For many Sri Lankans, it was a horrific shock to learn that local Muslims could have been behind the suicide attacks that killed more than 250 people last month. How could a small group have planned such a devastating wave of bombings undetected?
The clues were there in mid-January, when Sri Lankan police stumbled upon 100kg (220lb) of explosives and 100 detonators, hidden in a coconut grove near the Wilpattu national park, which is a remote wilderness in Puttalam district on the west coast of the country.
Police were investigating attacks on statues of the Buddha by suspected Islamist radicals elsewhere in the country. Four men from a newly formed “radical Muslim group” were arrested.
Three months later, suspected Islamists blew themselves up in packed churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo and the eastern city of Batticaloa killing more than 250 people, including 40 foreigners.
But that arms seizure in the coconut grove was not an isolated incident. It was just one of several suspicious incidents in the months leading up to the bombings that should have rung alarm bells, especially given reports that several Sri Lankans who had joined the Islamic State group in Syria were back home.
We now know the carnage on Easter Sunday happened despite repeated warnings about potential attacks from intelligence services in neighbouring India and the US.
It was only after the bombing that police identified links between two of those arrested in Puttalam in January and the suspected ringleader of the mass-casualty attacks.
Political in-fighting and factionalism going all the way to the top of the Sri Lankan government is part of the reason warnings went unheeded, but complacency about the peace in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war in 2009 also played a role.
Sporadic anti-Muslim riots since the end of the war between Tamil minority separatists and the government had fomented anger and discontent, but on the face of it nothing had pointed to a co-ordinated assault of this magnitude.
“The Islamists surprised everyone with the deadly bombings and at the same time kept the entire operation a secret,” said a former Sri Lankan counter-terrorism operative who had been keeping a tab on some of the radicals involved in the Easter Sunday attacks.
It would have required detailed planning, safe houses, an extensive network of planners and handlers, expertise on bomb-making and significant funding – so how did all of this slip so far under the radar?
Few of these questions have been answered, but sources linked to security agencies, government officials and local Muslim leaders have painted a picture of how, over the years, a small number of die-hard radicals and IS sympathisers clandestinely set up cells right under the noses of the security forces. [Sourced from BBC]
Comprehension questions …
- Before the devastating bombing in Sri Lanka in April, what clues the police had got about a possible attack?
- What other clues the police had got, but didn’t act upon?
- What factors led to police inaction over the clues?
- What sort of planning is needed to cause such an a coordinated attack of such magnitude?
- Who were the masterminds behind the incident, and why they decided to indulge in such a deadly attack.
Answers will be posted on May 19.
Q1. A big arms cache consisting of 100 kilograms of explosives and 1oo pieces of detonators were found hidden in a coconut grove in Willpattu national park in Puttalam. It is a desolate place. Apart from this, it was known that some Muslims had gone to fight in Syria on behalf of the ISIS. These police knew about these individuals, who possibly had brought back with them very toxic ideologies of extreme intolerance and revenge.
Q2. The intelligence agencies of the United States and India had given repeated warnings about possible terror attacks. Sadly, these were not acted upon. Apart from this lapse, the police didn’t quite read the simmering anger among Muslims over the attack on their mosques in the aftermath of the end of Tamil separatists’ armed insurgency. This disaffection among the Muslims provided fodder for the extremists who conceived and executed the April bombings.
Q3. After the LTTE were vanquished, a certain degree of complacency had crept into the security apparatus of the Sri Lankan government. Everyone assumed that Sri Lanka will not face extremist violence again. Police stopped going after suspected terror outfits proactively. This explains why the police adopted such a laid-back attitude with regard to clues that portended far graver sinister designs.
Q4. Executing a terror attack such as the one in April needs months of preparation. To evade police, the perpetrators would need safe houses, a gang of highly motivated handlers, finance, and shrewd planners. By garnering such resources, a group can bring its deadly plans to fruition.
Q5. The Sri Lankan Muslims who fought under the ISIS in Syria were the masterminds behind this attack. They were indoctrinated by the ISIS ideology of hatred, intolerance, and wanton violence against people of all other faiths.