New Book: A carnage driven by an operational failure

Rohan Gunaratna’s “Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International Community

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Sri Lankan soldiers look on inside the St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo on April 21, 2019, following a bomb blast during the Easter service that killed tens of people. (STR / AFP)

On the 21st of April 2019, Sri Lanka witnessed its very first macabre experience from Islamic extremist terrorism through a series of attacks known as “Easter Day attacks”, which targeted Christian churches and tourist hotels. The impacts created by the Easter attacks pushed Sri Lanka to a deeper crisis and it further unveiled the sheer failure of the national intelligence agencies of Sri Lanka. Rohan Gunaratna’s timely work “ Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International Community” is a heavyweight contribution to the scholarship discussing the intelligence perspective of Sri Lanka’s tragedy.

The book begins with a chart of some crucial events that paved the path for the Easter Sunday massacre and this introductory chapter remains insightful in providing a clear analysis in the brief history of the Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka, which was not adequately addressed by the government authorities. While unfolding the events of the Easter attacks, Gunaratna reveals the ideological impetus behind the attacks. In Gunaratna’s own words, “ Zaharan and his gang were not normal criminals”. Reading the first chapter of the book can excite the reader’s mind as watching a thriller movie on Netflix with the lucid language that Gunaratna uses in tracing every single event of the Easter attacks from the preparation to the execution moment. Even tiny details such as the names of the restaurants where the attackers gathered and consumed food before embarking on the carnage have been included in the first chapter as a part of fiction. However, presenting all those facts does not undermine the central objective of the book; the lesson for the international community”. All the details discussed in the first chapter help in analysing the loopholes and utter negligence that paved the path for the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, Also Gunaratna reiterates how attacks could have been nipped in the bud, when the large number of explosives were found in Wanathavilluwa in Sri Lanka in 2019 January.

After describing the anatomy of the attacks in the first chapter, the following chapter provides useful details on Zahran, the mastermind behind the attacks. It should be noted, that the details that Gunaratna provides in this chapter regarding the character are not mere a biographic sketch of a dead terrorist. It is rather an astute analysis revealing the trajectories that set the cause in moulding an extremist and it further identifies the ideological pillars, which intensified the terrorist motives of Zahran.  In particular, Gunaratna pays attention to the upbringing of Zahran, the impoverished childhood filled with many ugly incidents. The focal point of the chapter lies in discussing how Zahran’s childhood village Kattankudy in the Eastern province transformed into a hub of Islamic extremism by the influx of Salafi-Wahhabism, which subdued Sufi Islamic traditions and became the dominant discourse that inspired Zahran to choose his path to become an extremist. In the first half of the chapter, Gunaratna identifies two major factors that played a decisive role in shaping Zahran’s psyche. The first one was the establishment of Centre for Islamic Guidance ( CIG ) under Saudi patronage, which later uplifted itself into the main manufacturing bastion of Wahabi ideology in the Eastern province. Secondly, Gunaratna explains how South Indian Wahabi cleric P.J. left an indelible influence upon the Muslim youth in Sri Lanka, which attracted young Zahran to galvanize his extremist ideology. The arguably the most violent strain of Salafi-Wahhabism , the doctrine of Tawheed “ The Oneness of God “, took root in Sri Lanka at the turn of the century.

In his vivid analysis, as an expert of intelligence and terrorism Gunaratna explains how all the warnings given by the state intelligence services in Sri Lanka were neglected by the political apparatus of the island for a short term political gain, which resulted in the robust development of Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka.

The third chapter entitled “The Colombo Team of the IS Sri Lanka branch”, discusses the genesis of the threat that led to the Easter attacks and also the chapter provides some details on the establishment of the IS in Sri Lanka, in which its followers were eager to emulate the IS practice of killing the non-believers. While unveiling the evolution of IS ideology in Sri Lanka, Gunaratna points out how IS ideology became an alluring discourse for the English-speaking educated Muslim youth in the Western province of Sri Lanka through social media. The chapter further elaborates on the role of Aadhil AX, a Sri Lankan Muslim youth as the main propagandist of ISIS in Sri Lanka and his charismatic leadership in attracting many Muslim youths in Sri Lanka and India to support IS activities in South Asia.

According to the analysis of Gunaratna, the global and local incidents that occurred in the year 2014 accelerated the growth of ISIS ideology in Sri Lanka. The religious riots that took place in Aluthgama in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and Muslims have been described by Gunaratna as a catalyst event that nourished the seeds of IS ideology in the island. Eventually, the IS ideology in Sri Lanka spread through an intricate network comprising friends and colleagues, family and relatives, worshippers of the mosques run by sects and mentors and their disciples. But none of those developments was scrutinized by the intelligence or the other security authorities and it further bolstered the rise of Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka. The chapter clearly traces the initial plans of the IS activists in Sri Lanka such as the plot to assassinate Galagoda Aththe  Gnanasara Thero, the leader of right wing Sinhalese Buddhist organization prior to launching the Easter attacks in 2019.  

The last chapter is an eye-opener for the intelligence experts as a lesson to organize and fortify the intelligence networks to cope with terrorism. Gunaratna aptly shows how intelligence gathering and reports were continuously neglected by the newly elected government of Sri Lanka in 2015 based on political motives. Gunaratna seems to be optimistic in his conclusion as he suggests that the international community should work together to dismantle operational threats and ideological threats. All in all, the work authored by Prof Rohan Gunaratna is a fine contribution to the security and intelligence studies literature.

Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. His co-edited book “Thirty Years Looking Back: The Rule of Law, Human Rights and State Building in the Post-Soviet Space was published in 2022 .

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