The Easter Sunday suicide bombings in April (2019) across three cities in Sri Lanka, targeting packed Churches and luxury hotels, is a stark reminder of the ruthlessness of global terrorism today. While the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks, questions are naturally raised regarding the lapse in security on the part of the Sri Lankan authorities and of course the most imminent question as to why Sri Lanka was chosen as a target. The answers to these questions come from a deeper understanding of the ethnic mosaic that Sri Lanka consists of and the fervor of nationalism emanating from only one of these ethnic groups – the Sinhalese. In addition to this, Sri Lanka provided fertile ground for the orchestration of such attacks with its inadequate security measures and an environment that allowed the oppression and further radicalization of a group of individuals. What further added to this was the presence of a global terror organization – the Islamic State (IS) – on a desperate lookout to further its cause and showcase its widespread appeal, after having lost its foothold in Iraq and Syria.


Terrorism in Sri Lanka until now      


Sri Lanka’s history with terrorism has been limited to the civil war that lasted for almost three decades (1980-2009), based on ethnic differences between the Tamil and Sinhala communities in the country. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had organised themselves as an ‘army’ to protect and defend the homeland of the Tamils within Sri Lanka, proposing the creation of a separate Tamil state or eelam. This army’s cadres were known as Tamil Tigers and were structured in the form of several combat operational units in order to target the Sri Lankan authorities.


Sri Lanka is a country that consists of various ethnic and religious population groups, with the largest ethnic group being the Sinhalese who are predominantly Buddhists and constitute approximately 74.9 percent of the population. The Tamils, primarily Hindus, constitute approximately 11.2 percent of the population, whereas the Muslims (also known as Sri Lankan Moors) comprise about 9.7 percent of the total population of Sri Lanka and have been somewhat lesser acknowledged or concentrated upon.


The civil war finally ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan Army, after which the comprehensive process of rehabilitation and reintegration began in the country. The focus of the Sri Lankan Government after the civil war has been on the Tamil population so as to rehabilitate and reintegrate former combatants as well as closely monitor the radicalization  and prevent a civil war-like situation in the country once again.


The Rise of Buddhist nationalism


The Sinhalese victory invited a strong undercurrent of Buddhist nationalism, which has continued to dominate the landscape of the Sri Lankan society. Extremist organisations such as the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) have emerged as a powerful entity in the politics of the country with a Buddhist nationalist ideology and agenda. The group chants the slogan of “Sinhalese for Buddhist power” and perceives an international Islamic conspiracy to marginalize the Buddhists in Sri Lanka. There have been clashes between the Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka since 2014, causing significant damage to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. 


In another interesting event concerning the Sri Lankan Muslims, a  group of 11 Sri Lankan Muslim organisations had even condemned radical Islamic ideology and the IS in the past. However, the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka have exposed a different side of the story. There is no doubt that the attacks were influenced and assisted by external entities. However, it is still unclear, as to what extent the IS was actually involved in the attacks as investigations are still on.


Why Sri Lanka?


Having lost territories under its control, including Raqqa, which served as the organisation’s capital, and over thousands of fighters returning to their countries of origin all over the world, it was only a matter of time that the IS would seek an opportunity to strike back and showcase its reach and popularity. It was important for an organization such as the IS with a global mass appeal evident from the lone-wolf attacks orchestrated in the name of the organization across the world to not only prove its worth to the broader international community, but also instill a sense of enthusiasm among  its sympathisers and returning fighters, sending out the message that the IS  still intends to hold its ground ideologically and shall continue to operate, even in hiding, if it is pushed to do so. According to experts on violent extremism and particularly the IS, Charlie Winter and Aymenn al-Tamimi, as the core of the organization has been struck so hard, the periphery will become more active and dangerous. While definite links between the IS and National Thowheed Jamath, a local Islamist militant group in Sri Lanka have not been established, the prospects of IS-inspired self-taught radicalization poses a new kind of threat in the form of homegrown terrorism.


The question however remains – why Sri Lanka? There are a couple of reasons that can perhaps provide the answer to this question.


First, Sri Lanka is a country with a minority Muslim population who have often been forgotten or lost in the Tamil-Sinhalese equation and have further been alienated following clashes with the majority Buddhists in the last few years. The IS seeks to establish an Islamic Caliphate with its own version of Islamic law consisting of various wilayats or provinces spread across regions of the world. One of these provinces is Wilayat Khorasan, which includes almost all of South Asia, right up to Sri Lanka (see map below). The attacks orchestrated or inspired by the IS have thus far mostly been in countries across Europe or the US, but this does not in any way indicate that the organization did not include other regions such as South Asia in its agenda. It has just never acted upon the other regions in the past. Having said that, there have been terror attacks in Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the past, where IS has claimed responsibility but a direct link between the attacks and IS were not established.













Source URL-


Second, Sri Lanka’s political instability and rifts within the Government, especially between the Prime Minister and President presents a unique opportunity for those that seek to circumvent the security set-up in order to carry out coordinated attacks of such nature. Critical information on matters of security were known to be kept from those responsible in the Government, facilitating instability and confusion within the government and the security architecture.


Third, Sri Lanka is, relatively speaking, an easily accessible country in the region with lenient immigration laws. There is considerable evidence to show that the perpetrators of the attacks had traveled abroad and been radicalized and trained outside the country. One of the perpetrators was known to have developed strong extremist views after having spent time in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the returning migrants to Sri Lanka are also known to have been a significant factor, especially those traveling to West Asia being far more susceptible to developing violent extremist tendencies during their time abroad, bringing back those ideologies to the country.


Why target churches and hotels?


The other question that arises then is – why were the targets of the attack mainly churches and luxury hotels if the Sri Lankan Muslims had resentment against the majority Buddhist community? This could be attributed to the fact that in order to collaborate with the IS and its ideology, the targets needed to be in line with the IS’ priorities and objectives. As mentioned in the statement after the attacks, IS intended to target the citizens of countries belonging to the US-led coalition, fighting against the IS and also referred to Easter as an “infidel holiday”.




South Asia has been a  victim of Islamist terrorism, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan being the hotbed of terrorism. However, more recently Bangladesh and now Sri Lanka have shown visible trends of radicalization and violent Islamist extremism as well. It is safe to assume that when it comes to terrorism, there can be no excuse for complacency on the part of any country in the world. This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons that one can take away from what happened in Sri Lanka. With terror outfits such as the IS desperately on the lookout for opportunities to brand their ideology and showcase its active decentralization, no country is safe today. There is thus definitely more to come, and the threat of the IS will not stop right here.


Preventing a threat such as terrorism which is transnational in nature is only possible with a transnational approach. South Asia as a region is collectively at risk of this threat, more than ever before. It is thus imperative for India to take the lead on initiatives for enhanced intelligence sharing and coordination as well as cooperation within the region. The vast experience that India has acquired over the years dealing with different forms of terrorism and insurgency can benefit nations in the region. While India’s intelligence input on the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were accurate, they were not taken seriously enough for effective action on ground, bringing to the fore a certain degree of disconnect among nations in South Asia, especially when it comes to appreciation of critical intelligence. There is no better time than now to act on this.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.