“A very bad man” has been killed and “the world is now a much safer place”. The sentiment behind US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is difficult to argue with. Baghdadi was certainly a very bad man. And under his decade-long leadership of the Islamic State (IS) movement, many thousands of people in the Middle East and around the world suffered terrible brutality or death.
Common sense would suggest the world is indeed now a much safer place with Baghdadi’s passing. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee this will prove to be true in practice.
The 18 year-long so-called Global War on Terror in the wake of the September 11 attacks – the international military campaign to fight al-Qaeda, and then IS – has been almost entirely reactive and tactical.
It has lacked any consistent strategic purpose, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines or anywhere else.
The strongest military coalitions the world has ever seen have fought the largest and most powerful terror networks that have ever existed. And this has led, directly and indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and remarkably little progress overall.
The special forces raids targeting Baghdadi, in Idlib, and his deputy, IS spokesperson Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, in Aleppo, were undoubtedly significant achievements representing tactical victories of great consequence.
IS has been dealt an enormous blow. But just how long its impact will last is not clear. The lessons of the past two decades make it clear this will certainly not have been a fatal blow.
The IS insurgency, both on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and around the world, was rebuilding strength before these strikes and will not be stopped in its tracks by losing its two most senior public leaders.
Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led. He oversaw the rebuilding of IS from its previous low point a decade ago. He played a key role in expanding into Syria, replenishing the leadership ranks, leading a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and declaring a caliphate. In the eyes of his support base, his credibility as an Islamic scholar and religious leader will not easily be matched.
He was not a particularly charismatic leader and was certainly, as a brutal, fundamentalist loner, not truly inspirational. But he played his role effectively, backed up by the largely unseen ranks of former Iraqi intelligence officers and military commanders who form the core of the IS leadership.
He was, in his time, the caliph the caliphate needed. In that sense, we will not see his like again.
Incredibly, 15 years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, and almost ten years after Baghdadi took charge of the Islamic State in Iraq, there is so much about the leadership of IS we don’t understand.
What is clear is the insurgent movement benefited enormously from so-called “de-Baathification” – the ridding of Arab nationalist ideology – in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. The sacking of thousands of mostly Sunni senior military leaders and technocrats proved to be a windfall for the emerging insurgency.
IS has always been a hybrid movement. Publicly, it presents as a fundamentalist religious movement driven by religious conviction. Behind the scenes, however, experienced Baathist intelligence officers manipulated religious imagery to construct a police state, using religious terror to inspire, intimidate and control.
This is not to say Zarqawi and Baghdadi were unimportant as leaders. On the contrary, they were effective in mobilising religious sentiment first in the Middle East and then across the world. In the process, more than 40,000 people travelled to join the ranks of IS, inspired by the utopian ideal of religious revolution. Baghdadi was especially effective in playing his role as religious leader and caliph.
An optimistic take on Baghdadi’s denouement is that IS will be set back for many months, and perhaps even years. It will struggle to regain the momentum it had under his leadership.
Realistically, the extent to which this opportunity can be capitalised upon turns very much upon the extent to which the emerging leaders within the movement can be tracked down and dealt with before they have a chance to establish themselves.
It would appear IS had identified the uncontested spaces of north-western Syria in Idlib and Aleppo, outside of the control of the Assad regime in Damascus, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria, and beyond the reach of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as territory in which its leadership could relocate and rebuild.
Continuing the optimistic take, there is the slim hope that the success of Sunday’s raids in which the partnership between US special forces and the SDF was so critical will lead to Trump being persuaded to reverse his decision to part ways with the SDF and pull out their special forces partners on the ground, together with accompanying air support.
The fact Baghdadi and Muhajir were both found within five kilometres of the Turkish border suggests Turkish control of northern Syria is, to say the least, wholly unequal to the task of dealing with emerging IS leaders.
A reset to the pattern of partnership established over the past five years with the largely Kurdish SDF forces in north-eastern Syria could prove critically important in cutting down new IS leaders as they emerge. It’s believed the locations in northern Syria of the handful of leaders most likely to step into the void left by Baghdadi’s passing are well-known.
But even in the best-case scenario, all that can be realistically hoped for is slowing the rebuilding of the IS insurgency, buying time to rebuild political and social stability in northern Syria and northern Iraq.
“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
US President Donald Trump’s precipitate announcement he was withdrawing American forces from northeast Syria to enable Turkey to assert its authority along the border risks wider regional bloodshed – and further destabilisation of one of the world’s most volatile corners.
If implemented against a furious pushback from his own side of politics, the Trump decision threatens a region-wide conflagration. These are the stakes.
Trump has given contradictory signals before on the same issue. It remains to be seen whether he gives ground again after what appears to have been a hasty, certainly ill-considered, decision following a phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Now under enormous stress from his own side, Trump is resorting to bombast. He tweeted:
Leading the charge against the Trump decision is his close ally, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He has threatened to introduce a Senate resolution opposing the administration’s decision, describing the move as a “stain on America’s honour”.
Like plucking a thread from a finely woven Turkish rug, the administration’s announcement effectively to abandon a Kurdish militia could lead to a complete unravelling of that part of the Middle East in which various forces have collided since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.
America’s Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia arm (known as the YPG), would be at the mercy of a Turkish thrust across the Syrian border into territory the Kurds now control.
Turkey has made no secret of its intention to create what it is calling “safe zones” up to 30 kilometres inside the border in northeast Syria. This would enable it to relocate tens of thousands of Syrian refugees among the 3.6 million on Turkish soil.
In the face of such a Turkish move, the YPG would be hard put to hold sway against both Turkey’s military and Islamic State fighters seeking to take advantage of militia weakness in the absence of US support on the ground and in the air.
The ABC reports that something like 70,000 members of Islamic State or their supporters are being held in camps in SDF-controlled territory. Around 60 people of Australian origin, including children, are in this situation.
Thousands of IS militants are being held in prison camps in SDF-controlled territory. These fighters have already sought to stage mass breakouts from prison facilities.
Turkey views the YPG militia as cross-border allies of Kurdish separatists – and it regards the Kurdish separatists as terrorists.
The situation along the Turkish-Syria border is, by any standards, an explosive mix.
At the same time, Syrian forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, would inevitably be poised to take advantage of chaos and regain territory lost in the civil war. This is a highly destabilising scenario.
In other words, Trump’s announcement could hardly portend a more worrisome outcome in a part of the world riven by years of conflict.
The US announcement also sends a disturbing signal to the wider Middle East that the Trump administration is intent on pulling back from its commitments in an unstable region.
Confidence in American steadfastness is already precarious due to Trump’s repeated statement that America wants to remove itself from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
In a Twitter message early this week that amplified a White House announcement, Trump said it was time for the US to withdraw from “these ridiculous Endless Wars”.
Trump also attacked European allies over their failure to take back their nationals among IS fighters held in SDF-run detention centres in northeast Syria. Some 10,000 prisoners are being detained.
This is a situation ripe for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The latter is seeking to reassert itself in a region it regards as its own sphere of influence. Moscow’s support for Damascus is part of this regional power play.
These are telling moments. Signs of an apparent American lack of commitment might well encourage Iran and Russia, as well as Islamic militants such as IS and al-Qaeda. These groups have been biding their time.
None of America’s regional friends, including Gulf states and Israel, will draw any comfort at all from the Trump decision – if implemented – to head for the exit.
By any standards, this is a mess of Trump’s own making.
A key element in the success of countering terrorism in Australia has been a series of new and amended pieces of legislation – at least 75 – developed to respond to an evolving threat.
This includes legislation produced in October 2014 (Section 119.2 and 119.3 of the Criminal Code) that declared areas of Iraq and Syria, including the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate, illegal for Australian citizens to enter. Anyone who has lived in this territory and seeks to return to Australia will have to prove they were not assisting IS or face prosecution and a possible punishment of up to 25 years in prison.
Innovative pieces of legislation like the proposed Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEO) bill introduced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are difficult to argue with. Existing national security laws already place Australia in a much stronger position than any other Western nation when it comes to managing the prosecution and detention of returning IS fighters.
Nevertheless, there is a limit to what legislation itself can do. Moreover, for every possible advantage, there are also possible disadvantages that need to be weighed up.
There is not a whole lot more the new TEO bill can be reasonably expected to achieve. And as the weight of legislation increases, there are reasonable questions to be asked about checks and balances and proportionate implementation.
In other words, the devil is very much in the detail.
Three questions need to be asked:
First, what is the actual need for this bill? And what is the likelihood the proposed legislation can meet this need?
Second, what are the potential downsides that might come with enacting this legislation?
Third, in the light of the first two questions, what then should be done?
There is no question, that with at least 80 individuals who have fought with IS now in a position to possibly return, any legislative tool that can help manage this risk is worth considering.
Specifically, there is clearly a benefit to being able to delay somebody’s return by at least two years, and through a process of extensions perhaps many more years. There is also an advantage, when they do return, of being able to legally impose conditions on who they meet with and where they go.
The government has pointed out that around 40 Australians have already returned from Syria and Iraq under suspicion of being involved with terrorist groups. To have been able to delay and then manage the return of these 40 fighters clearly would have been very useful.
But what has not been explained by the government is that these 40 individuals came back to Australia more than six years ago, and only a couple have so far been successfully prosecuted.
If the need was so urgent, why wasn’t a temporary exclusion order introduced in late 2014 when we first began to process a raft of counter-terrorism bills and amendments? Or in 2015 when the UK introduced similar legislation?
There is, in fact, no immediate crisis, and undue haste in passing further security legislation should be avoided because it is very dangerous to national security.
If TEOs are applied excessively, and without sufficient discrimination, a number of risks arise. Individuals currently detained in overcrowded detention centres in Syria or Iraq might be released if their repatriation to Australia is delayed by years.
Or, they could be broken out of detention by IS insurgents, who remain deadly and numerous. This happened on dozens of occasions when IS needed to replenish its ranks.
Allowing our citizens to be somebody else’s problem, out of sight and out of mind, does not actually make the security risk to Australians go away. Leaving them offshore leaves open the very real possibility that they will eventually slip away into the terrorist underground or rejoin the IS insurgency.
Should they do so, they immediately become a risk through their ability to influence others online and via social media.
It is likely that TEOs will be also applied to women and children we really should be repatriating. This would pass the buck to others to look after and secure these women and children, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are already overstretched and unable to deal with the burden of indefinitely detaining those who have fled the decaying IS caliphate.
There is also a real risk this legislation, much like other bills that allow Dutton to strip somebody of their citizenship on the grounds they potentially have access to alternative citizenship, could undermine confidence and trust within key communities in Australia.
As then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said after the murder of Sydney police accountant Curtis Cheng by a 15-year-old recruited by IS supporters in 2015, our first line of defence in fighting groups like Islamic State is the Muslim community.
Intelligence is key to countering terrorism and working with communities and families to encourage people to speak up when they see something of concern. To the extent that trust and confidence are eroded, national security will be directly diminished.
So what should be done?
Speaking last week at his farewell dinner, outgoing Labor Senator Doug Cameron spelled out the larger issues that need to be addressed.
Our existing oversight is inferior and, in my view, almost non-existent. This is unacceptable and we should ensure our inferior parliamentary oversight of security agencies is changed and oversight is enhanced.
Cameron is not the only one to express concerns. This bill was first introduced into the 45th Parliament. The Liberal-dominated Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) produced an extensive review and a detailed report on the bill.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally, a member of the PJCIS, has since complained that the government had
rejected four of the PJCIS recommendations in whole, rejected six in part and ignored one.
This, despite the fact that these recommendations came as a result of the considered reasoning of senior figures from both the Liberals and Labor.
One of the key amendments recommenced by the PJCIS is that the minister of home affairs should only be empowered to order a temporary exclusion order if he or she
reasonably suspects the person is, or has been, involved in terrorism-related activities outside Australia
And that a TEO should only be made
if it would substantially assist in preventing the provision of support for, or the facilitation of, a terrorist act.
The principle of being able to impose TEOs certainly bears consideration. While this is no “silver bullet”, there is a case for passing the bill after including the amendments thoughtfully proposed by the PJCIS.
Without a better system of oversight, we risk undermining community trust and confidence by setting in place policy that leads to dire consequences and diminishes our national security.
Now is not the time to make haste at the expense of national security, as well as the very values that define us as Australians.
In the wake of any tragedy, it should be enough to grieve and stand in solidarity with those who mourn. With a massive toll – about 250 dead, according to revised government figures – it feels disrespectful to the people of Sri Lanka to be dissecting what went wrong even as the dead are being buried.
But the reality is that most, if not all, of these lives need not have been taken. We owe it to them and their loved ones to make sense of what happened and work towards doing all that can be done to ensure it does not happen again.
The Easter attacks represent one of the most lethal and serious terrorist operations since the September 11 attacks in the US, outside of attacks within active conflict zones. And this in a now peaceful country, which for all its history of civil war and ethno-nationalist terrorism in decades past has never had a problem with jihadi radical Islamist terrorism.
The long-anticipated claim of responsibility for the attacks was made by the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday night. This could help explain how one local cell based around a single extended family circle of hateful extremists not previously known for terrorism could execute such a massive attack. It was larger even than IS’s previous truck-bomb attacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The attacks follow a familiar, if now rarely seen, IS operandi of coordinated suicide bombings. The targeting of Catholic churches, which made little sense initially in the context of the domestic social issues at the heart of the country’s recent civil war, fit an all-too-familiar pattern of IS attacks on Christians, along with fellow Muslims.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?
The fact that 40 or more Sri Lankans travelled to Syria to fight with IS could help explain how the terror network was able to build vital personal links in the very small community of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists so it could subcontract its attack plans to them. At this point, the precise involvement of returnees from Syria and foreign IS supporters in the bombings remains under investigation.
The Easter weekend attacks more resemble the al-Qaeda attacks of the 2000s than they do recent attacks of IS. Like the 2000 attack of the USS Cole in Yemen, the September attacks in New York and Washington, the 2002 bombings in Bali, the 2003 truck bombs in Istanbul, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London, the Sri Lanka bombings involved multiple attackers acting in concert. With the exception of September 11, all of these also involved improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The Sri Lanka bombings exceeded all but the September 11 attacks in sophistication and deadliness, despite the fact the perpetrators were previously known only for acts of hateful vandalism.
Over the past decade, al-Qaeda has been unable to carry out significant attacks outside of conflict zones. It has also become increasingly focused on “reputation management” and has tended to avoid indiscriminate mass killings, all the whilst growing its global network of affiliates.
The emergence of IS saw the tempo and scale of terrorist attacks transformed. Most attacks took place in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern Philippines).
A number of significant attacks were conducted well beyond the battlefield. There were at least four such attacks in 2014, 16 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 18 in 2017, and 10 in 2018. The vast majority of these attacks were conducted by lone actors.
Why was it that, outside of conflict zones, not just al-Qaeda but even IS at the height of its powers focused largely on lone-actor attacks?
It is probably not for want of trying. The reason is that most larger, more ambitious plots were tripped-up by intelligence intercepts. This is especially the case in stable democracies, including our neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia.
The other big question is how one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever was able to be executed in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka was a soft target. Having successfully defeated the Tamil Tiger rebel group a decade ago through military might, Sri Lanka has become complacent. It has not seen a pressing need to develop police and non-military intelligence capacity to counter terrorism.
At the same time, it has struggled with good governance and political stability. Just six months ago, it faced a major constitutional crisis when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his deputy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and attempted to replace him with the former prime minister and president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The attempt failed, but in the stand-off that ensued, Wickremesinghe, and ministers loyal to him, were excluded from intelligence briefings. In particular, they say that they were left unaware of the multiple warnings issued by the Indian intelligence service, RAW, to the authorities in Colombo about the extremist figures who played a key role in the Easter attacks.
Thus, despite several discoveries earlier this year of large amounts of explosives stored in remote rural locations on the island, and multiple warnings from the Indians, including final alerts just hours before Sunday’s attacks, the government and security community were left distracted and caught off-guard.
Between “fighting the last war” and fighting each other, they deluded themselves that there was no imminent terrorist threat.
If the massive attacks in Sri Lanka over Easter serve to remind us that IS is very far from being a spent force, the question is where this energetic and well-resourced network will strike next.
For all that it achieved in Sri Lanka, IS is unlikely to be able to build an enduring presence there. So long as the Sri Lankan government and people emerge from this trauma with renewed commitment to unity – and with elections at the end of the year, this is far from certain – the “perfect storm” conditions exploited by IS are unlikely to be repeated.
So where else is IS likely to find opportunity? India and Bangladesh continue to present opportunities, as does much of Central Asia. In our region, it is Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines that we should be most worried about.
Malaysia has emerged stronger and more stable from its swing-back to democracy but continues to be worryingly in denial about the extent to which it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, downplaying the very good work done over many years by the Special Branch of the Royal National Malaysian Police.
Thailand and the Philippines remain less politically stable, and rather more brittle than they care too acknowledge. And both tend to delude themselves into thinking that the problems of their southern extremes will never manifest in a terror attack in Bangkok or Manila, respectively.
The people of Sri Lanka have paid far too high price for the lessons of the Easter weekend attacks to be ignored or forgotten.
Sri Lanka has long been subject to extremist violence. Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, which killed almost 300 and injured hundreds more, are the latest in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies.
While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, 24 people have been arrested. Three police were killed in their capture.
The Sri Lankan government has blamed the attacks on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known for vandalising Buddhist statues.
These attacks are different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka. By fomenting generalised religious hatred, they appear to have more in common with Al-Qaeda, which has sought specific political change.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?
For many, the bomb blasts immediately recalled Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war. The war was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lanka government from 1983 until 2009.
In its final weeks, around 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed, bringing the war’s total toll to more than 100,000 from a population of around 20 million.
The Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009. Many Tigers, including their leader, were summarily executed. There remains much bitterness among Tamils towards the ethnic majority Sinhalese, but there is no appetite for renewing a war that ended so disastrously.
Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high prior to independence in 1948, and stoked by the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike proclaimed himself “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”, and oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. The act privileged the country’s majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils. The fallout from this legislation forced Bandaranaike to backtrack, but he was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for doing so.
Inter-ethnic tensions continued with outbursts of mob violence. In 1962, there was an attempted military coup, and in 1964, around 600,000 third and fourth generation “Indian” Tamils were forcibly removed to India.
In 1972, and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983 led to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy. This sparked the “Black July” Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the inter-ethnic civil war.
The war was noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987. In retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Sri Lanka’s Muslims are predominantly ethnic Tamils and make up about 10% of the population. They have been at the margins of these more recent conflicts – excluded as Tamil speakers, but at odds with the more numerous Hindu Tamils. However, they also have long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century.
As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalised. Some Sinhalese claimed that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted. This culminated in 2013 with a Buddhist attack on a mosque. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulted in a ten day state of emergency. Last year, there were more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence, then, is far from new. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. It may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent ethnic persecution.
But if so, this raises the question of why Christian churches and upmarket hotels were bombed, rather than symbols of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. One can speculate about the logic of radicalisation and its possible manifestations. It is possible that, if Islamist-inspired, the bombings were not a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots, but part of a wider jihadi agenda.
It is instructive that, when the suspected terrorists were arrested and weapons found, three police were shot dead. Clearly, whoever was responsible was well trained, and there have been suggestions of international links. This contributes to speculation of returned Islamic State fighters having joined NTJ.
The Sri Lankan government was slow to release details of those believed responsible, as it knows ethnic and religious tensions are easy to spark. Identification of responsibility could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic bloodletting.
If NTJ links are proven, or if the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by wider speculation, it is likely Sri Lanka’s Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.