At least 290 people were killed and 500 others were injured in a series of bombings across Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019. In an apparent coordinated series, Christians and foreign tourists at high-end hotels were targeted in the terrorist attacks.
At least 39 of those killed were foreigners, including U.S., British, Chinese, Australian, Japanese and Portuguese nationals. At least eight explosions were reported in the capital, Colombo, as well as in Negombo and in the eastern city of Batticaloa. At least seven of the explosions were reportedly suicide attacks.
The eight explosions took place at the following times and locations (all times approximate):
- Shangri La hotel in Colombo at 08:45 local time. St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Kotahena, Colombo at 08:45.
- St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Negambo at 08:45.
- Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo at 08:45.
- Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo at 08:50.
- Zion Roman Catholic Church in Batticaloa at 09:05.
- New Tropical Inn in Dehiwela, a suburb of Colombo, at 13:45.
A residence in Dematagoda, Colomboa, during a police raid at 14:15.An additional explosion was reported near St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo on 22 April as police attempted to diffuse a bomb discovered in a parked van.
A state of national emergency at midnight on 22 April took effect nationwide, under which police and military personnel may detain and interrogate suspects without court orders. An indefinite curfew, which was declared following the attacks, has since been reissued as a nighttime curfew from 20:00-04:00.
Authorities temporarily blocked major social media and messaging services following the attacks in order to prevent the spread of misinformation and the possible incitement of further violence. Authorities have also requested the hotels in the country increase security measures following the attacks. Additional security measures have been implemented at religious sites nationwide.
Authorities have also instituted additional security measures at the country’s main international airport outside Colombo, Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB), where only passengers will be allowed to enter terminal buildings. Baggage will be subject to additional screening. Additional security and military officers will be patrolling the area. Officials recommend that travelers arrive at the airport at least four hours before their departure time due to the additional security.
Reports indicate that travelers flying out of CMB are permitted to travel to the airport during the curfew, though they should travel with their airline tickets and passports to present to security forces as check points. CMB was temporarily put on lockdown on 21 April after security forces discovered a pipe bomb near the airport. However, the airport subsequently reopened and flights reportedly continue to operate as normal.
Police have arrested 24 people in connection with the bombings. Although there has been no claim of responsibility for the attacks, Sri Lankan officials blamed the radical Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NJT). According to reports, police received information from foreign intelligence services on 11 April 2019 regarding possible suicide attacks at Catholic churches by NTJ, though it remains unclear whether any additional security precautions had been taken in response.
Following the attacks, the U.S. Department of State (DoS) raised its travel advisory for Sri Lanka from “Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions” to “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.” The DoS noted that terrorist groups continue to plot possible attacks in the country and may attack with little or no warning.
Though there has been no claim of responsibility for the coordinated attacks, the target selection suggests an extremist Islamist motive rather than a domestic political or ethnic motive. NTJ—the group authorities believe is responsible for the attacks—is a little-known radical Islamist group in Sri Lanka that was linked to the vandalism of Buddhist statues in 2018. The group had not carried out any major attacks before and authorities have indicated the group may have had help “from an international terrorist network” to carry out the attacks.
Attacks against Christians and high-end hotels are consistent with Islamist terrorist group target selection. Islamist terrorists in other countries have targeted churches around the Easter holiday in previous years. On 9 April 2017, 45 people were killed in two churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility.
On 27 March 2016, 75 people were killed and hundreds of others were injured in an attack near a park in Lahore, Pakistan, where Christians were celebrating Easter. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. There have also been a number other attacks targeting Christians in the Philippines, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere that have been claimed by Islamist terrorist groups.
Sri Lanka had been experiencing a decade of relative security following the end of a civil war in 2009. In that conflict, which began in the early 1980s, the militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) sought independence from the ethnic Sinhala Buddhist majority and to create a homeland in northern and eastern parts of the country.
The group—which identified as a secular organization—is widely known as one of the first groups to use suicide bombing tactics on a large scale. The Sri Lankan security forces were also accused of brutal tactics and war crimes in the conflict. In May 2009, the group admitted defeat after its leaders were killed. Up to 100,000 people died in the conflict, though estimates on the total number of people killed varies. The group mostly targeted military, politicians, police and civilians who opposed their goal of getting an independent state. The majority of their victims were Sinhalese Buddhists.
Religious and ethnic tensions and violence have been present in the country for years. More than 70% of the country’s 22 million people are Buddhist, 12% are Hindu, 10% are Muslim, and 6% are Catholics. Since 2009, the postwar period has seen the rise of hardline Buddhist monks who have sought to marginalize the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities. Anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka has risen in recent years. In March 2018, a state of emergency was declared in Kandy after mobs attacked Muslim businesses, homes and mosques.
Tourism in the country had been increasing following the end of the conflict. Sri Lanka was recently named the best country in the world to visit in 2019. Tourism arrivals in the country in March 2019 were up 4.7% compared to a year earlier. In an attempt to increase tourism in the offseason, the country announced that citizens from more than 30 countries—including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia—could receive free visas to Sri Lanka starting on 1 May 2019 and running for an initial period of six months.
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