At least 290 people were killed and more than 500 injured in a series of bombings across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Multiple explosions, carried out nearly simultaneously by suicide bombers starting at approximately 8:45am local time, struck worshippers attending church services and tourists staying at Western luxury hotels throughout Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.
The main sites targeted included St. Anthony’s Shrine, St. Sebastian’s Church, and Zion Church, as well as the Shangri-La hotel, the Kingsbury Hotel, and the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Following the initial wave of attacks, blasts occurred at the Dematagoda housing complex, where a suspect was being apprehended, and at the Tropical Inn. A pipe bomb was also discovered and diffused near the Bandaranaike International Airport. Additionally, earlier this morning, a separate blast reportedly occurred as authorities tried to diffuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs) found in a van that was left near St. Anthony’s Shrine.
At this time, 24 suspects are in custody and officials are stating that the attack was likely perpetrated by a local Islamist militant group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath. All the suicide bombers were reportedly Sri Lankan citizens. It is suspected that the group had some international assistance, although authorities are working to confirm any potential links. There is still conflicting information on whether Sri Lankan security agencies received a prior intelligence warning regarding potential suicide attacks against churches.
Following the attacks, Sri Lanka’s National Security Council declared a conditional state of emergency, and a curfew in Colombo has been put in place until further notice. Major social media networks have also been temporarily blocked. Security has increased at the country's main Bandaranaike International Airport, as well as at other significant locations.
Yesterday’s attack is the deadliest seen in Sri Lanka since the country’s bloody civil war came to an end in 2009. The civil war, which resulted in the deaths of up to 80,000 people, concluded with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought the government for 26 years in hopes of establishing an independent homeland for the minority ethnic Tamils. Suicide bombings were a frequent tactic of the LTTE and part of their innovative tradecraft that was later duplicated and used successfully by other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State or Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, other than the long standing ties to suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, yesterday’s incidents appear to have different features from what the country has previously experienced.
The precise coordination of the separate bombings and the intensity of the blasts indicate a highly orchestrated attack that required extensive planning, organization, and possibly international funding, rendering it unlikely that lone-wolf actors were responsible. Additionally, the use of multiple suicide bombers, especially aimed at religious targets and foreign tourists, are a hallmark of international jihadist terrorist groups. This demonstrates how Islamic extremism has crept from the Middle East into the Indian-subcontinent. Yesterday’s attack shows that the threat of large scale siege attacks, such as those in Mumbai in 2008 or Paris in November 2015, still exists; as are other types of complex coordinated terrorist attacks and aggressive deadly behavior incidents against domestic targets employing small arms, IEDs and paramilitary tactics.
In recent years, religious institutions worldwide have increasingly become targets for extremist violence. In April 2017 on Palm Sunday, ISIS militants conducted suicide bombings at churches in Egypt that left 47 dead and 126 injured. In October 2018, a gunman entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and opened fire, killing 11 and wounding six, including four police officers. In January, two suicide attackers detonated bombs during mass in a Roman Catholic cathedral on the island of Jolo in the southern Philippines, killing 23 and wounding about 100 others. Three days later, an attacker threw a grenade in a mosque in nearby Zamboanga city, killing two religious teachers. Last month also saw a large-scale attack on worshippers after 50 people were killed in an attack at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. In each case, the sacred and communal symbol of the attacks on places of worship evokes a maximum emotional impact that not only affects the victims, but the entire community itself. The Sri Lankan attacks, occurring on one of the holiest Christian holidays of the year, also come after several church arsons and arson attempts in the U.S. Last week, Holden Matthews was arrested on three charges of arson and three hate crime charges after setting fire to three African American churches in Louisiana. Furthermore, last week, Marc Lamperello was arrested before attempting to commit arson at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, following the devastating fire that nearly brought down Notre Dame Cathedral due to industrial conditions.
In addition to the churches, the Sri Lankan attacks also targeted luxury hotels, where dozens of foreigners were celebrating the holidays. In a similar attack in January, al-Shabab militants armed with guns and explosives burst into a luxury hotel and office complex in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 21 people, including several foreigners in the DustiD2 complex. The recent events demonstrate the need for increased vigilance for terrorism and extremist activity at “soft-target” locations. While securing soft-targets pose a difficult protection challenge, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recommends securing such targets and crowded places, including protective screening and controlled access, active-shooter response training and planning, and explosive device detection and response.