April 22, 2019

Note: This blog, originally published April 22, was updated to reflect developments on April 23.

In the early morning of April 21, coordinated bombings in at least eight locations in Sri Lanka killed at least 321 people and wounded some 500 others in the worst single day of violence since the Sri Lankan Civil War ended in 2009. Sri Lanka's foreign ministry confirmed the blasts killed at least 39 foreign nationals, including those from India, Australia, China, Japan, Morocco, Pakistan, Portugal, Turkey, Netherlands, UK, and the US. The initial bombings targeted three Catholic churches: Zion Church in Batticaloa; Saint Anthony's Shrine in Colombo; and Saint Sebastian's Church in Negombo. Following the church bombings, explosions occurred at three upscale hotels in the Sri Lankan capital: the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La, and the Kingsbury. Officials believe seven suicide bombers carried out the attacks at the six locations. There was also an explosion at a smaller hotel, the Tropical Inn, in Dehiwala and three low-level explosions in Colombo's Dematagoda district in the afternoon. Military personnel reportedly also defused an improvised explosive device (IED) on a road leading to Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) north of Colombo late April 21. Later on April 22, a bomb in a parked vehicle near Saint Anthony's Church in Colombo exploded.  

These attacks on religious establishments and tourist infrastructure are the worst to occur since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009. In response, the government imposed a nationwide curfew from April 21 to 0600 April 22. The government later imposed another curfew from 2000 April 22 to 0400 April 23. President Maithripala Sirisena declared a state of emergency beginning April 23, which will grant security forces extraordinary powers to arrest and interrogate suspects. To counter misinformation and prevent hate speech, officials have temporarily blocked major social media and messaging services, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, YouTube, and Instagram. Additional security measures, such as roadblocks, road closures, and vehicle searches will likely occur in the coming days to prevent additional attacks.

Islamic State (IS) media has claimed responsibility for the April 21 bombings that targeted Christian places of worship and hotels popular with foreign nationals in Sri Lanka. IS released a video of the alleged suicide bombers pledging allegiance to the group before the attack. Sri Lankan authorities have said at least some of the attackers were members of National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NJT), a local radical Islamist organization that is widely believed to have links to transnational extremist groups. On April 23, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that authorities are searching for additional suspects and explosives and that further attacks are possible. Police in Colombo are searching for vehicles believed to be carrying explosive devices. Security forces have arrested at least 40 people following the attacks in a nationwide crackdown on suspected militants. 


What Does This Mean?

Since the end of Sri Lanka's brutal 26-year civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, the country has experienced a decade of calm. Bombings and assassinations, which were relatively commonplace in Colombo and throughout the country during the conflict, ended with the defeat of the LTTE. For much of the period between 1983-2009, the tourist sector was weak and foreign companies were hesitant to operate in Sri Lanka; since the war, Sri Lanka has emerged as a major tourist destination, particularly in its east and north, which were LTTE strongholds. Multinational companies, many of whom left Sri Lanka during the civil war, have returned.

The latest bombings appear to have caught officials by surprise. While it has ended a period of relative peace, it is too early to tell whether this is an isolated incident or the beginning of a new era of insecurity. The targeting of high-profile luxury hotels in the heart of Colombo indicates that the attackers aimed to create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity that could adversely affect business operations and drive away tourists and multinational companies alike - much like the LTTE did during the civil war. However, while the LTTE had an overarching political goal of establishing a separate Tamil state in the north and aimed to cultivate international sympathy by trying to avoid attacks on foreign nationals, the April 21 attacks appear to have been designed to inflict as many injuries and deaths as possible, regardless of nationality, to draw maximum international exposure. The perpetrators’ political goal, if they have one, remains unclear.


Looking Ahead

The government will likely undertake preventive security measures in the wake of the bombings to prevent a sharp dip in tourism and minimize the departure of foreign businesses. Enhanced security is likely at tourist locations, high-end hotels, and critical infrastructure such as ports, airports, and train stations. Given that the road leading to CMB was reportedly targeted, the government may designate areas in Colombo and elsewhere as "high-security" zones, limiting access to authorized government and security personnel. Such zones were commonplace during the civil war when parts of the capital such as the Port of Colombo were sealed off from the general public. The war also created significant traffic bottlenecks leading to CMB, where the main road was purposely ground up and littered with potholes to prevent suicide truck bombers from entering the area near the airport.

Security forces will likely employ aggressive tactics to apprehend individuals linked to the group responsible for the bombings. Sri Lankan police, particularly the Criminal Investigative Division (CID) are notorious for heavy-handed tactics, including beatings, torture, and disappearances. "White van" stories - in which white vans without license plates carrying members of the security forces would abduct LTTE sympathizers, government critics, and dissidents - were common during the latter part of the civil war. In a 1999 report, the UN noted that Sri Lanka had the second highest number of disappearances in the world with approximately 12,000 since 1980.  

The shock and anger at the bombings raise the specter of scapegoating. The Sri Lankan government has a history of persecuting minorities and the LTTE emerged as a violent response to decades of discrimination of the Tamil minority by the Singhalese majority.  Today, religious tensions have again emerged, this time between Singhalese and Muslims. In February 2018, the government imposed a 10-day state of emergency after anti-Muslim riots occurred in Ampara and spread to Kandy, leaving two dead and 10 wounded. In 2014, anti-Muslim riots in Kalutara District killed four people, wounded 80 others, and displaced upwards of 10,000 people. Anti-Muslim violence is possible in Colombo and elsewhere in the coming days.  


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