The coordinated attacks that hit Sri Lanka today (April 21, 2019) were the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. Thus far, over 200 people have been killed when several churches and hotels were targeted in several cities in Sri Lanka, mostly in the capital Colombo. There were initially reported to be six bombs, at around 8:45 am local time, almost simultaneously targeting: St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Shangri La Hotel in Colombo, Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, Zion Church in Batticaloa, and The Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo. Another bombing occurred near the Dehiwala Zoological Garden approximately 10 kilometers south of the capital. An additional suspected device was found near the Katunayake Airport and disposed of using controlled detonation. Some of the attacks are believed to have been carried out by suicide bombers. Although Sri Lanka has had a long history of suicide bombings, the first one carried out in 1987, there have been no suicide bombings in Sri Lanka since May 2009. The death of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – Tamil Tigers) terrorist group leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and the end to the nearly three decade civil war, led to the cessation of the tactic in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is an island country off the south eastern coast of India. According to 2012 estimates, the country is made up of nearly 75% Sinhalese, over 11% Tamil, over 9% Moors, over 4% Indian Tamils, and less than one percent other (The World Factbook, 2012). A majority of the population is Buddhist (70.2%) followed by Hinduism which is practiced by the Tamils. There are also nearly 10% Muslims, and over 7% are Christian (The World Factbook, 2012).
During the nearly thirty year civil war in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist Shrine Dalada Maligawa was the only religious location to be targeted with a suicide bombing by the Tamil Tigers. Although there has not yet been a claim of responsibility, the attack does not appear to be related to the Tamil Tigers. Although the group had used the tactic from 1987 until May 2009, the group predominantly targeted military and government targets (see chart below).
Some sources report that “foreign intelligence” services had warned of attacks from a group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) which would target churches and other targets in Colombo (Martin, 2019). It is claimed that this information was disseminated to top police officials by the Sri Lankan Police Chief. The group, which is a radical Islamist group, which was largely unknown until a series of vandalisms against Buddhist statutes in 2018 (“Sri Lankan Police,” 2019). Although the sources discuss the potential for NTJ’s involvement in these attacks: how does a relatively obscure group, who has only carried out vandalism, carry out such a major simultaneous attack? The answer is, it usually doesn’t, at least not by itself. The use of simultaneous attacks which include suicide bombings were a long time hallmark of Al Qaeda attacks. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was officially announced as a group by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in 2014 (“Al Qaeda in,” nd). Due to Sri Lanka’s relative proximity to India, the potential for groups such as AQIS to influence and help coordinate such attacks is much more likely a scenario. Islamic State has been known to carry out these types of simultaneous attacks as well. The coming days will be very important in developing a more complete picture of the attack.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Counter Extremism Project. https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/al-qaeda-indian-subcontinent-aqis
Martin, H. (2019, April 21). “Sri Lankan police arrest seven terror suspects after ‘being warned of Easter attack by Muslim extremists TEN DAYS before suicide bombers killed 207 people’.” The Daily Mail, UK.
Sri Lankan police chief warned about possible bombings 10 days before Easter attacks (2019, April 21). RT, https://www.rt.com/news/457134-sri-lanka-bombin-alert/
The World Factbook (CIA), Sri Lanka https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
 This data is from the suicide bombing dataset collected by Dr. Markovic. Data includes all suicide bombings carried out worldwide between 1981 and 2018 and reported in open sources.