Geopolitics of the 2019 Easter Sunday Carnage | Daily News
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Geopolitics of the 2019 Easter Sunday Carnage


“We have met the enemy and he is us”—Walt Kelly from Pogo Comics, quoted in “The ISIS is the US: the shocking truth behind the Army of Terror”

On the first Sunday of March 2021 church congregations in Sri Lanka were joined by Buddhist monks and prominent Muslims for a multi-religious protest to mark “Black Sunday”; the second anniversary of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings that rocked the country two years ago, killing 279 people and injuring many more.

Local and national religious leaders, aware of the ongoing weaponisation, fragmentation, and use of religion/s against core values such as ahimsa or non-violence, by external actors interested in advancing their geopolitical interests in this strategically located Indian Ocean island, stood together to call for justice and accountability for the victims of the mysterious ISIS-claimed attacks. Protestors held placards and demanded: “Tell us who the masterminds are?”

The simultaneous attacks staged at seven different luxury tourist hotels and coastal churches at Easter 2019 were mysteriously claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS), far from this strategic Indian Ocean island.

The carnage that sent the country into lockdown and the economy into a tailspin was clearly designed, hybrid-war style, to cause maximum damage to both the economy and society. The attack was clearly staged by a global-local network while the design of the crime reflected foreign interests.

Sri Lanka is in the crosshairs of great power rivalry as a hybrid cyber–Cold War unfolds in the rapidly militarising Indian Ocean region as big states use transnational religious networks and cultural ‘soft power’ and religious terror narratives including the Islamophobic ISIS narrative, which Delhi-based academic Saeed Naqvi has deemed a ‘diplomatic asset”, to cultivate local-global networks of political influence and bi-partisan corruption rackets to advance their geostrategic interests.

While the attack on hotels was meant to cripple the tourist-dependent and highly indebted island economy, the attack on churches was meant to cause a cascade of inter-religious violence and destabilisation of this multi-religious country, rendering it vulnerable to foreign boots on the ground or even to a foreign military base being set up to purportedly ‘protect Christians from ISIS terror’ in the rapidly militarising Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

However, since Christians and Muslims are minorities in this Buddhist-Hindu cultural majority country and have historically enjoyed excellent inter-religious relations, it appeared that the foreign masterminds behind the Easter crime had miscalculated and imported a Euro-American “Clash of Civilisations” narrative that has little traction in multi-religious South Asian context. There was no local history or motive for a clash of civilisations between Christians and Muslims who had amicable interreligious relations on the island.

From a local perspective, the designers of the crime seemed to have targeted the wrong religious community, and so the master plan behind the deadly Easter crime began to unravel with Colombo Archbishop His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith declaring that the attacks were staged by international actors who benefit from destabilising regions and countries and weapons sales.

It was in this context that the powerful Buddhist clergy of Sri Lanka, who have historically confronted colonial projects, backed the Archbishop’s demand for accountability and joined the Black Sunday protest to compel the Government of Sri Lanka to deliver the truth about the masterminds behind the attacks since the recently released Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) Report into the crime had revealed no new analysis regarding those behind the attacks.

For non-recurrence of such violence, identifying the masterminds and holding them accountable would be surely imperative.

Fundamental questions unanswered

Fundamental questions, or perhaps co-incidences such as why the leader of the attacks, Zaharan Hashim and a second suicide bomber both targeted and died at the Chinese owned super luxury Shangri La Hotel on Colombo’s seafront rather than in a church or Buddhist temple if their crime was primarily religiously motivated, have been ignored in investigations.

Aside from Shangri La the other hotels and churches that were bombed were hit by just a single suicide bomber. There is absolutely no evidence to indicate that Zaharan Hashim, leader of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), the obscure group blamed locally, knew about or was concerned about Uyghurs in China.

Intelligence experts also pointed out that a leader of a terror group would never kill himself at the outset and suggested that the attacks were staged by other actors fronting the local NTJ, which espoused the Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi project initiated during the Cold War years to weaponise Islam as a bulwark against communist and socialist ideologies.

Four Chinese marine scientists in Sri Lanka for joint marine exploration lost their lives in the attack on the Kingsbury Hotel. Remarkably, the US and Indian owned, Hilton and Taj Hotels that are next to Shangri La were untouched.

The global and local narrative after the Easter carnage focused on religious motivations in the Easter attack and elided the economic and geopolitical dimensions, while some foreign experts suggested that they were staged in retaliation for attacks on a mosque in New Zealand, a claim that was dismissed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Too many strategic Chinese targets to be a coincidence? Did the designers of the Easter attacks use religion as a partial smoke screen? While media attention and investigations have been focused on the churches that came under attack, the media narrative has been crafted to obscure the vital facts of the crime that may provide clues to the masterminds and messaging evident in the geopolitics behind the Easter carnage and its economic motives.

There has been a veritable infodemic regarding swords in mosques in the local media although no one died of sword attacks. Various other stories about ISIS setting up a Caliphate in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka were circulated by international experts.

Since answers to fundamental questions were missing after two years of investigations, people from all religious communities on the island came together to voice their disappointment with the Report of the PCoI, that increasingly appeared to be a bi-partisan party political ‘cover up’, especially of the international actors behind the attack. It was perceived by many locals as part of a larger hybrid war on both the economy and society of Sri Lanka caught in the midst of a Cold War waged by the USA and its NATO allies and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad friends, on China.

In the wake of the attacks, then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that the US Govt. was ready to disburse US$ 450 million as a Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), ‘grant’ that would give US companies access to land and transport sectors to be re-structured despite a great deal of opposition from Sri Lankan Trade Unions and civil society groups.

Local-global networks

Seven simultaneous suicide bombings in the East and West coasts shook Sri Lanka on a bright quiet Easter morning with Hollywood style ‘shock and awe’ precision in April 2019. Youthful bombers with backpacks targeted seafront luxury tourist hotels and churches killing more than 279 people and injuring many more. Four tourist hotels in Colombo and three churches on the West and East Coasts of the country were targeted.

In the aftermath the country’s already debt-trapped, tourist-dependent economy and multicultural society went into a tailspin and lockdown, seemingly a dry run for the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. The latter was imposed with four hours prior notice in 2020 again crippling the economy although COVID-19 data indicates that the illness is milder than seasonal flu in Sri Lanka, as in other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam Laos and Cambodia.

The leader of the small group of suicide bombers, Zaharan of the NTJ, and a second suicide bomber struck the brand new glittering Chinese-owned Shangri La Hotel on Colombo’s luxury hotel strip.

The fact that two suicide bombers, including the leader Zaharan, targeted a Chinese asset Shangri La Hotel, indicated that it was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Easter bombings. St Anthony’s church, famous for miracles, attracts people of all faiths—Buddhists, Hindus and occasional Muslims and overlooks the busiest and most strategic port of South Asia was also bombed. The church was one of the three most important targets after the Hong Kong-owned Shangri La Hotel and Kingsbury Hotel where the four Chinese marine scientists were killed.

The economic and geopolitical targets of the attacks seemed designed to send a coded message to China—hands-off Sri Lanka’s maritime domain.

This strategically located Indian Ocean Island sits at the centre of the busiest trade, communication and energy shipping routes and more importantly, at a spaghetti junction of Submarine Undersea Data Cables (UDCs), which carry over 90 percent of data that keeps the global economy and financial system going amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and is vital to secure what the United States terms its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”


(The writer is a cultural and medical anthropologist with research expertise in international political economy, peace, and development studies in South and South-East Asia. Her research spans issues in gender and women’s empowerment, migration and multiculturalism, ethno-religious identity politics, new and old Diasporas and global religion, particularly, transnational Theravada Buddhist networks in the Asia-Pacific region. Darini was a Senior Lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka. Her Bachelor’s degree is from Brandeis University and her MA and PhD are from Princeton University.)