Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre

Sun, 07/07/2024 - 3:07pm

SWJ Book Review – Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre

John P. Sullivan

Rohan Cover

Rohan Gunaratna, Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International Community, Singapore: Penguin Books, 2023 [ISBN: 978-9814954631, Paperback, 314 pages]

On Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019, the Islamic State (IS) ravaged Sri Lanka with multiple, coordinated attacks targeting churches and three international hotels killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds. The death toll included at least 45 foreign nationals, three police officers, and eight suicide bombers. The anatomy of this deadly sequence is the focus of Professor Rohan Gunaratna’s text Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre.

Dr. Gunaratna is a noted terrorism scholar and Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University Singapore and founder of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. He received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews  in Scotland and was a Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Gunaratna’s previous publications include Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Columbia University Press, 2002). He testified to the 9/11 Commission and is an expert in radical Salafi Jihadism.

Anatomy of the Massacre

Gunaratna provides a comprehensive and meticulous review of the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday Attacks. His assessment is comprehensive, provides insight into the architects and operatives that planned and conducted the attacks, and describes the social divides fomented by radical Salafi-Wahhabist jihadis that enabled action by the attack cells. Gunaratna starts his chronicle with a comprehensive, annotated timeline of the events surrounding the attacks. This chronology starts pre-2015 elaborating the foundation of the radical movement, moves to 2015 through 2019 key events leading up to the attacks articulated for each year. The timeline continues from the attack through January 2023 recounting its fall out. The detailed chronology makes the following introduction and chapters accessible to non-specialists. The saga continues with an introduction to IS and its ideological framework, including its emphasis (or modus operandi) of attacking houses of worship. The seeds of IS action in Sri Lanka—including enmity with native Sri Lankan Sufi Islam—and the goal of conducting widespread, island-wide attacks provides context the ultimate attack sequence; the Easter Sunday attacks on churches in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa.

While terrorism (and insurgency) was not new to Sri Lanka, after all Sri Lanka had survived a 30-year campaign waged by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Tamil Tigers) innovators of suicide terrorism with a history of assassination and attacks on police, this globally connected religious terrorism with sectarian mass violence was new to Sri Lanka. The goal of Gunaratna’s work was to “trace the genesis, threat trajectory, blowback, government response, and lessons learnt” (p. ixxv) from the Easter Sunday attacks. He succeeded masterfully as demonstrated in the book’s four substantiative chapters:

  • “Chapter 1: The Anatomy of the Easter Attack” describes in detail why the Easter Sunday sequence was a watershed event in the island nation’s history. The attacks were fueled by revenge and fury over perceived slights against the attackers’ vision of Islam. In addition, this chapter details the attack sequence and targets: St. Anthony’s Church, Colombo, 8:45 a.m.; St. Sebastian’s Church, Negombo, 8:45 a.m.; Zion Church, Batticaloa, 9:05 a.m.; Kingsbury. Hotel, Colombo, 8:47 a.m.; Shangri-La Hotel Colombo, 8:54 a.m.; Cinnamon Grand Hotel, 9:12 a.m. Initially the attack sought a broader target set with 20 island-wide targets but was scaled down. The final attack included four hotels, but one failed when the device did not detonate. Nine suicide bombers, including one woman were involved. The scale, timing, attack plan, attack preparation (casing targets), target selection (churches and hotels), supply chain (explosive construction), coordination, and operational security are discussed in Chapter 1.
  • “Chapter 2: Life and Death of Zahran Hashin” articulates the foundations of the IS in Sri Lanka starting with the legacy of Zahran Hashim, an Islamic State planner and ideologue. The chapter follows Hashin’s path as he was ”politicized, radicalized, and mobilized in three phases of exclusivism, extremism, and terrorism” (p. 60). The chapter describes the rise of a jihadi hub and a Tamil Nadu strain of Wahhabism (pp. 70–79) and ultimately the National Thowheeth Jama’ath or NTJ suspected of participating in the Easter Sunday attacks and the IS.
  • “Chapter 3: The Colombo Team and the IS Sri Lanka Branch” describes the consolidation of disparate Muslim extremists in eastern and western Sri Lanka into a cohesive entity merging Salafi-Wahhabi and Jamaat-e-Islami threads from the Middle East and Indian subcontinent into a converging threat. The ideological foundations (from JMI, Jamiyathul Millathu Ibrahimi Fi Seylani to IS) and processes of radicalization and convergence into a ramified network are outlined along with key players in the movement are examined in order to define the evolution of an operational capacity in Sri Lanka centered on the Colombo cell.
  • “Chapter 4: Easter Sunday’s Lesson and Reflections” provides a recap of the attack, its genesis, and aftermath. This includes comprehensive context of the political climate both before and after the tragedy. Embedded in the political climate are the challenges of religious exclusivism and extremism. This concluding chapter also discusses the post-attack investigations, as well as lessons for both Sri Lanka and the world at large.

Conclusion: Lessons from the Sri Lankan Tragedy

The Sri Lankan Easter Sunday Massacre—and the intelligence failures that it describes that potentially enabled the Easter Sunday attacks—provides valuable insights as the global IS movement continues to revitalize itself and metastasize. Gunaratna does a good job of recounting the political fallout and recapping the various fact-finding inquiries that evaluated the incident and government response (or failures to effectively prevent and recognize emerging threats) (p. 210). These include the non-public Report of the Special Board of Inquiry [SBI]; Special Oversight Committee [SOC]; Report of the Select Committee of Parliament [PSC]; and Presidential Committee of Inquiry [PCoI]. The final three are publicly available. All would be valuable resources for developing the much-needed transparency into the events leading up to and governmental gaps in preparedness that amplified or enabled the attacks. Their mention in this text is important. A detailed follow-on assessment of all four reports—provided a public version of the SBI could be released—would be a good starting point for understanding the future ramifications of the jihadist threat in Sri Lanka specifically and South Asia (and the Indo-Pacific Region) more generally. 

The need for well-developed intelligence capabilities and organs to counter terrorist threats, national security leadership, and legal (and policy) frameworks to prevent and mitigate future attacks were identified by Gunaratna. These are sound and valid recommendations.  In sum, Gunaratna provides a comprehensive and salient expose of the development of an IS branch with ability to conduct significant terrorist operations with a dire human toll. He also implicitly exposes gaps in Sri Lanka’s police, intelligence, and national security capacity in the aftermath of the Tamil (LTTE) Insurgency. Those interested in countering IS (and its progenitor al-Qaeda), as well as future variations of those strains of political violence would be well served by reading Professor Gunaratna’s excellent text. Scholars and practitioners of terrorism, counterterrorism, intelligence, and policing would benefit from this text as it provides useful insight into the emergence and evolution of new threat groups and their path to violent action.

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at