I was woken up this morning by a phone call from my daughter alerting me to the horrific news from Sri Lanka where a coordinated set of eight attacks at multiple locations, reportedly involving suicide bombings, had claimed over 200 lives and 450 injured though those numbers will change. The government has ordered a nationwide curfew and shut down all social media platforms, a source of many incendiary rumors in the past. Sri Lanka is prone to fact-free speculations spreading like wildfire even before the age of social media and these platforms have made this problem much worse
What is clear is that these attacks were planned and coordinated and carried out by a fairly large group. This was not a lone-wolf attack. What is not clear is who is responsible for the attacks and their motives. The pattern of attacks does not give clear clues. On the one hand, they had targeted churches during Easter Sunday services suggesting animus towards Christians as one motivating factor. But they had also attacked three major luxury hotels in the heart of the capital city Colombo, which suggests either an anti-foreigner motive or an attempt to hurt the tourist industry that the government depends upon for revenue. Thirty foreigners are reportedly among the dead. They had also attacked another church on the eastern coast, the opposite side of the island from Colombo, and also a church and a small hotel outside Colombo. On the other hand, no government buildings or institutions or personnel were targeted. So while the attacks were clearly planned and coordinated, piecing together a coherent motive will have to wait until further investigations.
I have family in Sri Lanka who live in Colombo. I called them and they are safe. My sisters had both been attending Easter Sunday services in two different churches when the officiating clergy, after some whispered conversations with others, had abruptly told them that there was unrest in the country and that everyone should immediately disperse to their homes and stay low, which they did. My niece works at one of the luxury hotels that were hit and although she was not at work this morning, she says that she had heard that four of her co-workers had died. One of the other hotels that were attacked was where we had stayed during our last visit to Sri Lanka.
Brutal violence is not a stranger to Sri Lanka. In fact it could be argued that the last five decades has seen more periods of violence than of peace. I too have been through these violent periods of death and curfews and hiding. But the last decade had been relatively peaceful, though there had been a recent upsurge in violence by Buddhist militants against the Muslim minority. But the scale of this current attack, the use of suicide bombers, and the choice of targets, suggests the disturbing possibility that this may be the beginning of some kind of sustained violent campaign by a so-far unidentified group based on an as yet unidentified ideology to advance an unidentified agenda.