August 3, 1990: Attack on a mosque in Sri Lanka

Terrorist groups often act indiscriminately in choosing their targets.

KATTANKUDY, SRI LANKA – When it comes to terrorism there is often a debate on whether it can ever be justified. Sure, most of us see the deliberate targeting of civilians as wrong, always, but there are those who argue that, at least in some circumstances, the violence is ok.

Those holding these positions often point to legitimate struggles by a smaller group against a larger one. The former is usually being persecuted by the latter for all kinds of reasons: language, faith, ethnicity, etc. We like David vs. Goliath stories and usually root for the underdog.

Sri Lanka, a small teardrop-shaped island south of India, was the site of such a struggle. After it gained independence from Britain in 1948 it soon became clear that the majority Sinhalese wanted to monopolise power over the minority Tamils. This disequilibrium led to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) one of the longest lived and most effective terrorist groups in history (1976-2009).

The LTTE was known to target the Sinhalese, including members of the military, in attacks throughout the country (and outside as well: an LTTE member assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 to punish him for supporting the Sri Lankan government). Given Sinhalese actions against the Tamils – the LTTE claimed it was fighting to protect Tamils, in part by establishing an independent homeland in the north and east – some would say they had a point.

Does that include targeting a mosque?

On this day in 1990

On this day in 1990 the LTTE attacked four mosques in Kattankundy, killing at least 147 Muslims at prayer and wounding an unknown number. 30 LTTE terrorists were involved in the attack. The LTTE denied it was behind the carnage for decades.

It was not until 2010, a year after the LTTE was ‘defeated’ by the Sri Lankan army, that the terrorist group ‘apologised’ for its actions in Batticaloa. Muslims argue that the 1990 killings amounted to “ethnic cleansing” and that the community still bears the scars, which is why their leaders remain cautious about discussing Tamil issues today.

The killings of Tamils and Muslims were not spontaneous. They were well planned and executed.

Yuvi Thangarajah, anthropologist and Sri Lankan analyst.

A terrorist group which says it was ‘sorry’ for massacring innocent people at prayer. Should that be enough to make up for the slaughter?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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