Posted on April 29th, 2019


In every one of these terrorist atrocities there is something new, some lesson to prepare us better to prevent the next one, and to try to break the syndrome. With 359 now confirmed dead in Sri Lanka, this is one of the biggest single terror attacks in history. Two moments, before the carnage, were striking. One of the bombers, walking towards the church where he was to commit mass murder, paused for a nanosecond to pat a child on the head. Another bomber lined up at the breakfast buffet in the hotel where he was to commit mass murder, waiting to be served.

Both the terrorists looked completely calm. There was not the feverish agitation and nervousness that fictional presentations of suicide bombers typically present. Boffins talk of the martyrdom mindset” , which Islamist terror leaders can instil in followers, the gripping conviction that what they are doing is right and will be rewarded. It indicates the tenacious power of the extreme Islamist ideology that lies behind these atrocities.

Everything about these murders suggests the strength of the underlying belief system. There has been no serious hostility between Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Muslims make up a little under 10 per cent of the nation’s population, Christians a bit less than that. The attacks on Christian churches and five-star cosmopolitan hotels instead reflect the agenda of Islamic State and al-Qa’ida .

Both these terror groups hate the West and very specifically hate Christianity. Islamic State has now claimed responsibility for the attacks and released a photo of a group of men, allegedly the bombers, of whom only one has his face uncovered, pledging allegiance to the group. It would seem impossible that a Sri Lankan Islamist group with no previous experience in mass terrorism could organise such a big, sophisticated attack on its own.

If it does turn out Islamic State was involved, it is not so remarkable that it was able to get its Sri Lankan adherents to attack targets even where there was no previous local hostility. After all, Islamist groups have got terror attacks organised in such peaceful countries as Canada and motivated attempted attacks in equally peaceful Australia. The news that one of the bombers had studied in Australia will lead to intense investigation of his experience and associates here.

While it is right to try to probe and understand the path young men take to radicalisation, the key factor really is the powerful ideology the Islamists propagate. It is hateful and full of falsehood but it contains an inner logic and a compelling though fraudulent narrative.

Islamic State claims the attack was revenge for the Christchurch killings. We surely should not credit everything it says. And it seems impossible that such a big operation could have been organised from scratch in little over a month. However, if Islamic State attributes the attack to Christchurch, the propaganda effect is the same as if it really was a response to Christchurch.

Still, is it possible that Christchurch was the motivation for the Sri Lanka attacks? The answer is no, but it is still possible Christchurch played a critical role. Islamic State does not need any new specific motivation to carry out murderous attacks. Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and other Islamist groups have been doing so for decades. However, it is possible the Christchurch atrocity played into the psychology of motivating a goodly number of young men with sufficient hatred that they would go to the extreme of suicide bombing. All extremists feed off each other.

The other feature that suggests the power of ideology is that at least some of the bombers were very well educated, high achievers. It is absurd to attribute any of their motivation to social disadvantage or alienation as normally understood.

Another striking feature of the past few days was the Sri Lankan government’s decision early on to shut down social media after the bombings had occurred. Concerns about censorship are understandable but this was a prudent decision and probably designed to protect Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.

There had been some anti-Muslim abuse and violence against property last year carried out by extreme nationalist Buddhist groups. Social media played a key role in transforming rumours and lies into physical violence.

This is common in many parts of the Third World especially. An accusation against some group is made of conduct that touches some especially sensitive religious or communal nerve. The accusation is then magnified in the dishonesty and hysteria of social media. Someone issues a call to action and someone else publishes the addresses of individuals in the targeted group. And then you can very easily get deadly mob violence.

This shocking sequence of events has also led people to question whether Sri Lanka is peculiarly disposed towards violence and communal conflict. The long civil war between the Hindu Tamil Tigers and the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese government was indeed very savage. The Tigers pioneered suicide bombers and child terrorists.

But this latest violence involves neither Buddhists nor Hindus. I think it is a gross defamation of Sri Lanka to suggest it remains uniquely prone to large-scale violence. Like many Australians, I have spent time in Sri Lanka I travelled to different regions within the country and found nothing but hospitality, kindness and friendship.

The civil war ended 10 years ago and Sri Lanka has been at peace — not perfect and not without problems, but at peace — for the past decade. There is only one way the civil war and its aftermath may have played into this terrorist outrage.

When the war ended, Sri Lankans yearned for a normal life in which security concerns played a much smaller role. The previous government was thought to overemphasise the security state when the threat had passed, and so a new government moved to de-emphasise security. This doesn’t explain the shocking failure to act on Indian and US intelligence that an Islamist terror attack was likely. It does show there is no country on earth that can ignore this threat.

It is a gross defamation to suggest Sri Lanka remains uniquely prone to largescale violence

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