Deep dive answers about Sri Lanka's Easter attacks

A graveyard for the Easter bombing victims in Colombo. Photo by Vishal Arora.

A graveyard for the Easter bombing victims in Colombo. Photo by Vishal Arora.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka— In the wake of the Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, we spoke to Nishan De Mel, the executive director of Verité Research, for a deeper analysis of who’s behind the attacks, what they may want, what they were targeting, and what this all means for South Asia and Sri Lanka’s religious groups and stability. Verité is a think tank providing strategic analysis and advice for governments and the private sector in Asia.

The following is an edited transcript:


You know in Sri Lanka we have been vigilant about the nature of politics and political violence as well as religious violence. And that has been an issue that we have been studying and researching and looking at data. And not just looking at the data but trying to understand the socio-political dynamics behind especially religious violence. And of course political violence has a different kind of manifestation.

With all that going on and all that we have seen and understood about the country-- its social dynamics, its religious dynamics and its political dynamics. If you had asked me on Saturday morning what is the probability of an Islamic group attacking Christian churches in Colombo, I would have put it close to zero. I would have said there is no chance. It was completely unforeseen by most people. And even us, we are supposed to be able to see things that are not foreseeable, I think it took us completely by surprise. We did not anticipate it, and I think, could not have anticipated it.

But of course that claim is potentially contradicted by the intelligence-related documents that have come out afterwards. But I think that I don't read it as a simple contradiction. I agree it is a complex contradiction. I don't think it was foreseeable, which for me, creates a real complex puzzle about both those who postulate to be able to foresee an attack of this nature which in many ways I think defies the logic of how one would have analyzed it. It requires a great deal more than analytical intelligence. It requires a certain level of connection to perpetrators, which I think I find a little mystifying from my intelligence community...

So many people ask this question, who was the target? I think at a superficial level it is clear who paid the price and what the consequences were. But I think when people ask that question they, surely that's not what they're asking. We are not simply asking who died. And I think it may be more helpful to ask the question, not who was the target but what was the target. Because I think in any attack like this the objectives of any terrorist-type attack and objectives are disconnected from the subjects on whom the violence is targeted. So the subjects were actually instrumental. And the target is not a lot people or persons but something more symbolic or important.

The target here, I think on one hand, is for sure the economy because of the selection of high profile hotels in Colombo and the breakfast restaurants that are mostly frequented by tourists is a clear targeting of individuals in a bid that would hugely undermine confidence for investors of foreigners who are involved in interacting with Sri Lanka in an economic sense. These are the business interests of the country because many of these hotels also had Easter brunches. Actually all of them. I was scheduled to be at Easter brunch at Cinnamon Grand which was a live audience that was targeted. If they had waited a few hours I would have been able to you know actually have a more firsthand view of the incident. I was fortunate that that didn't happen so clearly if it was a question of maximizing life lost to make that statement, then brunch time was when it could have been done. But what was targeted was the restaurant in which overnight guests usually come with bed and breakfast.They would be having breakfast and that I think is a indication that there is a targeting of foreign nationals which again connects to targeting the economy.

I think the second thing that is targeted then, we can come back to this, is the long-term politics itself is targeted because very definitely the attack has changed the political discourse. In a serious way, it has brought into question the political system and undermined confidence in the politics. And the reason I say this is you know it is not a single sporadic attack, you know, some one bomber setting off a bomb in a marketplace.

This was perhaps the most coordinated, sophisticated, attack on civilian targets that we have seen. It's extremely interesting in terms of the sophistication, the coordination over a short period of time over a large geography, a large number of attacks that took place. So the target I think has a political dimension because the moment it happens also there is a leak that tells you the government knew and did that.

The combination of events created targets the economy and targets the politics in a way that we will come back to later as to what is the impact on the politics of the state as a consequence. So I think this question that also comes into play in trying to understand and explain what happened is: how does general communal tension that exists in Sri Lanka fit in as a cause and what is the consequence of that tension? If I tried to think through that, I think that we have a long history of communal tension and violence. It takes an ethnic form and a religious form. And over the course of our post-independence history since 1948, we have seen more chronic and acute versions of both. By acute, I mean the big events that happen and make the news that involve, you know, a large number of actors and no physical burning down or, you know, events that cause a conflagration. By chronic, I mean the days till beneath that a systematic regular patterns of violence, of threats, of intimidation, of closures of places of worship, of discrimination-- of discrimination that takes place in a chronic way within Sri Lanka.

So we have done some studies that have both made this distinction and documented the trends in Sri Lanka between the acute and chronic forms of violence that target especially in terms of religious nature. But I don't need to recap I think today the history of ethnic violence that we've had. However, what's interesting in Sri Lanka is that after the end of the war, the ethnic war that was between representatives of the Tamil people and the Sri Lankan state was seen as representing the singular people. That was a very new development of tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Muslims. I say very new because the nature and level in which it reemerged was quite new. If you go back to 1915, you know you have a record of tensions and violence between Buddhists and Muslims and that has a lot written about it. But the way in which it emerged after 2010 was quite new for Sri Lanka and quite unexpected. It had some elements of similarity to what we see in my mind because Buddhist leaders and institutions are borrowing in a sense some of the same attitudes and approaches in positioning hostility towards the Muslims within Sri Lanka.

So I think that the Muslims have become in Sri Lanka, they have always been the Jews, but these movements have now moved into Nazi territory with regard to the Muslims. And we have seen some, very many see violence against the Muslims that was organized at a communal-plus level. But with at least tacit, you know, tacit assistance from the state. But simply by inaction to prevent it because these have gone on for days. The last occurrence that happened in February 2013 had over 200 establishments vandalized or destroyed including houses and so much of the rhetoric around the incitements to violence in that period have been around positioning Islam and Muslim people as a threat.

So of course in the current climate or the aftermath of what has happened, those claims suddenly looked like they have been vindicated. Which is really unfortunate because those claims are actually fueling something extremely destructive and negative in Sri Lankan society. But the purveyors of those claims now stand to gain by the actions that have taken place. There's no intelligent Muslim organization or supporters of Muslims who could have wanted that to happen and we must think of them as really acting unintelligently in this particular situation in terms of Muslim interests, whatever took place.

And right now what you see is that, of course the attack did not target Buddhist places. So that does present, if you like, a puzzle of sorts. Because if the axis of communal tension in Sri Lanka for the Muslims was Buddhists and these very groups that we have spoken about and been up in the news as being responsible have been previously identified as responsible in trying to remove or vandalize Buddhist statues in the area, they also seem to have potentially a history of connection to expressing some level of antagonism against the heads of many of the Buddhist establishment, and yet the targets chosen are explicitly not Buddhist-- they are Christian. And the thing is that Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka share a common sense of being a little besieged. By the Muslims it is new and more acute in the last few years. But for the Christians this is a chronically acute long-standing problem that goes back a good 30 years, since the 1980's.

And I called up the National Christian Evangelical Alliance yesterday and asked them, because they keep a track of violence, how many incidents they had recorded of religious violence against Christian institutions since 2015, after the change in government when things were thought to have become a great deal better. The number they gave me was 400, in three years and three months. So that is a very significant number of attacks.

Of course you need to study to classify how serious each one was, but the recorded number of religious violence cases fitting the well-thought-out definition turns out to be 400. So I think that in many ways this kind of action did also bring sympathy to the Christians from the Buddhists. There was a remarkably positive speaking up that took place from Buddhist leaders, from political leaders, from Muslim leaders and even Christian leaders. I think that they expressed a great deal of solidarity. People want us to you know empathize with them, with the grief, with the suffering. And what you saw in the aftermath if anything I think was reduced tension between the Christians and the Buddhists because there was a sense of recognizing the victimhood of the Christians in this scenario. And that was a very positive thing that we saw on television and I think it was intentionally done and led by leaders of all communities and religions.

However, what you also see currently is this idea that that Singhalese people could potentially now have revenge attacks on ordinary Muslim people because the attackers as you know identified as Muslims. This to me is quite strange. So I got an e-mail today from a Chilean friend of mine who is living outside the country. And she gave me a detailed story of a Pakistani refugee in Sri Lanka who found his house surrounded and he was attacked and the security forces watched and protected his life, but didn't stop him from being beaten up apparently. And then he had to leave his house after that and she said Nishan, when there are attacks by Muslim people in the UK, in France, we never hear of such stories. Now why is it that in your country these things can happen. Are you all less educated, or is there some political manipulation of people's emotions that is making this happen.

I think that's a very serious question because the South Asians I think not just as Sri Lankans, it's true perhaps even for Indians and others in South Asia, we take sort of a brutishness of the mob, of a social mob, for granted, which we don't actually do in Western societies. It is not taken for granted that people should get up and and enact violence against their neighbors and others in the way that it has been almost assumed as a risk in South Asia and in Sri Lanka. And I find that quite disappointing. I want to believe in a society, in a country, in which for ordinary people, the brutish imperative isn't a fixed assumption about how ordinary people would respond to calamities of this nature. So I think the general communal tension in terms of the Muslim people feeling safe, I think it has significantly moved in a negative direction. There are people at my own organization ready to research that today left their houses because they live near mosques and they don't want to be dead. They're too scared to live there and they feel that there is a danger of being attacked and are taking refuge in other places. That is to me is an extremely disappointing, simple truth about our society  that needs to be addressed.

And Muslims have been told not to go to mosque. Police are not threatening to attack the mosques, but people are and how is a human being who goes and attacks a mosque any better than that bomber?

For me that is really surprising that we take this for granted but I think it is made possible by our own tacit acceptance of the possibility.

It is when you believe that a drunkard is prone to beat up his wife that the drunk man in a society that believes that that's possible, the drunken attack and beat up their wives much more. It's not the drinking itself. It is the social consent and tacitity that comes from saying that is understandable. I think that also makes it the reality. We need to be more surprised. And then it would be less possible.

I would say there are two layers of difficulty in terms of understanding the events. One is why Sri Lanka? And why the Catholic Church or the Christian church?

I think the reason these questions become very difficult to make sense of or to have good answers is because of the assumption we make that this is ISIS. That there is an international terror network at play, that logically does not have Sri Lanka on its sights and that rationality is hard to connect. Within Sri Lanka, certainly it does not help the Christians in their sights. And I think the question of why Sri Lanka becomes, lacks a good explanation.

Honestly, the narrative and explanations that we have for who is behind these attacks, I think there's no doubt, that the people conducting the attacks are part of a radicalized Muslim group within Sri Lanka. I do not think that that that we lack evidence for that conclusion. But I think the more difficult question is really not just about the people who conducted the attack but the selection of targets and what is driving that. And why Sri Lanka. So honestly I cannot make sense of why ISIS would direct Sri Lanka as a target and why if so they would direct within Sri Lanka the Christians as a target. Even if you make sense of the hotels, I don't think we can make sense of the church attacks.

 So I think looking at the aftermath of what has taken place we have to now ask what are the consequences? We have talked about the consequences in terms of communal relationships.

But I think it's also important to talk about the consequences in terms of the state and citizen relationship. The consequence of the state and citizen relationship I think can be evaluated in two ways. One is: how does this impact the state's immediate ability to control the citizen? But secondly, how does it also shape then the kind of state that the citizen is asking for or concerned about? The most significant and the most negative shift that I see that's emerging as a consequence is that the discourse that we had then was growing ever since especially 2014 about the importance of improving governance, of reducing corruption, of expanding the scope of our democracy. These conversations have suddenly paled and almost visibly into a lower order priorities set of questions. And what we have done is resurfaced them and brought them to the fore. So in a sense, it's a switching of the background and the foreground, back to the foreground the questions of national security and safety which were in the foreground during the years of war all the way up to 2010 even '11 in the immediate aftermath of the war and what happened as the country experienced more and more peace, was that the national security and safety questions began to lose their salience. And the governance, democracy and corruption questions emerged into the foreground then in great style in January 2015.

But they were in competition then. With the national security and safety questions if you analyze a single media in 2014 there was this very significant debate about whether we had to think about security and safety first or whether we had to think about corruption and governance first. And as 2014 progressed, the balance shifted to corruption and governance as being the more important concern. And the government then always also manufactured the leaks of information about a new terrorist threat, the reemergence of the LTTE bombs found in different places. I'm not saying they were false, but suddenly they were engineering them into the people's information set. And the discourse was part of trying to maintain the politics of security and safety as being still the most important dominant concern for society. But that battle was lost and corruption especially emerged as the dominant concern for society.

But I think this event in one fell swoop has switched the foreground and background once again. And today you hear people saying, and I was at a meeting in the morning, who cares about democracy? And forget about corruption. We want security. And we want back those who can give us security. And I think when people don't waste it like that, in that sense there's overwhelming ways in which that sense has taken over. Because these attacks were of a nature to completely change the sense of political salience of these two sets of questions for people. So I think while it does strengthen the state and its ability to control. I'm not necessarily seeing that as the immediate risk because the political configuration that you have today is of course very concerned to control, to use a means of control.

So we've had movements to bring counter-terrorism legislation that's very draconian and it has been resisted by civil society. We've had movements to bring regulation of media that we felt were very draconian and unnecessary that had been resisted also by think tanks and others like us because we feel that you know in especially in South Asia and in Sri Lanka that we must be careful not to give the state a tool kit for suppression. And often the old tool kit was more flagrantly unlawful. It used extrajudicial violence and means that were connected to not just political thuggery but the new emerging tool kit. I think in societies like ours, as the law itself selectively applied a law that gives too much discretion. As a tool kit for suppressing political dissent. And we have been very concerned for keeping that a bit. So I think there is a risk of losing ground on the ability to resist some of that legislation and some of those regulations. But that risk goes beyond the immediate risk if there is a greater risk in changing the political configuration. To elect people who do not believe at all. On the restraints of governance that brought this government into power. And certainly those who feel that national security and lack of restraint for those in power should be the way in which we should have leadership had their hand strengthened today by the events that happened.

So I think currently in trying to understand who could be behind it, we've had several theories at play. People have talked about this. I think all these theories have at the root of it Islamic militant groups and of course then they tried to ascribe motive. I think the fact that there was Sri Lankan Muslim individuals and that they would have been part of a movement of Muslim people that are being in some way radicalized, if I can use that term it means something. I think there is clear evidence for that and I said that before that that we know that the individuals involved are Muslim that they were connected to an organization that worked on some sense of radicalized thinking and understanding. And I think at that level of who is behind it the explanation is easy. But I think there's always more than one layer of explaining causality.

So if you ask me why is the kettle boiling, I could tell you the kettle is boiling because the the temperature of the water has increased beyond the hundreds and degrades and it is no longer containable in liquid form and that's why the kettle is boiling. But I could also tell you that the kettle is boiling because I kept it on the oven and turned on the gas, that these are both valid explanations.

I think when we explain it in terms of the individuals in the group that was involved we are saying that it was at hundreds Centigrade and it was boiling. I think the more difficult explanation is who put the kettle on the fire and then you have to go back to I think this question of motive which of course is very difficult. But I think the most patently absurd explanation is that it's revenge for New Zealand. That this little group thought we will take revenge for New Zealand attacks in Christchurch is a patently absurd explanation. It can only be manufactured by people who aren't thinking very clearly. And we should dismiss that out of hand as senseless because there is a lot more for Muslims to be angry about what happened and certainly then Christian just as you know if Muslims worked on their anger in Sri Lanka then then that was not the trigger and then this is disconnected. In Verity, I think we are very careful about speculating on motives which is why we haven't come out and said who because motives are complex things. But I think we follow an approach of examining who benefits. That's one way not to know who did it. But it is of course in any criminal investigation. It's the first question you ask. You know who got this the man's insurance. And it is very important to investigate who benefits. I think in terms of benefit some of the things that I have spoken about does trace benefit in different directions. And I see three types of beneficiaries in this in this scenario. And this time if I go from the smallest to the largest grouping of benefits.

One is immediately a very small segment of the intelligence community are benefiting because they are being seen as the smart guys who saw this in advance so one did their job because hey presto, within minutes of the tax there's this little leaking that shows that the intelligence community knew and warned that it was just inept political bureaucracy that failed to act. And you noticed that that these immediate conversations about the Sri Lankan government asking for accountability for war crimes and the investigations that the intelligence community are being targeted as part of the discourse that is that is actually leveraging the anger, the social anger, that is justifiably there with regard to these attacks. And that is that they're putting these people in prison and having investigations against them is wrong.

And certainly within government there has been a competition to say it is wrong to investigate the military and other parts of government have said no it's right. It is the right thing to do so. But because there is still a discourse of war heroes in Sri Lanka that says military cannot be investigated because they sacrificed their lives for what they did. So certainly that that element of the military that had gone wrong, acted in criminal ways, were fearful for the investigations that were going on against them. I don't think we have now a time to take any action against intelligence officials and they actually are beneficiaries.

The larger scope of benefit that I see is the one I spoke about that it has fundamentally shifted the political discourse in favour of the political strands that seem national security as the more important and as the more competent figures of their domain are not fears that the more competent arena or domain that they represent as they are political promise if you like. And I think there is a very real competition in Sri Lankan politics and certainly the benefit flows to one side of that competition. Now this doesn't mean I want to be careful to say none of what I'm saying establishes agency. But I think it's important to understand the flow of benefits.

So the third strand of a direct benefit that I see flowing is strangely enough at not not just a localized institutional level that I spoke of first to military intelligence not the national level that I spoke to strands of politics but at a regional level and I think that is mainly to India and to the current political leader dominant groups in India, for whom the narrative of Islamic fundamentalism conducting a devastating strike in Sri Lanka enormously amplifies their own political case. And what surprised me really was that immediately in the aftermath of the attack that Indian news seemed to have more information and more ability to give details and offer explanations that took place in Sri Lanka than the Sri Lankan media speed was quite startling and astounding.

And of course the Indian government was mentioned as also being under threat with regard to the information that was being circulated as having come to Sri Lanka from international intelligence. So of course we must assume logically that that intelligence came probably from India and that therefore the Indian intelligence was quite aware. With the great level of detail it turns out about these groups and their potential to take these actions. But what this has done is it kind of enormously reinforced India's claim for being potentially a protector and someone who needs to have a larger role to play within the region within Sri Lanka at a time when I think India was seeing some challenges with regard to its supremacy or its big brother status in Sri Lanka because of competing geopolitical alignments that Sri Lanka has made over a period of time.

So I think that the way India has historically sort of engaged, there is real potential for India to see some benefits in Sri Lanka's vulnerability. And that's how geopolitics sits. So those are the three levels of layers in which I think benefit has flown.

Invariably that does not have to I think necessarily establish agency. But I think in trying to understand who put the kettle on the fire, we have to examine also the complexity of these attacks and the sophistication and the quantities and retreats that took place by a group that has a practice. So I think it's quite amazing that if a racing car driver who's practiced in his backyard thinks that the first international race on which he will compete is the Formula One. But that's what this effectively did.

You know there are sometimes very brave people who might think that they can go from zero to 100, but it is rather surprising there were no practice attempts. And also you go for broke because suicide bombing means to lose most. This is not a repeat action. You lose all your resources in the process. You burn it up and burn the bridges.

So I think there is in the events that took place a deep puzzle. I think the time now for me is to is to just engage with the puzzle, not to give an easy answer. Because there may be more layers than we imagine.

I may have put the kettle to boil but it may be because you know my mother asked me to make tea. All right. So I think it is not easy in such a situation to simply offer the most straightforward easy explanations especially when the math in terms of floor benefits no capacity to conduct something like that doesn't take place even though at the level of the individual actors it is very clear the water was a hundred degrees, then you know it boiled and somewhat the actors themselves but that it's not about who's behind it in terms of who did the bombing but who's behind those who were behind it. That is the difficult question.

 I think this question of how does this events play into the existing discourses on tensions between Buddhists and Christians and Muslims. It's quite important.

And as I mentioned earlier Sri Lanka has had an unfortunate slide into a form of Buddhist rhetoric which is very Buddhist, very simply and many Buddhists, many people in Sri Lanka don't buy into it. But as you know these things do gain currency. A Buddhist rhetoric that one of my friends who did his speech in Oxford studying Buddhism has is classified as Buddha Zionism, which sees Sri Lanka as uniquely endowed with the task of protecting the future of Buddhism and especially more a more narrow version of Buddhism called the theory of Buddhism. And is seeing that as a huge risk with the onset of global cosmopolitan forces and the lack of prosperity of Sri Lanka as a whole. And so insecurity is often what breeds religious violence.

So if I had to have one word to explain religious violence I would say it's insecurity. The more insecure religion is, the communities, the faith is, the more easily it becomes to convert them to violence. And of course what's very unfortunate is that this national insecurity or this ethos of insecurity that has been almost manufactured for Sri Lankan Buddhists have then rendered the other communities insecure and the Muslims have become more insecure and in many ways the opportunity to radicalize Sri Lankan Muslims has significantly grown by increasing Muslim insecurity in the country through the type of violence and rhetoric that has generated Buddhist insecurity. So these things tend to have a very, very vicious cycle impact and what we see with these events is that vicious cycle just doing another round in the wrong direction because this now immediately allows the Buddhists to say that's exactly what we said. Then today I heard important business leaders telling us that Gnanasara, the head of the BBS, he warned us of this and we didn't listen to him and it was crazy. And of course the moment that that that Buddhist rhetoric and mindset is heightened that will heighten Muslim insecurity. And you set up the cycle to do a few more turns. So this is a very dangerous thing.

I think on the positive side might you have seen is that the Sri Lankan capacity to pull back from the brink.

So I think one of the fascinating things about Sri Lanka is that our society is capable, it has almost a talent for getting to the edge of the precipice and then stepping back and then going there and doing so repeatedly. And so in the time of acute crisis we tend to figure out how to do things right a little better. And I think I am very heartened by the way in which leaders of all communities, enormously Buddhist priests, so you don't see Gnanasara in this time. He's not getting coverage. What is getting coverage is Buddhist monks who are very clear that this was wrong, [targeting] the Church was wrong and sitting alongside Muslim leaders who were saying we are not a part of this. We have warned about it. This doesn't represent us. And people saying you know that group of Muslims who committed violence does not represent an ethnic community.

So I think it would be too early to think that Buddhist fundamentalism is going to be heightened because to some extent I think there is a sensibility of society that also sees what I'm saying that there is a vicious cycle and that we must not keep trending down. We must not keep turning around in that circle. And then there is a certain social implicit sanity that kicks in to recognize that the country has to pull back and the event was momentous enough so it would be too early to call how this is going to play out. It could play out negatively for the Buddhist extreme rhetoric because we need three majors. It can well be identified as this is what. This is precisely the kind of thing we don't want because now we can see it down that road and see that it takes us and it's almost like that you know we were walking down a path and a train from the future came and crashed into you reminding you what's then then back and then you have to stop and take stock and I hope that is what has happened that we can now take stock and say that was the wrong path and we need to find another one.

That's my hope. I think we have to go in that direction.