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St Anthony’s Shrine, Sri Lanka in August 2018 © Leodaphne / Shutterstock

Sri Lankans Are Waiting for Answers

Terrorism always has its reasons, but this well-coordinated campaign of bombings in Sri Lanka defies the understanding of all observers.

At the time of publishing, 24 people have been arrested for the wave of murderous attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Not only do we not know who these terrorists are, but even Sri Lankans who are about to celebrate a decade of peace after a long civil war can’t begin to imagine why they did it.

On April 21, Al Jazeera’s Inside Story brought together three well-informed Sri Lankans to react to the question of “What’s behind Sri Lanka Easter attacks?” All three agreed that they could not make sense of it. The scale and geography of the attacks on churches and hotels, spread across the island of Sri Lanka, led one expert to suggest an international dimension. But the logic of attacking a Christian minority, with its low profile in terms of social and political influence, could only, according to another contributor, have a local explanation.

In an editorial, The Guardian warns, “[I]t is much too early to discern the precise motivations of the bombers, and it would be not only foolish but also potentially dangerous to speculate in a country with such a complex and troubled history.” 

The latest information coming through points to local Islamist extremists. What they expect to accomplish by killing Christians within a dominantly Buddhist culture other than their own suicide remains a mystery.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Motivation:

The desire to achieve something, which — even for the most wildly irrational and violent acts — people possibly mistakenly tend to suppose has some logical basis in terms of gaining a short-term or long-term advantage for a person or group of people

Contextual note

The Guardian cites the “complex and troubled history” of an island that was once a British colony, a people that has a tangled cultural and ethnic relationship with India and a nation that endured a decades-long civil war led by the Tamil Tigers in the north of the island, fighting for independence from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. And yet, with all the precedents, including an epically rocky relationship between the president and the prime minister over the past six months that led to a constitutional crisis, no one seems capable of attributing a comprehensible motive to what must have been a well-organized group that planned and executed these bombings.

When a single serial killer or even terrorist commits an atrocity, the media often call it “senseless,” which generally means simply that media professionals and their public wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing such a horrendous thing. “Senseless” doesn’t appear to mean the same thing as “motiveless” or even “incomprehensible,” since we usually understand that the killer or killers had a reason that they believed was valid for doing what they did. 

At least for the moment, this case appears to be different. The “good old” terrorism we are all familiar with generally announces its message through its choice of target. For example, the choice of Wall Street, the Pentagon and, possibly (for flight 93), the White House by the 9/11 terrorists made it clear that it was a statement of bellicose opposition to US imperial power. 

The Guardian thinks that bringing the perpetrators to justice must be a priority, while warning that “one danger is that officials’ rush to do so — and to show that they are doing so — may itself bring injustice.” Especially with a presidential election six months down the line in Sri Lanka, we might add.

And of course, some people are wondering if the ultimate culprit isn’t, quite simply, social media, the vector that made this and, worryingly, future attacks possible. This may reflect “a global, and growing, wariness toward social platforms and the giant American corporations that run them,” The New York Times reports.

Historical note

The British called the island Ceylon, but before that it was known as Serendip, as recorded in “a Persian fairy tale, ‘The Three Princes of Serendip,’ whose heroes often made discoveries by chance.” The tale inspired the 18th-century writer Horace Walpole to invent the word “serendipity,” meaning unexpected good luck.

A Sri Lankan friend once described his country to this author as the land of the Lotos-Eaters. There is no reason, other than geopolitical history, to think of Sri Lanka as not being synonymous with paradise. Alas, geopolitical history is still at play, in the most unfortunate and expected ways.

The Sri Lankan bombings achieved a scale that indicates they were well organized and involved a significant group of people. It’s extraordinary that, in the immediate aftermath, the only apparently established fact is that they were “religious extremists,” with no indication of what extreme religion they may represent. What is more astonishing is the fact that “authorities had received prior warning about the possibility of a terrorist attack.” On the basis of those warnings, they must have had an inkling of the culprits’ identity or at least their motivation. 

Immediately after 9/11, all eyes focused on Osama bin Laden. And yet for weeks, even with the list of suicide terrorists in their hands and the famous Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, the US government claimed for weeks they didn’t know who was responsible. In July, two months before the attacks, George Tenet, head of the CIA, had told Condoleezza Rice, “Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.” Was the Bush administration simply following the advice expressed by The Guardian after the Sri Lanka bombings?

There’s good reason to suppose, as many investigators have discovered, that although the Bush administration knew precisely who was responsible, they were focused on preparing not just the punishment of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but the series of wars that had to include, at a minimum, both Afghanistan and Iraq.

By hesitating to focus on al-Qaeda alone, whose training camp in Afghanistan would have been an easy local target, they took the time to build a case against an undefined host of enemies across an entire region, all of whom intended “the destruction of the United States.” Even though it should have been evident to everyone that it was impossible to imagine any group of terrorists even attempting, let alone succeeding in achieving the destruction of the US, the government felt it necessary to convince the public that that was the case.

Concerning Sri Lanka, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seized the occasion to remind us that these “vile attacks are a stark reminder of why the United States remains resolved in our fight to defeat terrorism.” This contrasts with mass killings at home — terrorist acts in churches, synagogues and mosques — for which the US never seems to be so firmly “resolved” in its fight either to defeat white supremacy or even to pass and enforce gun control laws that might prevent such attacks from occurring. 

After the recent massacre of Muslims in New Zealand, US President Donald Trump expressed his “warmest sympathy and best wishes,” but not an iota of resolve to fight such terrorism.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.