By Leonard Jayawardena –
On Easter Sunday 2019 suicide bombers carried out a series of devastating blasts that tore through three Christian churches (two Catholic, one Evangelical) and as many luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing over 250 people, including some foreign nationals. They belonged to a local Islamist extremist group called National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ) and were led by one Zahran Hashim.
In the wake of the attacks, various conspiracy theories were floated, reflecting the particular prejudices of the originators of the theories. Some thought that an invisible international hand lay behind the attacks and several suspects were named, including India (RAW), Israel (Mossad) and, of course, the US (CIA).
Of all the conspiracy theories, the one that gained the most traction was that which alleged that the bomb attacks were a plan hatched by the Rajapaksas to create chaos and fear in the country with a view to coming back to power. Thus they were “the masterminds” behind this atrocity. This most popular conspiracy theory received a fresh impetus with the recently-aired Channel 4 film titled “Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Dispatches,” which, among other things, featured a whistleblower named Asad Maulana, one-time secretary to Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (aka Pillayan), whose testimony, if true, provides corroborative evidence of a direct kind.
Before I comment on that, let me first present below for the readers’ consideration the following serious objections that may be urged against this conspiracy theory:
1. In a video statement issued just prior to the bomb attacks, Zahran, accompanied by members of his group, expressly declared the main object of the attacks, viz., to establish an Islamic State in Sri Lanka. [Link to the video in Note 1.]
He says that following the attacks crowds of people will be pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (which was not to be, as we now know). He and his group had pledged allegiance to IS (Islamic State), a transnational militant Islamist terrorist group which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999 and gained global prominence in 2014 when it captured a large amount of Iraqi territory. In the same year they changed their name from The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, i.e., Syria (ISIS)—also known as The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)to — just The Islamic State (IS), and announced the formation of a Caliphate with al-Zarqawi as the Caliph. [Note 2]
In their statement the IS declared that it was “incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to [the Caliph al-Zarqawi] and support him” and that it would be sinful if Muslims did not try to establish the Islamic State whereever they were in the world. [Note 3]
Zahran goes on to say that Christian churches are targeted to avenge the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand on March 15, 2019, in which about 50 people died and about as many were injured.
How would die-hard adherents of this conspiracy theory respond to this? That the video was doctored—it looks very genuine to me —or that Zahran was lying as to the true intent of their imminent attacks?
2. Why would an extremist Islamic outfit like Zahran’s group commit suicide and sacrifice their lives to bring to power a set of avowedly Sinhala Buddhist politicians, under whose watch several incidents hurtful to Muslims of this country took place, including that in Dharga town, Aluthgama and who were regarded by many as being too soft on the perceived antagonists of the Muslims?
Zahran and his group’s antipathy to Buddhism was evident in their vandalism of Buddhist statues in Mawanella, shortly after which incident Zahran went into hiding. Before that they had also persecuted Sufis, whom Muslims of Zahran’s ilk consider heretics. After the suicide bombings, white clothes such as are worn by women in Buddhist temples were discovered in the homes of the members of Zahran’s group, suggesting that they had plans to attack Buddhist temples later.
Zahran followed the religious ideology of IS, a strict form of Sunni Islam, which promotes religious violence. For years in his preachings Zahran taught that all non-Muslims should be killed. “An Indian intelligence source said that an ISIS suspect, who claimed to have radicalized the preacher himself, provided material during interrogations that formed the basis of the warnings [given by India’s intelligence service to Sri Lankan authorities].” [Note 4]
3. If Zahran and his fellows committed this atrocity to help the Rajapaksas, what was the consideration? Money? But of what use is money for a bunch of lunatics going to commit suicide? Indeed, it was reported that, as they were leaving to launch the attacks, they had thrown away Rs. 5,000 notes in a street for others to collect, saying that they were going to the presence of Allah.
Furthermore, in the video Zahran takes pride in saying that the explosives they were going to use in the attacks were made by themselves with their own money. No haram (unlawful) money was used for this.
4. Similar suicide bomb attacks by Islamic jihadis had occurred elsewhere in the world prior to the Easter bombings, including attacks against Christian churches, so this was nothing new. For example,
* On 22 September 2013, a twin suicide bombing took place at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which 127 people were killed and more than 250 injured. (Source: Wikipedia.)
* On Palm Sunday in 2017 suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt, killing 44 people. The IS claimed responsibility for the attacks. (Source: AP.)
* In May 2018 a family of six, including a nine-year-old girl, blew themselves up in three churches in Indonesia, which killed at least 13 people. The Islamic State group claimed the attacks. (Source: BBC.)
In 2021 two suicide bombers detonated explosives outside a Catholic church in the Indonesian city of Makassar, wounding at least 20 people on Palm Sunday, the first day of the Easter Holy Week. (Source: Aljazeera.)
In addition to suicide bombings there have been countless other attacks against Christian churches in the world and no doubt such attacks will continue to occur in the future. To my knowledge, in none of these attacks has there been a suggestion of complicity by a political party with a view to gaining electoral advantage. Only in Sri Lanka, which boasts a high literacy rate!
5. The basic premise that gave birth to this conspiracy theory is that it helped Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win the Presidential election in 2019. But countless examples could be cited from history where X benefited from event Y but X had nothing to do with Y. For example, a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that battered Israel helped Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel narrowly win the general election in May 1996, having trailed Shimon Peres, his rival, in opinion polls before those terror attacks. [Note 5]
6. Gotabaya’s party, the Pohottuwa, was already on a winning streak as evidenced by their excellent performance in the February 2018 local government elections, so they needed no such help as Zahran and company might have given. Does the smartest student in the class need to cheat at exams to pass?
7. There were cordial relations between the local Roman Catholic Church, the principal victim of the bomb attacks, and the Rajapaksas prior to those bombings. The readers will recall the support that Cardinal Ranjith gave to the Rajapaksa regime when international calls for investigation of war crimes allegedly committed during the war with the LTTE were at their peak. If my memory serves me right, during the war the Catholic church even proposed setting up a fund to held the disabled Government soldiers.
In a statement issued after the Channel 4 film, GR recounts the assistance he has rendered the Roman Catholic community in various ways. [Note 6]
In his article “Not a Cardinal Sin” in the Colombo Telegraph of 2 July, 2020, Primus Salgado writes, “The Easter Sunday carnage by Zaharan only cemented a Catholic voter base which was [already] tilting towards Gotabaya Rajapaksa” and describes in some detail the help the Cardinal and the Catholic Church received from the Rajapaksas before the Easter Sunday bombings.
8. A number of investigations has been carried out by the Government into the Easter Sunday attacks, including a Presidential Commission of Inquiry, the report of which was submitted to Parliament. In these investigations international agencies such as the FBI and INTERPOL assisted but none of these investigations nor these agencies reached any conclusion that would support this conspiracy theory.
The above objections considered even singly should give pause for thought to an open-minded subscriber to this conspiracy theory. The cumulative effect of all these objections is certainly fatal to this theory and only extraordinarily compelling evidence in support of it can serve to overide them. Do we have that?
Assad Maulana’s testimony in the Channel 4 film, if true, does provide compelling corroborative evidence in favour of this theory. This film is not available for viewers outside the U.K. and Ireland and my comments below are based on the Channel 4 trailer on YouTube and media reports on the film.
The Channel 4 film trailer raises three questions, reproduced below verbatim: [Note 7]
a) Did a senior military intelligence official covertly meet Islamic extremists before they committed the biggest terrorist attack in Sri Lanka’s history?
b) Did the military intelligence mislead the police in their attempts to apprehend the terrorist group?
c) Did Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government sabotage investigations into the bombings?
In the video Maulana says that in 2018 he arranged a meeting between the NTJ terrorist cell that carried out the bombings and Suresh Sallay, a former head of military intelligence in Sri Lanka at the time and appointed Director General of the State Intelligence Service of Sri Lanka by GR after his election as President. Six people had come in a white van and Maulana had introduced Sallay to them. He had been asked to wait outside and when the meeting was finished Sallay had told Maulana that the Rajapaksas needed a “unsafe situation in Sri Lanka” as it was “the only way for Gotabaya to become President.”
I see at least three problems with this statement. First, having asked Maulana to wait outside, was Sallay so stupid as to take Maulana into his confidence with the regard to the most confidential aspect of the meeting, viz., that the Rajapaksas wanted to create an “unsafe situation”? Second, given their strong performance in the local government election in 2018, would the Rajapaksas have thought in the same year that that was the “only way” for Gota to become President? Third, according to the statements issued by Sallay and the Ministry of Defence in response to the Channel 4 film, he was in Malaysia at the time of the supposed meeting. According to the Ministry of Defence statement
Major General Suresh Sallay served at the Sri Lanka High Commission in Malaysia as Minister-Counsellor from December 2016 until December 2018. He left for India on 3rd January 2019 and returned to Sri Lanka on 30th November 2019 after completing the National Defence College Course in Delhi.This officer was never in Sri Lanka during the period mentioned in the Channel 4 video documentary. Furthermore, during the said period (December 2016 to November 2019), this officer was not employed in the Intelligence and Security Apparatus of the country, nor did he hold any official responsibilities in those fields. [Note 8]
If the above statements check out, then Maulana’s testimony will stand exposed as a blatant lie. Incidentally, Maulana’s testimony blows out of water the view that the suicide bombers were “misled” into committing this atrocity, for we are now told that they were plainly told the object of the attacks. This view was advanced in answer to the difficulty involved in an extremist Islamic group blowing themselves up to help a Sinhala Buddhist politician to come to power.
Responding to the Channel 4 film, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillayan) said in Parliament that his onetime secretary Asad Maulana was a con man who betrayed others for his survival and had sought political asylum abroad by producing false accusations. I have to agree.
Maulana claimed that his “knowledge” of the Rajapaksas’ “secret” made life in Sri Lanka dangerous and sought asylum abroad on that basis but he publicly revealed his “secret knowledge” through Channel 4 only about four years later (in spite of a number of local investigations into the Easter bombing, including a Presidential Commission of Inquiry). Does that make sense?
I think Maulana concocted this story to buttress his bogus asylum claim and by appearing on the Channel 4 film he has ensured that he cannot return to Sri Lanka. Now his being granted asylum in some western country is almost guaranteed and that is exactly what he wanted. As for Channel 4, I can only say that they have swallowed Maulana’s lies hook, line and sinker.
Fabricating lies to support fake asylum claims is common. One is reminded of the high-profile case of Gania Banister Francis, a Sri Lankan Tamil working as a visa officer at the Swiss Embassy, who soon after GR was elected as President two years ago claimed that the state security services had abducted her in a ‘white van’ and forced her to reveal sensitive visa information on political asylum cases. Her statements did not check out and this year she pleaded guilty in court to the charge of making a false claim.
Before closing the article, it is pertinent to ask why so many people are attracted to this conspiracy theory. I think, as with other false conspiracy theories, the main reasons are ignorance and bias. Most people, including the conventionally “educated,” lack the breadth of knowledge and the intellectual ability necessary to properly analyse and evaluate this and many other issues. In this case, some knowledge of the Koran, the hadiths and ISIS ideology, to which the suicide bombers subscribed and which gives an insight into the mindset of the suicide bombers; and similar attacks in the past elsewhere, is a prerequisite. In addition, complete objectivity is required.
It is safe to say that nearly all those who subscribed to this theory did so because of anti-Rajapaksa bias and not because they thought they saw any compelling evidence for it. Then confirmation bias comes into play, that is, the tendency to seek out and prefer information that supports one’s preexisting beliefs while ignoring any information that contradicts those beliefs.
There have been calls for an investigation into the new “revelation” by Maulana on Channel 4 and I, too, am all for it. But I suspect that, regardless of the number of investigations, sadly there will always be obstinate adherents of this conspiracy theory, just as in spite of overwhelming evidence there are those who deny the Holocaust (an antisemitic conspiracy theory), believe that the Apollo 11 lunar landing was staged in a studio in the U.S., etc. By the way, there are even those who still believe the earth is flat!
- Zahran’s final video statement regarding the Easter bombing.
- Encyclopedia Britannica article “Caliphate”
- “ISIS announces formation of Caliphate, rebrands as ‘Islamic State’”
- CNN report “Sri Lanka bombers’ mentor is dead, but his memory still stokes fear”
- “The Times of Israel” report
- Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s full statement in response to the Channel 4 film.
- Channel 4 trailer
- Ministry of Defence statement