by Jude Amory
The Easter attack of 2019 will forever be etched in the memories of the people of Sri Lanka, as a day of tragedy and sorrow that shook the nation to its core. The country’s Christian minority was gathering at their places of worship to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The serene sounds of the morning were shattered by a series of deafening explosions. The blood-curdling screams of innocent worshippers echoed through the air, as they became the target of a ruthless and cowardly attack. The devastation that ensued was unimaginable – bodies strewn on the church floors, streets filled with shattered glass and debris, multiple explosions being reported across the country and countless lives ruined forever. The devastation on this celebratory morning was backed by an ideology of hate and destruction yet the repeated question of “Who perpetrated the Easter Attack?” is a node of mere division and misinformation to an obvious truth.
In moments of tragedy, it is natural for people to seek answers and make sense of the inexplicable. However, in doing so, we must be wary of the dangers of succumbing to baseless conspiracy theories and misguided speculation. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were a heinous act of terrorism that claimed the lives of over 270 innocent people. The attackers were driven by a perverted ideology that thrives on hatred, violence, and the glorification of death. It is a destructive ideology that seeks to divide communities, sow seeds of discord and create chaos. To suggest that the attack was a grand political plot or that it was an inside job is to deny the obvious truth that is staring us in the face – this was the work of Islamist terrorists who are willing to use violence and bloodshed to advance their twisted agenda. To engage in such discussions is not only futile but also dangerous, as it risks taking us further away from the truth and closer to the abyss of hatred and violence.
Who is Responsible for the Easter Sunday Attack?
The attacks were carried out by groups affiliated with the Islamic State, and their targets were mainly churches and hotels. In compliance with international Islamist extremist agenda, Zahran Hashim and his National Tawhid Jam’ath (NTJ), followed the tenets of Salafi Wahhabism, an extremist Islamist ideology that is known for its intolerance towards other religions and cultures.
Salafi Wahhabism is a puritanical and extremist interpretation of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century. It promotes a strict adherence to Islamic law and a rejection of any modern or Western influences. Its followers believe in a literal interpretation of the Quran and the Hadiths, often manipulating this fundamentalist interpretation to radicalise, recruit and propagate hate. This ideology has been criticised for its intolerance of other religions and its encouragement of violence against non-believers.
Zahran Hashim was a fervent believer in this ideology and the NTJ shared his extremist views. The group was known for its extremist rhetoric and had been on the radar of Sri Lankan intelligence agencies for some time prior to the attacks. 48 hours after the attacks, then leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka as being under the direction of the larger Islamic State and as part of its regional caliphate agenda. Al-Baghdadi’s message was complimented with a video of Zahran and the other suicide bombers pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and to its leader al-Baghdadi, as released on the Amaq News Agency – the Islamic State’s media centre.
Although Zahran’s grand plan was much more comprehensive than a single consolidated attack, he was unable to execute as he feared that law enforcement could thwart his attempts if waited longer. Having insufficient time to radicalise enough people to the extent of suicide, Zahran himself agreed to die in the bombing, wrongly claiming himself a martyr of Islam. The leader of the attack is Zahran. Unlike when al-Qaeda-leader directed the attack on the United States on 9/11, NTJ-leader Zahran directed the attack and also participated in it in Sri Lanka.
Why was the Attack carried out?
Emanating from the Gulf, the Salafi Wahhabi doctrines hijacked multiple peaceful Islamic religious ideals. Like the concept of ‘Tawhid’, meaning the oneness of Allah, was exploited by Zahran and other extremists to portray themselves as the true carrier of the Islamic faith, the concept of ‘al-Wala’ wal-Bara’’ was also used by the terrorists for destruction.
Al-Wala’ wal-Bara’ is a concept in Islam that refers to the allegiance and disavowal of individuals and groups. It is often translated as “loyalty and disavowal”. The concept is based on the idea that its followers should be loyal to Allah and His Messenger, and should disavow anything or anyone that opposes their teachings. This concept has been widely associated with extremist groups including al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State. These groups have used the concept to justify violence against non-Muslims and to create a strict separation between themselves and those who do not share their beliefs.
In addition to ideological concepts, Zahran and his NTJ used real-world opportunities to recruit and radicalise. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition and the multiple subsequent conflicts in the Middle East were fodder for the extremists to justify attacks against Christians and Westerners. In his farewell message, Zahran indicates that he intends to hurt Christians and Westerners as revenge for the attacks against terrorists (who he claims as true believers) in Baghuz, a town in Eastern Syria which was the final stronghold of the Islamic State Caliphate that fell in early 2019.
Further, Zahran cites the attacks against the Christchurch Muslims by right-wing extremist Brenton Tarrant as an attack against Islam by Christians and justified his choice of churches and hotels to target Christians and Westerners alike.
Why did Conspiracy Theories Emerge?
Despite the clear evidence that the attacks were carried out by an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group following an extremist ideology of hurt and destruction, there are still people who propagate and believe in conspiracy theories that suggest the attacks were an insider job. The conspiracy theories are propagated by three main groups; opposition politicians, Islamic organisations, Catholic Church leadership.
Opposition politicians use the ‘insider job’ argument as a means of political defamation and to score points for political gain. This served as mechanism to trump rival political bases both on religious lines as well as political affiliations.
Islamic organisations were also promotional or at least tolerant to the ‘insider job’ theory as a mechanism to whitewash the heinous attack being associated with the Islamic religion in itself. However, it is important to note that the Zahran and his terrorist outfit are in no way a representation of Islamic values but rather a psychopathic killer cowering behind an Islamist ideological rendition. However, it is also true that Islamic religious bodies like the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) failed to identify radical Salafi Wahhabi preachers in their institutions and this has led to the proliferation of conspiracy theories that seek to shift blame away from the actual perpetrators of the attacks. The ACJU has not done enough to combat the spread of extremist ideology in Sri Lanka, and some of its members had fuelled conspiracy theories perhaps in attempt to clear their name. The ACJU must take responsibility for its failures and work to address the root causes of extremism in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, it must also be mentioned that on Easter Sunday 2023, ACJU finally released a clear message that the Easter Sunday attack was conducted by Islamic extremists and that the community must come together to reduce radicalisation.
The Catholic Church, led by its Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, has also been promoting these conspiracy theories, which have far-reaching consequences for national security. Due to a lack of communication about the attacks after Easter 2019, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the Catholic Church were kept in the dark about the status quo of the procedure and investigation of the attacks. Failure to timely and accurately inform led to the creation of doubt of a political conspiracy behind the attack. Although it is understandable why Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the Catholic Church are skeptical about the status of the investigation, blatant propagation of misinformation and conspiracy is counterproductive to the efforts at gaining justice, reducing community radicalisation and strengthening interfaith harmony.
Effects of Online Falsehoods and Misinformation
Online falsehoods and manipulation have changed the public perception of the Easter Sunday attack. Today, multiple segments of the public no longer identify religious extremism as the key driver of the attack. The conspiracy theory that government intelligence conducted the attack has gathered significant momentum, which is deeply concerning. If religious extremism is not addressed, follow-on attacks are likely. Justice will not be served to the victims, and the security and intelligence community, criminal-justice, and prisons system will be severely undermined.
The misinformation being spread about the Easter Sunday attack also has the potential to sow the seeds of radicalisation among the Muslim community. The spread of such unfounded theories, especially those that blame the government or non-Muslim groups for the attack, can create a sense of victimhood among Muslims and exacerbate existing grievances, thus pushing them further towards radicalisation. This can be a dangerous path to tread, as it can ultimately lead to more extremist views and even violence. It is therefore crucial that conspiracy theories are debunked and a clear communication plan be established by the government to remove the translucent veil that hinders clarity.
How can the Government counter the Conspiracy Theories?
Communication, communication, communication. The government must take a proactive role in countering such narratives by providing factual information and addressing concerns. This can be done through the use of government websites, social media platforms, and public announcements. The government can also work with credible media outlets to provide accurate information and debunk false claims. Consecutive governments have failed to structure a strong communication strategy which have led to multiple misinformation and disinformation tactics used to exploit an uninformed public.
The government can also engage with the Muslim community to build trust and encourage open communication. This can include establishing community outreach programs, engaging with local mosques and Islamic institutions, and promoting interfaith dialogue. In addition, the government must strengthen its laws against hate speech, incitement, and extremist content. The Anti-Terrorism Act must act as a deter to the propagation of hate speech and radicalization within the communities in Sri Lanka. This can include stricter penalties for those who spread false information or incite violence. Additionally, the government can work with social media platforms to remove extremist content and promote more responsible online behavior.
What Must the Public Demand?
Instead of asking “Who perpetrated the Easter Attack?”, to which there is a clear answer already, the public must rather demand why the government failed to prevent the attack due to negligence and demand what is being done to punish the officials who failed to act on the intelligence of the attacks. It is unacceptable that such a horrific attack could take place without any warning or preventive action being taken by the authorities. A transparent ruling and sentencing must be carried out against the officials who failed to act in time, which will support the strengthening of the country’s national security apparatus that can help prevent further violence.
The Way Forward
As Islamist terrorism is a result of ideological extremism after exclusivism, it is paramount that interfaith harmony be promoted through religious dialogue and communication. It is also important to recognise that Islam is a peaceful religion and that Muslims are a peaceful people. The vast majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka are peaceful and reject the extremist ideology of Salafi Wahhabism. Sufi Muslims, in particular, have lived side-by-side with other races and religions in Sri Lanka for centuries, promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. We must not allow the actions of a few extremists to tarnish the reputation of an entire religion and its followers.
In addition to the propagation of conspiracy theories, the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka also brought to light the dangerous and extremist ideology of Salafi Wahhabism. This ideology has been used by terrorist groups like the Islamic State to justify their violent actions and recruit new members. Having witnessed the destruction of hateful fundamentalist ideologies such as Salafi Wahhabism, the Sri Lankan government and intelligence community must act to prevent radicalisation and ensure de-radicalisation is conducted to strengthen the Islamic community against foreign ideologies of hate.
The conspiracy theories which have gained traction through media, religious leaders and political opposition, have led to a dangerous erosion of trust in the government and the intelligence services. The government must immediately take action to secure the information space against misinformation and disinformation about the Easter Attack and immediately take action against those who failed to act in time.
The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka were a tragic event that shook the nation and the world, being the largest Islamic State-backed attack outside of Iraq and Syria. While the government and security forces have taken some steps to prevent future attacks and tighten security, its measures remain inadequate on the community level. Only through understanding and tolerance can Sri Lanka and the world hope to prevent such horrific events from happening in the future. It is imperative that all Sri Lankans work together to promote unity and understanding, and reject any dangerous ideology of hatred and violence.
Jude Amory is a national security analyst.