The inside story of Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks | Daily News
Book review

The inside story of Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks

Title: Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy:

When the Deep State Gets Out of Its Depth


Author: Rajan Hoole


Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy sets out to answer the question many Sri Lankans were asking after the suicide bombings in April: How could this happen when the government had advance warning of the attacks? It answers this question by examining the ‘Deep State’: ‘a body of organised interests comprising dominant sections of the political establishment and the security apparatus, ready and willing to pursue partisan goals in contempt of the law’ (p.18).

When Karuna’s Eastern faction split from the LTTE in April 2004, Army intelligence used Karuna group members to recruit and train scores of Muslims to fight against the LTTE. Large numbers of these fighters were attracted to Wahhabi Islamism. In October 2004, they burned down the Sufi Meditation Centre in Kattankudy, along with the homes and businesses of over 200 Sufi Muslim families. In December 2006, they burned the houses of 117 Sufis, while many more fled the district. Despite this large-scale violence, no arrests were made. According to Hoole, M.L.A.M. Hisbullah of the UPFA protected them from the law, while overall control over them was exerted by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Mohamed Zahran was one of them. He registered the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) in 2015 and began vilifying Catholics and distributing leaflets calling on people not to celebrate Christmas. In public meetings from September 2016 to March 2017 he supported ISIS, saying that raising the national flag went against the Islamic State and that non-Muslims should be killed (p.33).

On 10 March 2017, Zahran and his associates in the NTJ attacked Sufis in Kattankudy, assaulting them with swords and iron rods, stoning houses and throwing petrol bombs. Police officer Ariabandu Wedegedera arrested nine NTJ rioters, and in June Magistrate Ganesharajah issued arrest warrants for Zahran, his brother Rilvan and Mohamed Mohideen, and refused to grant bail to the detainees.

However in July Wedegedara was transferred and replaced by Inspector Kasturiarachchi, who did not object to bail for the arrested NTJ militants. Magistrate Ganesharajah was also transferred, and High Court Judge M.I.M. Izzadeen granted the detainees bail in October. Referring to obstacles to the arrest of Zahran, a senior police official ‘said that political pressures were so heavy that one could not work according to one’s conscience’ (p.47).

On 27 March 2017, representatives of the Sufi community delivered a six-page complaint against Zahran’s extremist teachings to leading members of the government, and described the horror they had been through on 10 March. One of the officials they met - Nalaka de Silva, DIG Terrorist Investigation Division - began monitoring Zahran and his family members. On 2 July 2018, he got a warrant for Zahran’s arrest, and obtained an Interpol Blue Notice against him. But in October 2018 de Silva was suspended from the police and arrested for his supposed involvement in an India-backed assassination attempt on President Sirisena and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a plot for which no evidence was ever produced.

The pattern is clear: any official who tried to take action against Zahran and the NTJ was targeted, providing evidence for Hoole’s contention that the Islamists were protected by the deep state. Further evidence is provided by Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s claim on 2 May 2019 that both Buddhist and Islamist extremist groups had been bankrolled by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in an operation controlled by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. When Minister Lakshman Kiriella announced in June that 30 NTJ members including Zahran were paid salaries by the Rajapaksa regime, Mahinda Rajapaksa responded that such matters should not be disclosed in public, tacitly admitting it was true.

It doesn’t follow that Zahran and the NTJ had no agency of their own or links to ISIS, only that the Wahhabi goal of isolating Muslims from their neighbours in order to control and dominate them dovetailed neatly with the Rajapaksa deep state’s goal of isolating Muslims in order to demonise and terrorise them. Hoole compares unarmed actors like Hisbullah and the Jamiyathul Ulema with the TULF, whose aggressive rhetoric inspired the LTTE’s militancy.

After the 2015 elections, an effort was made to dismantle the Rajapaksa deep state, but encountered opposition from President Sirisena after he began drifting back to the Rajapaksa camp in October 2016, finally switching openly in the October 2018 coup.

Having taken charge of security, he had ultimate responsibility for allowing the Easter bombings to occur despite receiving warnings from Indian intelligence, although Wickremesinghe and his cabinet colleagues too knew of the warnings, and could have raised the alarm.

Why did the Rajapaksas support Islamist terrorists? The author’s hypothesis is that along with anti-Muslim attacks, this was an attempt to minimise the Muslim vote. But his evidence also supports the hypothesis that the Easter blasts and demonisation of Muslims were aimed at convincing Sinhalese Buddhists that they faced an existential threat from Muslims, and only a regime that dispensed with ‘human rights’, ‘ethnic reconciliation’ and ‘individual freedoms,’ as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa put it, could save them (p.115): a chilling possibility indeed!

- Rohini Hensman

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