Sri Lanka: Sectarian violence, political crisis and terrorism

Key sectors: all

Key risks: terrorism

On 21 April a series of six near-simultaneous bomb attacks were carried out in Sri Lanka, killing at least 359 and injuring over 500 more. In the capital Colombo, a church, three high-end hotels and a guest house were targeted. Another church was bombed in the city of Negumbo and a third church in Batticaloa. Responsibility for the Sri Lanka terror attacks was later claimed by Islamic State (IS) but the bombings – conducted by suicide bombers with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – were executed by members of local groups: the little-known National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). The attacks came as a shock to many as the terrorism threat in Sri Lanka had long been considered minimal. However, the 21 April attack highlights the threat of terrorism in the region. There are fears that the terror attacks may exacerbate tensions between Muslim and Sinhalese communities in Sri Lanka, while the government’s failure to take action despite being presented with credible intelligence about the risk may also cause a public backlash.

Authorities had played down the terrorism threat despite evidence of IS activities in the country. In early 2019, an IS training camp and plot to bomb Anuradhapura’s historic Buddhist monuments were uncovered in Wanathawilluwa. On 11 April, the Sri Lankan police reportedly received credible intelligence about planned attacks targeting churches during the Easter period. The report mentioned the NTJ, a little-known extremist Islamist group which emerged during 2018 as a threat to Sri Lanka when some of its members were accused of vandalising Buddhist statues. While there is currently no direct evidence that the 21 April attacks were orchestrated by IS, the efficacy of the attacks indicates some level of external support, whether ideological, operational or financial.

Social media has been suspended to prevent the sharing of inflammatory fake news that could exacerbate sectarian tensions and prompt reprisal attacks. There is a long history of sectarian and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Since the end of the civil war in 2006, Buddhist extremists have carried out occasional attacks targeting Sri Lankan Muslims. In March 2018, authorities declared a state of emergency after Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim businesses, homes and a mosque in Kandy fueled by fake news on social media. Despite efforts to prevent conflation, Muslim communities may become scapegoats for the 21 April attack in the weeks and months ahead.

There is also a risk of backlash against the government for failing to address the terrorism risk. The 11 April report from foreign intelligence agencies had warned authorities of possible attacks on churches, specifically naming the NTJ, but no measures were taken. After a constitutional crisis in late October 2018 that saw President Maithripala Sirisena attempt to illegally oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a wall was essentially established between the two leaders in government. This lack of communication may have contributed to what appears to be the total unpreparedness of the Sri Lankan security establishment.

Accompanying Sri Lanka’s newly-emerged – although not newly-formed – terrorism risk is risk of civil unrest. There is a likelihood that opposition parties could mobilize large protests, which have the potential to turn violent as the country prepares to hold presidential elections later this year. There may also be an increase in sectarian violence, with a risk reprisal attacks targeting Muslim communities and assets.