The situation in Sri Lanka is worse than I thought. I had initially thought that the simultaneous attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels that killed so many people might be a one-off plot by a small but tightly knit group of Islamist extremists. But subsequent events seem to suggest a much wider scope. Police and army raids on many locations around the country have unearthed caches of weapons and uniforms that suggest that this group is much larger and that the attacks may have been seen as just the first wave of a much larger plan.
What that plan may be, other than a continuation of mass murders of innocent people, is not clear and will have to await further investigation. Some of these raids have resulted in gun battles that have killed as many as 15 people. Repots says that the person identified as Mohammed Zahran Hashim, the ring leader of the plot, was one of the initial suicide bombers at the Shangri La hotel and that his brothers and father have been killed in the subsequent raids and gun battles. Around 100 people are reportedly in custody and the search is continuing for more.
The country seems to be tense. Schools have been closed for ten days and life and business are reportedly at a much slower pace as people are nervous about going out in public. Security forces are also conducting house-to-house searches. All Catholic churches have suspended Sunday masses indefinitely and today the archbishop conducted a televised mass from a small chapel at his residence and, in a welcome show of solidarity and support, both the president and prime minister, both Buddhists and involved in their own power struggles with each other, were among those in the small group in the chapel. One can only hope that the scale of this tragedy will knock sense into people that attacks such as these serve no purpose other than causing misery to innocent people.
Two of the bombers were apparently wealthy, well-educated people, the sons of one of the richest men in the country. This should no longer cause any surprise because there have been so many examples of well-off people getting involved with extremist violent groups. The ability to feel a generalized sense of grievance that leads one to succumb to the lures of a violent ideology transcends one’s personal situation.
The only tiny glimmer of good news is that the death total has been reduced from 321 to 253, though that is still a staggeringly large number.
Another small puzzle has also been resolved. The three churches that were attacked involved two large Catholic churches on the west coast of the country in and around the capital city Colombo that were hit at 8:45 am during Easter Sunday mass, while the third was a smaller evangelical Protestant one on the east coast, where most of the plotters seemed to be based, that was hit at 9:05am. It turns out that the third church was also supposed to be a large Catholic one, St Mary’s Cathedral, in the heart of the eastern city of Batticaloa that was timed for 8:45 am too. But unknown to the plotters who were not of course parishioners, the priest had advanced the time of the service to 7:00am so that when the bomber arrived at around 8:30 am to coincide his attack with the other two bombings, the service was already over and people had left. The bomber had then gone down the road to the other church where that service had begun and tried to get inside but one church elder had sensed something wrong about him and blocked him from entering. At that point, the bomber detonated the explosives in the courtyard close to a group of children, killing 29 people, including 14 children.
This sad story illustrates the essential randomness of life. A priest advances the time of a church service by half an hour, seemingly a decision of little consequence, and the net result is huge, that instead of one group of people being killed and injured, the lives of a totally different group of people are destroyed.