Colombo is calm, although tension is felt in the city. On the streets are visible armed patrols that disappeared ten years ago after the end of a long civil war with the Tamils in the north of the island. Everyone is in a hurry about their business, only at night, when the curfew is in effect, everything is empty. And there are people standing next to blown up Christian churches – both mourners and simply curious.
On April 21, the most bloody act of terrorism in its already terrorist-rich history took place in the country. First, around 8:30 am, six explosions thundered: in the church of St. Anthony in Colombo, in the church of St. Sebastian in Negombo, 30 kilometers north of Colombo, the third – in the church in the town of Battikaloa in the east of the island. At about the same time, homemade bombs exploded at the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels. The seventh and eighth occurred later in Colombo at the city zoo and in one of the districts. In the churches at this time were Easter services. The total death toll was at least 359 people, 520 injured. Attacks made a group of eight suicide bombers.
Today, the main questions in all media: was this the answer to the terrorist attack against mosques in New Zealand Christchurch? And if so, why did they answer in far away Ceylon?
The authorities of the island believe that local militants from the groups of “Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Watania” and “Jamiat al-Millat Ibrahim” are behind the bombings, but they can have connections with their colleagues abroad. Very little is known about these groups themselves. At the same time in Colombo believe that the attacks prepared in advance, even before the attacks in New Zealand.
“Planning [of the explosions in Sri Lanka] happened before Christchurch,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe said in a television interview. For the authorities, meanwhile, it is no less the main question of how seriously the tourism industry, most important for Ceylon, will suffer. Tourists are leaving, and many governments have called on their citizens not to visit Sri Lanka. “We will return to the scene. We are not the first. Egypt went through this, Bali went through it. This is bad for the economy, but tourism will recover, ”Vikramasinghe is sure.
He also admitted that the Sri Lankan special services did not pay attention to warnings from abroad. It turned out that the Indian intelligence services at least three times informed the Sri Lankan colleagues that the Islamists were preparing terrorist attacks. According to sources in the special services, the first time the warning was transmitted on April 4, the second – a day before the attack, and the third – a few hours. Allegedly, the Indians indicated that they would attack the churches and even where.
Why these signals were not taken seriously, it is difficult to say. Now the Lankan authorities are conducting a detailed analysis of who is to blame and why. President Maitripala Sirisen, however, promised a personnel sacrifice: he declared that he would replace the leadership of law enforcement agencies, the police, the armed forces and the special services.
You can change the leadership of the special services, but in fact this “Indian warning” was already belated: the problem appeared much earlier, and they did not pay attention to it either. And more than one year.
For thirty years, militants of the Tamil Elam Liberation Tigers (LTTE) were considered the main terrorists in this island nation. From the mid-1970s, they advocated the creation of an independent Tamil state in Ceylon. In the mid-1980s, a real civil war began on the island. The LTTE was able to take control of a large piece of territory in the north and east of Ceylon and for many years organized there an unrecognized state with its police, courts, schools, banks and armed forces.
Interestingly, all this time, Sri Lanka remained a popular tourist destination – the beaches of the south and south-west of the island came from all over the world, many vacationers did not even suspect that there was a civil war in the country. Militants who have committed quite a few terrorist attacks, including those in major cities, did not specifically attack foreigners and tried to harm the tourist business (many hotels and travel companies were created with the participation of Tamil capital). “Such a strange war,” noted the Asian press.
The conflict ended when in 2008 the army launched a decisive attack on the positions of the LTTE, in May 2009, the last stronghold of the separatists Mullaitivu fell, and the leader and main ideologue of the militants Prabhakaran was soon killed. Colombo announced the end of the civil war.
All this time, the conflict was presented as a clash of Tamil separatists opposing the Sinhalese majority of the island’s population. The problem, as is often the case in the East, had a religious coloring: the majority of the island’s population, the Sinhalese, are Buddhists; Tamils - Indians. But all this time the Muslim community lived nearby, and not at all small – about 9% of almost 22 million people.
Today, few people in Sri Lanka remember that at the beginning of the confrontation between the authorities and the LTTE fighters, Muslims also came out on the side of the latter. But it was not for long, and then everything changed. How has the island’s Muslim community changed?
Ceylon and Islam
Islam appeared in Ceylon in the 7th century, along with Arab merchants, who were then actually monopolists in the Indian Ocean. Representatives of other religions, including Hindu-Tamils, also converted to Islam. Appeared in the XVI century, the Portuguese began to oppress the “Ceylon Moors”, and they massively moved to the east and into the island. True, with the British, who replaced the Portuguese, the “Moors” were actively engaged in a familiar affair – trade.
Many of the “Moors”, or, as they are called here, Larakalla, speak Tamil, so in the 1970s they began to support Tamil militants. However, it quickly became clear that the LTTE was not at all inclined to religious tolerance. Many Muslims were expelled from the territories controlled by the militants, some of the expelled families returned to their homes only after the end of the civil war. In addition, the militants taxed Muslims “on our common cause,” the LTTE openly engaged in racketeering in the territories under their control.
At the same time, as it is believed, groups began to appear in the Islamic environment, whose members believed that the interests of Muslims should be protected by force.
“It is considered”, because the authorities at this time did not engage in radical Muslim movements on the island. The country that once lived in conditions of strict security measures relaxed – at the end of the war patrols disappeared on the roads, on the streets of cities, and strict control at airports.
“In Colombo they thought that they had only one enemy and they defeated him. But it turned out that this is not the case, ”the local expert explained to me. “It was a victorious state of relaxation.”
Fist and sword
Muslims, meanwhile, felt excluded from the peace process on the island. They believed that the central authorities simply did not pay attention to them and their problems. Meanwhile, radical Buddhists added these very problems. Such groups as the Boda Bal Sena that appeared in 2012 (“The Power of Buddhist Power” or simply “Buddhist Power”), on the wave of victory in the war with the LTTE, began to firmly assert this very “Buddhist Power”.
Its ideology is simple and familiar from the nationalist myths of the whole world: Sri Lanka is Dhammadvip (Island of Buddhist teachings), the Buddha bequeathed to us to preserve and maintain Buddhism. And Muslims deliberately give birth to many children, convert everyone to Islam and impose an alien culture … and, of course, they hate Buddhism!
A few years ago, a student in Sri Lanka told me: “Muslims are with us – this is how your Jews are! They did business under the colonialists and are now getting richer in our land! ”And I was extremely surprised that I did not share his outrage.
The Muslim youth at the same time was ready to fight back. And she did not remain in debt at all – there are cases of desecration of Buddhist monuments as “false idols”. In a word, one should not be surprised that soon clashes between Muslims and Sinhals and Tamils began on the island , at first, however, having a household character. But in 2014, Muslim pogroms began in the south-west of the island, they repeated in 2018 in the center and east of the country.
The authorities tried to ignore the problems. And representatives of the Muslim community strongly denied that there are radical groups in their midst.
Gradually, everything changed. The slogan “On their fist we have an Islamic sword!” Became more and more popular among young Muslims. At this time, the split in the Islamic environment begins, and it is clear why. The ideas of “true Islam” and “Islamic state” (a group banned in the Russian Federation) are spreading. The branches of the Pakistani Jamaat-e Islami and the Indian Jamaat Tabligh (banned in the Russian Federation) began to appear on the island. And soon their groups, such as the infamous “Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Watania”.
A point on the map
“Sri Lanka used to be a point on the world map. Now this is a point on the map of the Islamists, ”said the famous Indian expert Nandan Unnikrishnan.
In the 2010s, information began to come from the IG fronts that militants from resort Sri Lanka were fighting there. And Ceylon itself began to be used as a transit point for transporting “young fighters” from other countries to the Middle East, for example, from the Maldives (in this resort place Islam is also radicalized).
And in 2015, the news in Sri Lanka was news that the first Lankian fighter was killed in Syria. According to the publication affiliated with the Islamists, Dabiq, a certain Mohammed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam, also known as al-Silani (Ceylon), “died a hero’s death”during the bombing of Allied aviation in Syria.
In Sri Lankan social networks, groups have emerged long ago that call on Muslims from the Island of the Buddha to join the “Warriors of Syria.” For example, the local media mentions the group “Muslims of Ceylon in Syria” and quotes their appeals: “Oh, people of Sri Lanka, we, Muslims of Syria, originating from Ceylon, urge you to leave the corrupt countries that enslave people to seek freedom and justice Islam.
International Islamist groups are expanding their geographic reach. Today it is very important for them to show that jihad is not lost in Syria and the struggle continues on new “points on the map”. No one could have imagined that this would happen on the territory of Sri Lanka.
Ceylon authorities fear that terrorist attacks will begin again on the island. And it can be noted that this time it will not be “strange terrorist attacks” during the war with Tamil separatists, from which the tourist infrastructure did not suffer: foreigners, especially from Western countries, are an attractive target for these new fighters. It is difficult to say whether the Islamists will be able to bring Sri Lanka back to the days of civil conflict. But it is obvious that this country has already been taken out of the state of “victorious relaxation”.