20 June, 2024


Geopolitics Of The Easter Attacks: The Weaponization Of Religion Amid Hybrid War (In The IOR)

By Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

“We have met the enemy and he is us” — Walt Kelly from Pogo Comics, quoted in “The ISIS is US: the shocking truth behind the Army of Terror”[1]

Crime is a form of communication that is both complex and fascinating as it is always characterized by a relationship that can be established between elements present and something absent, or yet to be discovered…Investigating a crime and trying to prevent recurrence means evaluating every possible voluntary and involuntary message left by an author..”[2]

On the first Sunday of March 2021 church congregations in Sri Lanka were joined by Buddhist monks and prominent Muslims for a multi-religious protest to mark “Black Sunday”; the second anniversary of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings that rocked the country two years ago, killing 279 people and injuring many more.

Local and national religious leaders, aware of the on-going weaponization, fragmentation, and use of religion/s against core values such as ahimsa or non-violence, by external actors interested in advancing their geopolitical interests in this strategically located Indian Ocean island, stood together to call for justice and accountability for the victims of the mysterious ISIS claimed attacks. Protestors held placards and demanded: “Tell us who the masterminds are?”

The simultaneous attacks staged at 7 different luxury tourist hotels and coastal churches at Easter 2019 were mysteriously claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS), far from this strategic Indian Ocean island.

The carnage that sent the country into lockdown and the economy into a tailspin was clearly designed, hybrid-war style, to cause maximum damage to both Economy and Society. The attack was clearly staged by a global-local network while the design of the crime reflected foreign interests.

Sri Lanka is in the cross hairs of great power rivalry as a hybrid cyber Cold War unfolds in the rapidly militarizing Indian Ocean region as big states use transnational religious networks and cultural ‘soft power’ and religious terror narratives including the Islamophobic ISIS narrative, which Delhi-based academic Saeed Naqvi has deemed a ‘diplomatic asset”, to cultivate local-global networks of political influence and bi-partisan corruption rackets to advance their geostrategic interests.

While the attack on hotels was meant to cripple the tourist-dependent and highly indebted island economy, the attack on churches was meant to cause a cascade of inter-religious violence and destabilization of this multi-religious country, rendering it vulnerable to foreign boots on the ground or even to a foreign military base being set up to purportedly ‘protect Christians from ISIS terror’ in the rapidly militarizing Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

However, since Christians and Muslims are minorities in this Buddhist-Hindu cultural majority country and have historically enjoyed excellent inter-religious relations, it appeared that the foreign masterminds behind the Easter crime had miscalculated and imported a Euro-American “Clash of Civilizations” narrative that has little traction in multi-religious South Asian context. There was no local history or motive for a clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims who had amicable interreligious relations in the island.

From a local perspective, the designers of the crime seemed to have targeted the wrong religious community, and so the masterplan behind the deadly Easter crime began to unravel with his eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith declaring that the attacks were staged by international actors who benefit from destabilizing regions and countries and weapons sales.

It was in this context that the powerful Buddhist clergy of Sri Lanka, who have historically confronted colonial projects, backed the Arch Bishop’s demand for accountability and joined the Black Sunday protest to compel the Government of Sri Lanka to deliver the truth about the masterminds behind the attacks since the recently released Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) Report into the crime had revealed no new analysis regarding those behind the attacks.

For non-recurrence of such violence, identifying the master minds and holding them accountable would be surely imperative.

Chinese targets in Easter attacks: fundamental questions unanswered in PCoI Report and other investigations

Fundamental questions, or perhaps co-incidences such as why the leader of the attacks, Zahran Hashim and a second suicide bomber both targeted and died at the Chinese owned super luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo’s sea front rather than in a church or Buddhist temple if their crime was primarily religiously motivated, have been ignored in investigations.

Aside from Shangri-La the other hotels and churches that were bombed were hit by just a single suicide bomber. There is absolutely no evidence to indicate that Zahran Hashim, leader of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), the obscure group blamed locally, knew about or was concerned about Uyghurs in China.

Intelligence experts also pointed out that a leader of a terror group would never kill himself at the outset, and suggested that the attacks were staged by other actors fronting the local National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ).

Four Chinese marine scientists in Sri Lanka for joint marine exploration lost their lives in the attack on the Kingsbury Hotel.  Remarkably, the US and Indian owned, Hilton and Taj Hotels that are next to Shangri-La were untouched.

The global and local narrative after the Easter carnage focused on religious motivations in the Easter attack and elided the economic and geopolitical dimensions, while some foreign experts suggested that they were staged in retaliation for attacks on a mosque in New Zealand, a claim that was dismissed by the NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden!

Too many strategic Chinese targets to be a co-incidence? Did the designers of the Easter attacks use religion as a partial smoke screen? While media attention and investigations have been focused on the churches that came under attack, the media narrative has been crafted to obscure the vital facts of the crime that may provide clues to the masterminds and messaging evident in the geopolitics behind the Easter carnage and its economic motives.

There has been a veritable infodemic regarding swords in mosques in the local media although no one died of sword attacks. Various other stories about ISIS setting up a Caliphate in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka were circulated by international experts.

Since answers to fundamental questions were missing after 2 years of investigations, people from all religious communities on the island came together to voice their disappointment with the Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), that increasingly appeared to be a bi-partisan party political ‘cover up”, especially of the international actors behind the attack. It was perceived by many locals as part of a larger hybrid war on both the economy and society of Sri Lanka caught in the midst of a Cold War waged by USA and its NATO allies and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad friends, on China.

In the wake of the attacks the Foreign Minister, Managla Samaraweera announced that the US Govt. was ready to disburse the 450 million as a Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), ‘grant’ that would give US companies access to land and transport sectors to be re-structured despite a great deal of opposition from Sri Lankan Trade Unions and civil society groups.

Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims hold silent protest to demand truth about Easter Sunday massacre SL Time, Colombo Page News Desk, Sri Lanka.

Finger Prints in the Design of the Crime point to Hybrid War and local-global networks

Seven simultaneous suicide bombings in the East and West coasts shook Sri Lanka on a bright quiet Easter morning with Hollywood style ‘shock and awe’ precision in April 2019. Youthful bombers with backpacks targeted sea front luxury tourist hotels and churches killing more than 279 people and injuring many more. Four tourist hotels in Colombo and three churches on the West and East Coasts of the country were targeted.

In the aftermath the country’s already debt-trapped, tourist-dependent economy and multicultural society went into a tailspin and lockdown, seemingly a dry run for the Covid-19 panicdemic lockdowns. The latter were imposed with 4 hours’ prior notice in 2020 again crippling the economy although Covid-19 data indicates that the illness is milder than seasonal flu in Sri Lanka, as in other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam Laos and Cambodia.

The leader of the small group of suicide bombers, Zaharan of the National Thowheed Jamaat, (NTJ), and a second suicide bomber struck the brand new glittering Chinese-owned Shangri La Hotel on Colombo’s luxury hotel strip.

The fact that two suicide bombers, including the leader Zaharan targeted a Chinese asset Shangri La Hotel, indicated that it was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Easter bombings. St Anthony’s church, famous for miracles, attracts people of all faiths – Buddhists, Hindus and occasional Muslims and overlooks the busiest and most strategic port of South Asia was also bombed.  The church was one of three most important targets after the Hong Kong owned Shangri La Hotel and Kingsbury Hotel where the four Chinese marine scientists were killed.

The economic and geopolitical targets of the attacks seemed designed to send a coded message to China – hands off Sri Lanka’s maritime domain.

This strategically located Indian Ocean Island sits at the center of the busiest trade, communication and energy shipping routes and more importantly, at a spaghetti junction of Submarine Undersea Data Cables (UDCs), which carry over 90 percent of data that keeps the global economy and financial system going amidst Covid-19 lockdowns and is vital to secure what the United States terms its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

After the Attacks

The ISIS claimed 2019 Easter Sunday attacks had targeted both the island’s economy and society in what appeared to be a hybrid war attack by a global-local network of clandestine actors hiding behind the ISIS narrative. However, the media narrative focused exclusively on religion and elided the economic and geopolitical dimensions of the attacks.

In the wake of the attacks various rumours circulated in global and local media, giving clues to the local-global network behind the attacks. There were narratives from various foreign intelligence agencies and experts, including an expert at the Rand Corporation, Jonah Blank and Singapore-Sri Lankan terror expert Rohan Gunaratne that the ISIS intended to set up a Caliphate in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

Stories that Muslim women had being buying white clothes in order to attack Buddhist temples circulated, seemingly to whip up a fear psychosis and cause a cascade of religious violence and stage a “Buddhist-Muslims clash of civilizations”? These stories led to isolated confrontations between some Sinhala nationalist organizations and Muslims,

However, there were various clues and coincidences that emerged in the international and local press related to the Easter carnage that point to a network of external actors and funders of the attacks:

1. Police sniffer dogs had found US diplomats with bomb materials at the JAIC Hilton residencies in Colombo. That story soon disappeared.

2. A doctored video tape with ISIS boss Abu Bakkar Al Bagdadi claiming the Sri Lanka attacks ran on global TV channels. The authenticity of the Islamic State video with IS head honcho Al Bagdahdi supposedly speaking about attacks in Sri Lanka could not be independently verified according to Credit SITE Intelligence Group quoted in the New York Times. NYT observed that it was “unclear when or where the video was recorded, while the parts that refer to recent events, like the Sri Lanka attack, are addressed in audio, not video, suggesting that it may have been recorded weeks ago with newer audio portions added later.[3]   

3. An Israeli news agency Whitestream released fake news that Bitcoin had funded the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, but Bitcoin threatened to sue it. Who is behind this and other propaganda campaigns that ran in the global media to distract investigations?

4. A reputed Lebanese News Agency, Alahed published a copy of a cable that indicated Saudi Arabia had advance notice of the Easter crime, but unlike Indian Intelligence which shared the information with Sri Lankan intelligence did NOT pass on this informaton. Indeed, the Same Saudi Government whose crown prince is indicted, ironically, in a recently-declassified CIA Report on the chilling killing of journalist Jamaal Khasoggi in its Istanbul embassy had sent Special instructions to its Embassy in Colombo 5 days prior to the Easter Attack, signed by Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim bin Abdul Aziz al-Assaf. The most important instruction of was to destroy any incriminating evidence that may link to the local network of Muslim politicians the NTJ “First: You should delete all documents, computer data and latest correspondence with domestic and foreign members and groups, in addition to imposing a curfew for the embassy personnel unless it is necessary.”

5. It was also revealed that M.L.M. Hizbullah who was with both the Rajapakse and Yahapalanya regime had got copious funds from Saudi Arabia also to set up a Shria University and was known to have had financial dealings with the leader of the Suicide bombers, Zahran Hashim also from Kathankudi.

6. Saudi Arabia had instructed its citizens to leave the country after the attacks and following revelations of a meeting in Passikudha between M.L.M Hizbullah and Saudi officials soon after the attacks. However, M.L.M. Hizbullah, like is West coast partner in Mannar, Rishard Bathudeen, seems to be above the law and have protection from powerful foreign actors who hold sway in Colombo.

Exhibit One[4]

Maritime Domain Awareness and the US Ambassador visiting Buddhist monks to discuss MCC

All the sites targeted for suicide bombings were ocean front, along the east and west coasts of the country, and after the attack the island’s harbours where locked down. No inland cities were targeted and attacks had an ocean theme although IS operates in desert and mountain areas.

In the following week the US Ambassador, Alina Teplitz lectured the GoSL on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in an interview aired on the Ada Derana TV station and drove home this message. In the wake of the attack Teplitx also visited the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and met with the Mahanayake to discuss the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), compact against which the powerful Buddhist clergy had declared its opposition.

As Giacomo Buoncompani noted, “criminal behavior is a form of communication[5], a particular, pathological communication that upon further analysis yields value. Crime is a form of communication that is both complex and fascinating, as it is always characterized by a relationship that can be established between elements present and something absent, or yet to be discovered. Communication today plays a leading role that will most likely continue to become even more important. Investigating a crime and trying to prevent it means evaluating every possible voluntary and involuntary message left by an author.

After the attacks the US Secretary of State, Mick Pompeo, was expected to visit Sri Lanka to sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact and discuss the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The attacks would provide a perfect alibi for a US military base, purportedly to fight ISIS terrorism and protect Christian communities in the Indian Ocean region, in the face of mounting opposition and protests by Trade Unions, civil society groups and the Sangha against the MCC compact, which was subsequently aborted.

Coincidentally, two months before the Easter Sunday carnage, in February 2019, the United Nation’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), had ruled that the UK-US occupation of the Chagos Islands, southwest of Sri Lanka where the Diego Garcia military base is located, was illegal under international law.

American Ambassador calls on the MahanayakeTheras ITN News Editor May 23, 2019 19:02

Sri Lanka was once deemed “an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean”!

Located at the ‘crossroads of history’ and colonized by competing European maritime powers (Portuguese, Dutch and British) for almost 450 years before independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, at the center of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), has been often ‘islanded’ in the historical and social science literature on ethnic and religious conflict and violence in the island.

However, ethnic and religious identity politics and conflict in the island has rarely been exclusively internally generated or bereft of geopolitical power plays, transnational actors and related global-local networks using funds, religious and cultural ”soft power” and local political actors networks to advance geostrategic interests. More so today given that Sri Lanka’s urban religious communities are transnationally networked and social media-savvy in a context of significant post/colonial ethnic and religious diasporas.

During the Cold War period the country was subject to power plays and various covert and overt interventions from India (then officially non-aligned, but close to USSR), and the US and UK.[6]

Sri Lanka’s first socialist Prime Minister, SWRD Bandaranaike who nationalized the country’s strategic ports and airports from the British was allegedly assassinated by a monk at the time when the CIA was weaponizing Buddhism (and Islam in West Asia and Afghanistan), to contain the spread of Communism from the USSR and China.[7] This was a period of US, UK and retreating European empires instigated assassinations, coups and regime change operations from – Patrice Lumumba in Congo, to Mossadegh in Iran, to Suharto in Indonesia in the context of de-colonization and national liberation struggles sweeping the Global South.[8] 

As Berger argued, the Cold War was a ‘hot war’ in the Global South, which never ended as the US led Global War on Terror took over. The ‘global struggle for the Third World,  arguably just got hotter with the victory of Joe Biden.[9] Locating Sri Lanka’s tumultuous post-colonial present in that wider global and Indian Ocean geopolitical context remains a challenge for current and future generations of local historians and social scientists.

*To be continued…

[1] The Washington Blog, Wayne Madsen, Syrian Girl Partisan, John-Paul Leonard 2016 “ ISIS is US: The shocking truth behind the army of terror.”  Progressive Press. San Diego. California.

[2] Criminological Communication: Understanding Crime through the Media and Human Communication Giacomo Buoncompagni: Sociology and Criminology: https://www.longdom.org/open-access/criminological-communication-understanding-crime-through-the-media-and-human-communication.pdf

[3] Explosives! US Embassy Plot in Colombo sniffed out by Police Dogs?https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/world/middleeast/isis-baghdadi-video.html 

[4] Lebanese news outlet Alahed News run by News First Sri Lanka reported that they have obtained a top-secret document sent by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Saudi Ambassador to Sri Lanka. The letter which was sent 5 days prior to the attack seems to indicate that the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was aware of the attacks. https://www.english.alahednews.com.lb/47824/269 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/easter-massacre-mystery-tamil-travails-the-defense-of-asias-oldest-democracy/

[5] Criminological Communication: Understanding Crime through the Media and Human Communication Giacomo Buoncompagni: Sociology and Criminology: https://www.longdom.org/open-access/criminological-communication-understanding-crime-through-the-media-and-human-communication.pdf

[6] Phil Miller 2019 Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries who got away with War Crimes” . London. Zed Books.

[7] Ford, Eugene 2017 Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.

[8] Bevins, Vincent 2020 The Jakarta Method: Washington’s anti-Communist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped our World. New York. Public Affairs.

[9] Mark T. Berger. The Real Cold War was Hot: The Global Struggle for the Third World” https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02684520701798171?journalCode=fint20. See also. David Vine’s 2020 ‘The United States of War’.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake,
    If the Easter Bombing was planned and funded by USA, then Sri Lanka is going to be another Irag. However, There was no possibility to USA to have a direct contact with Saharan (Bombing leader). There must some influential political person or persons who have some benefits by doing this should have involved between USA and Saharan. The Bombing did not hurt or affected directly Buddhist Sinhala Community or Muslim Community. The target was very clear. It is Tamil and Muslim Christians.
    However, anti-Americans will come up with the usual plot theory and anti-Chinese will come up with another plot theory but there are local politicians who are equally talented and wealthy enough to carry out such plot against the country for political objectives.

    • 4

      The ISIS Caliphate to be set up in the Easter Province was really a US military base — close to the strategic deep sea port Trincomalee where the MCC corridow from BIA would run, with M.L.M Hizbullah as its Saudi funded ruler!
      Rishard Bathudeen’s would be the second ISIS Caliphate in Mannar where Willpattu would be devastated to build an air strip, all to monitor the Undersea Date Cables (UDCs)?!!
      ‘Curiouser and curiouser’ the Easter Sunday plot becomes…as Alice in Wonderland may explain!

    • 3

      “Sri Lanka was once deemed “an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean”!”
      A total figment of a very fertile imagination. Where is the proof of this?

  • 3

    No justice to victims! Shame on SL. BTW who is the minister of justice? I rest my case.

  • 5

    Dear Dr. Rajasingham-Senanayake,

    Thanks for another well researched and penetrating article on the geopolitical skulduggery occurring in our region. In true Sherlock Holmes style you ‘join the dots’ to lead us away from official narratives (and their lies) to a more believable version. The duplicitous nature of so many parties and the clever blaming on those cast as enemy of the state serves their geopolitical agenda. In the meantime an ‘us and them’ drama is played out on the ground between the Buddhist/Hindu and the Muslim communities while the real villains, booty in hand, get away with murder. Alas. This is the way of the world. Nothing can be believed. No government is for the people and are only in power to serve a nefarious purpose of other more powerful and invisible entities. Thanks for bringing us closer to the sobering truth of the Easter Bombings and the amazingly clever way the US uses ISIS as ally and enemy for its own diabolical purpose.

    • 2

      Ah yes, the usual suspects have surfaced with complimentary remarks on their own fantasies. Where is Don Stanley?

  • 4

    Thank you for describing the larger geopolitical interests and powers invested in manoeuvring the direction of local political and economic currents to suit their geopolitical ambitions in the region. You have made a very convincing argument in this article about a possible involvement of external actors behind the 2019 Easter Sunday’s attacks. Your effort should be appreciated with a Medal of Valor for Women by the US government 😁

  • 1

    The country had advanced information signals of the network of planners., briefed about the threat

  • 3

    There will always be conspiracy theories & even bizarre publications, the more outrageous, the better for reading. However, looking at the end result as to who benefitted, it seems more homegrown than international. There has always been funding from rich Arab countries to spread the religion but I fail to understand how dumb the local Isis fanatics were in thinking of achieving their objectives, considering the fact that SL was still riding high from the elimination of a well organised terrorist group, the LTTE. Maybe they thought their ragtag bunch of fanatics will trounce the SL armed forces who were probably resting on their laurels but were they deluded in thinking the majority SL Muslims were waiting to embrace their caliphate? Didn’t they realise the average Muslim in SL is better educated & successful in commerce, & a backlash as in 1983 would be inevitable? If the leaders themselves were the ‘martyrs’, who would continue their jihadi war?

    The bottom line, thanks to this delusional bunch, we have a despotic rule, supported by the military.

  • 3

    Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake…..to be continued..?
    In the foot steps of DrLaksiri Fernando?
    Darini It’s simple Lakashman Kadirgamar was killed inside a high security zone, these guys can organise church bombings mosque bombings luxury hotel bombings to stay in power they don’t care about the life of innocent people or the economy of the country….and you want to continue your bullshit analysis…unles of course you are in their payroll.

  • 0

    Have looked at it from every possible lead. Thought provoking. Unfortunately the state has put it all on a Nowfer Moulavi, the alleged Mastermind .

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