Together with the bombs in the churches on Easter Day this year, several myths that had given comfort to mankind, exploded in Sri Lanka. First, the myth that IS has been wiped out has been proved wrong. It may have lost the territory it held in the Middle East, but the IS ideology and its votaries lurk in many lands. The second myth was that peace had returned to the islands after the LTTE was virtually eliminated. Thirdly, the political leaders had begun to believe that they could afford the luxury of intrigues, violation of constitutional provisions and undemocratic practices without attracting external intervention. Sri Lankans had also believed that tourists will come to the country as long as they provided good facilities at reasonable prices. The Easter killings proved these theories wrong and showed the chinks in the armour of the security apparatus. The war on terrorism needs to continue unabated and Governments cannot rest on their laurels as President Trump had planned to do.
Exactly a year to the day after we had a serendipitous family holiday in Sri Lanka, some of the churches we visited and the hotel, Cinnamon Gardens, where we enjoyed the world’s most elaborate buffet dinner were ruined by the numerous blasts triggered by eight suicide bombers at six places in three cities. At least 250 people lost their lives in the coordinated attacks. As the Sri Lankan Government quickly established, the bombings were carried out by a local Islamic group affiliated to the Islamic State. The dimensions of the attack and the deaths make it one of the deadliest attacks carried out by the IS or its affiliates, nearly twice as lethal as the Paris attacks of 2015.
Why Sri Lanka and why the churches are questions to be answered. Churches were targets because the Caliphate had declared a “Chalo Rome” slogan as their ultimate destination. But why Sri Lanka cannot be explained except that the IS must have judged that it was an easy target, given the lethargy on security that had set in after the war and the command system, which turned out to be chaotic. For the President and the Prime Minister to blame each other is ridiculous, whatever the political configuration happens to be in place. Experts say that the IS has simply exploited the resources available to it. “It’s not a membership-based organization. It’s skilled at reorganizing and modifying its strategy to fit the evolving security landscape around the world,’ one of them tweeted. With their headquarters having been dismantled, it is turning to its affiliates operating in vulnerable countries to inflict serious destruction. The Al-Qaeda elements driven out of Afghanistan may also have found a safe haven in Sri Lanka.
One shudders to think how close the IS had come to our own shores. What may have prompted it to focus on Sri Lanka must have been simply the fortress we have built against terrorism in India. The stern action taken against terrorism perpetrated by Pakistan may also have been a deterrent. Many parts of India are included in the Khaliphate map and India is vulnerable. We had the intelligence on these attacks and we had shared it with Sri Lanka, but it was unable to take quick action. The Sri Lanka experience must also make our minorities aware of the external dangers and accordingly strengthen our own Government in their anti-terrorist activities rather than fear a strong Government at the centre as detrimental to their interests. The threat to national security is not confined to any religious groups in India. Concern about terrorism should not be construed as ultra-nationalistic or politically motivated.
The tendency of the Sri Lankan Government to belittle cooperation with India in fighting terrorism is amazing. The memories of Indian support to the LTTE, the only terrorists they fought for long years, seem to linger in the minds of the Sri Lankan leaders. Though they acknowledged the intelligence given by India, it was played down by acknowledging “lapses”, without attributing the weaknesses to their own system. In their minds, India and the international community are targeting them for the atrocities they committed on the Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lanka should learn to strengthen cooperation with India rather than depend on Chinese protection, which failed miserably on this occasion. Instead of focussing on the remnants of LTTE, they should be aware of the external threat in an unstable country like theirs. They may have failed to act on Indian warnings because of their prejudices.
The IS has been famous for their social media presence and their propaganda machine. Having lost their territory, they seem to have enhanced that capability, thus influencing their cadres to continue to fight. They are still engaged in kidnapping for ransom and stealthily distributing money abroad. Kerala has still not been able to stop the recruitments, which are considered part of people chasing their financial or religious dreams.
The responsibility of the IS for the Sri Lankan attacks has not been established beyond doubt, though the local cell was known to be in existence. The decentralisation of IS may have resulted in local elements seeking recognition in countries, where the IS was not known to be in operation. This adds a new dimension to the IS threats to new countries. The IS attacks have, therefore, become more unpredictable and lethal as local elements may have better access to vulnerable areas.
We have heard very little about the lessons learnt by India from the Sri Lankan attacks. We seem to be still preoccupied with Pulwama and its aftermath. The myths that have exploded in Sri Lanka must open our eyes to the new threats. As the New York Times has reported on April 27, the blunders of the Sri Lankan Government have exposed its ability to handle such crises. “The mistakes range from the outrageous, like the failure to act on repeated warnings, to the absurd, like mistakenly identifying an American college student as a suspect, to the dumbfounding, like reporting 350 deaths one day and 250 the next, said the newspaper.” India, therefore, has even a greater responsibility to protect the region.