On the morning of Easter Sunday, April 21, a man walked into St. Anthony’s Shrine in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, and detonated a bomb during Mass, killing at least fifty people. At almost exactly the same moment twenty miles away, another suicide bomber killed over a hundred worshippers at a church in the predominantly Catholic city of Negombo. Twenty minutes later, a third terrorist, prevented from entering a Protestant church in Batticaloa, blew himself up outside the building, killing twenty-five people, including both churchgoers and passersby. In the next few hours terrorists would also strike three Sri Lankan hotels that cater to foreign tourists. By the time it was over, the wave of coordinated bombings had killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds more, making it one of the deadliest attacks since 9/11. The suicide bombers were all members of a small local Islamist group called the National Thowheed Jama’ath, but authorities believe they were working with the Islamic State, which has taken responsibility for the attacks.
Were it not for egregious failures on the part of Sri Lanka’s security forces, it might all have been prevented. Indian officials had warned the Sri Lankan police in early April that local jihadists were planning a major operation targeting Christian churches, but the warning never made it to Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The entire government seemed to be caught off guard. Sri Lanka is used to dealing with mob attacks by Sinhalese Buddhists against religious minorities—including both Muslims and Christians—or bombings orchestrated by Tamil-speaking rebels (mostly Hindus). But this was different. Until recently, there had been little conflict between the Muslim and Christian communities, which together make up less than 20 percent of the population.
Still, surprising as the Easter attacks may have been to Sri Lanka’s leaders, they fit all too well into two alarming patterns of the past decade. The first is regional. South Asia has lately become a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Bangladesh has in recent years been wracked by jihadist attacks. According the Economist, the Maldives sent a greater portion of its population as recruits to ISIS than any other country in the world. We have to stop assuming that Islamist terrorists are all Arabs.