer to this query. Rather, four distinct factors converged to enable
the Easter bloodbath: (1) political developments in Sri-Lanka in the post-war
period, (2) dysfunctionality of the current government, (3) the regional
penetration of the Islamic State in South and Southeast Asia, and (4)
collaboration of the perpetrators with radicalized networks and groups.
military campaign that decisively defeated the LTTE was carried out by a Sri
Lankan government (2005–2015) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa as President with
Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Secretary of Defense. It was a bloody campaign fuelled by
the government’s resolve to end the thirty year war in which estimated 150,000
people lost their lives. The intensity of the fighting, particularly in its
final stages, brought allegations of human rights abuses against the Sri Lankan
military, and resulted in its condemnation by parts of the international
community (including the United States, the UK and the UN).
post-war period, the Rajapaksa administration continued its strict emphasis on
security while rehabilitating the vast majority of the LTTE terrorists and
reintegrating them into society.
time, Sri Lanka earned the reputation of a safe and appealing travel
destination and millions of tourists from around the world flocked to its shores
and enjoyed its attractions.
not to last, however. As often happens, war-time governments and leaders (e.g.
Winston Churchill) tend to lose their appeal in peacetime. Whereas Rajapaksa’s
resolute leadership managed to unify the majority of Sri Lankans behind the war
effort, over time cracks began to appear in its support.
grew accustomed to their newly gained security and began taking it for granted.
Complacency set in. The Rajapaksa administration faced allegations of
corruption and of human rights abuses during the war. By the time of the 2015
elections, it faced stiff competition and ultimately was replaced by a
government formed by a broad melange of factions headed by Ranil
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) as Prime Minister and Maithripala
Sirisena as President.
UNP, the coalition included the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) faction of
Rajapaksa’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), as well as Tamil and Muslim
its policies accommodated the demands of the Tamil and Muslim coalition
partners; were pro-Western in orientation and adopted the criticisms of
Rajapaksa’s policies as nationalistic and militaristic. Correspondingly, it
loosened the “tight” policies of their predecessors, dismantled their security
network, lowered the alertness to potentially subversive activities, and denied
reports about Islamic State growing influence, and of resurgent separatism.
It turned a
blind eye to attempts to re-radicalize the Tamil population ,ignored Muslim
radicalization and failed to check Buddhist anti-Muslim extremism. The
normative “looseness” that ensued allowed the emergence of criminal gangs, and
a general rise in crime.
repeated and detailed warnings from local and international intelligence
services as to impending attacks in Sri Lanka by the National Thowheed Jamaat
(NTJ) group and its ties to Islamic State, the Sri Lankan government failed to
react, thus bearing partial responsibility for the horrific loss of life.
of their passivity in light of the clear and present danger is, nonetheless,
explicable by political psychology: The Wikremesinghe coalition included Tamil
and Muslim parties who played the role of essential “kingmakers.” Clamping up
on the brewing Tamil re-radicalization or on rising Muslim extremism would have
been anathema to these indispensable political partners (Dharmawardena, 2015–2016).
induced the motivation to ignore warnings that would necessitate politically
problematic decisions. That inclination was compounded by the government’s
reluctance to take steps that would invite allegations of nationalism and
closed mindedness to critical information that, if heeded, would have prevented
major debacles (e.g., Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, or Arab states 1973 Yom
Kippur attack on Israel) is well documented.
paralysis of the Sri Lankan government despite ample warnings reflects this
fundamental psychological process.
State Regional Penetration
development made salient by the Sri Lanka attacks is Islamic State’s deep
penetration into South and Southeast Asia. Particularly after the collapse of
its Caliphate but also prior to its downfall, the Islamic State has been
sending its tentacles into the region and successfully co-opting local jihadist
movements by harnessing them to its global cause.
Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group was recognized by Islamic State as its
official Willayat (governance).In 2014 Abu Bakkar Baysir, leader of Indonesian
Jemmah Islamiyah, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the
Islamic State. In Bangladesh the Jamiatul Mujahidin Bangladesh became an
official Islamic State affiliate. The list is long.
of Islamic State influence in the region did not spare Sri Lanka. In 2015, 41
Sri Lankan Muslims travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State fight and local
groups like the NTJ committed to the Jihadi agenda.
Lankan government banned two groups responsible for the Easter Sunday events.
The NTJ, held responsible for radicalizing and inciting violence, and the JMI
(Jamathei Millathu Ibraheemi Seilani) held responsible for recruiting
radicalized NTJ members for attacks.
Sri Lanka attack constitutes a spectacular victory for Islamic State, second
only in its impact to Al Qaeda’s 9/11 inglorious achievement.
coordination of attacks in multiple sites, their lethality, and the display of
diverse assault styles; “citing” different well known prior operations (attacks
on churches, hotels, public venues, train tracks) sends a powerful message that
Islamic State is alive and kicking, that the news of its demise is grossly
exaggerated, and that “Jihad 3.0” is on.
With Other Groups And Networks?
LTTE was conclusively dismantled in Sri Lanka, it remained intact in Tamil Nadu
in Southern India. The NTJ and the JMI, appears to have broken away from the
Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) that evolved from the Tamil Nadu Thowheed
link to Tamil Nadu, whether NTJ and JMI utilized the logistical network, the
drug and crime grid in Sri Lanka previously used by the LTTE is yet to be seen.
groups with common enemies are known to share resources, capitalizing on each
other’s capability and intelligence. This includes radicalizing the community,
recruiting members, transportation of explosives, the placement of bombers,
accessing information and evading security.
The NTJ and
JMI therefore are likely to have had a head start in radicalizing and
operationalizing it’s global Islamic State ideology, locally in Sri Lanka.
stunned response to the Easter Sunday massacre is owed in part to the fact that
some of its targets were Christians.
small Sri Lankan Christian minority (about 7.4 percent of the island’s
population) would seem an unlikely target in a country riveted for decades by a
war on LTTE terror in which Christians as well as Muslims played a vital role.
unravels, however, considering the attack from a global perspective: There were
ideological as well as practical reasons for targeting Sri Lankan Christians.
ideological perspective, Christians are the Muslims’ iconic enemy and the
depiction of contemporary Christians as latter day Crusaders permeate the
rhetoric including the April 23 communique in which Islamic State claims
responsibility for the attack.
It cannot be
ruled out, furthermore, that the specific timing of this attack was at least
partially influenced by the Islamic State call for vengeance (enunciated by Abu
Hassan al Muhajir, its spokesman) for the recent Christchurch massacre in New
are the practical (strategic and tactical) reasons for assaulting Christian
churches. Strategically, places of worship are venues of mass assembly. They
promise spectacular lethality and an appreciable world attention of pivotal
importance to Islamic State.
too, Christian churches in Sri Lanka have constituted relatively soft targets
as compared to, say, Buddhist temples that are more carefully watched (in light
of the long lasting LTTE insurgency against the Buddhist Sinhalese).
note that the churches were only three out of the sites under attack suggesting
that the operation was meant to maximize casualties rather than targeting
globally, the Easter attacks signal that the war on Islamist extremism is far
from over, and that letting our defenses down and/or neglecting the social and
psychological determinants of extremism risks disastrous consequences.
Arie W. Kruglanski is Distinguished University
Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, and a co-founding PI at
START, the National Center of Excellence for the Study of Terrorism and the
Response to Terrorism.Malkanthi Hettiarachchi is a Chartered Clinical
Psychologist, and a counterterrorism researcher and instructor.Michele Gelfand
is Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Psychology at the
University of Maryland, College Park. Her bookRule Makers, Rule Breakers: How
Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World was published in 2018.