Something about the Sri Lankan terrorist attacks does not add up

As I continue to read and hear more about yesterday’s horrific terrorist attacks across Sri Lanka I find I am left with more questions than answers. I am supposed to be a terrorism ‘expert’ – how I dislike that term since it appears that just about everyone (and everything, including my dead cat) seems to be called that these days – but there is a lot I cannot explain. In some ways that it not so strange as it has been less than 48 hours since the coordinated action that by the latest count killed 290 people in at least eight venues and injured close to 500. This would make these attacks among the largest in terrorist history.

So hear is what I still want to know:

  • Who was really behind the violence? No group has claimed responsibility as of 10:00 EST on Monday, a day and a half after the attacks. When you are a terrorist group and you have just carried out several coordinated acts across an entire country, would you not want to put your name out to tell the world who you are and what you just did? Why the delay? We have seen the typical Islamist extremist gloating online but no actual declaration of who the perpetrator was.
  • The Sri Lankan government says it thinks that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, an alleged “hardline Muslim local organisation” was behind the bombings. I have never heard of this group – not that I know every terrorist group that is out there. But how does a bunch of guys previously known only for ‘vandalising Buddhist statues’ graduate to very sophisticated near simultaneous attacks? Where did they get the know-how? How did they go from petty crime to terrorism?
  • Some have noted that the scale and planning of the attacks must point to ‘international’ help. Help from whom? AQ (there is an AQ in the Indian Subcontinent – AQIS – but they are not in Sri Lanka as far as I know. IS? They have affiliates everywhere but again not in Sri Lanka as far as I know. Some other group?
  • What is the significance of the targets? Christian churches on Easter Sunday suggest Islamist extremists (akin to what IS in the Sinai has been doing to Egypt’s Copts for years), although Buddhist extremists have also been responsible for harassing priests and worshipers, but never on this scale. Hotels suggest Westerners, another typical goal for many terrorist groups.
  • I think everyone agrees that this is almost 100% NOT the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). This kind of action makes no sense for that terrorist organisation which has in any event been decimated since the end of the civil war in 2009.
  • What to make of the ‘intelligence warning’ the Sri Lankans had ten days ago from an unnamed ‘international’ source (the CIA? MI5? MI6? the FBI?)? That is hard to say. My thirty years in intel tells me that information is often piecemeal and far from definitive: does anyone remember the pre-9/11 intelligence that said “AQ wants to carry out an attack somewhere sometime”? What can local security forces do with that? Was this yet another “intelligence failure”? I have no idea: perhaps the Sri Lankan government’s enquiry will tell us more.

If all goes well we will learn more in the days and weeks to come. Then again all of our questions may not get answers. Perhaps the arrests that have been made will provide some clues. Perhaps not. Welcome to the world of uncertainty.

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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