310 dead, hundreds more injured, a nation in mourning, and millions in shock and disbelief. As the first mass funerals take place today (Tuesday 23 April) headlines point to Isis links or involvement, and a minister admits that there had been a warning of an Easter attack. Was Sri Lanka always at risk, and what does this mean for other destinations that are seen as “safer”?
Was there a known risk of terrorism?
When most travellers think of places at risk from terrorism, Sri Lanka generally isn’t a place that springs to mind these days, but it was in 49th place on the Global Terrorism Index’s list in December 2018 – just after Tunisia and Belgium at 47 and 48 respectively, with Spain listed in 50th position.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had issued very few notifications about safety or terrorism in Sri Lanka recently. While the risk of terrorism was noted, advice prior to these attacks was about general safety: “Most visits to Sri Lanka are trouble-free. However, you should be aware of the risk of sexual assault, spiked drinks, road accidents, drowning due to dangerous tides and credit card fraud.”
Security teams such as Intelligent Protection International, a professional security firm, had Sri Lanka listed as a medium-high security risk prior to the Easter attacks, and warned travellers to avoid protests and demonstrations as political and religious tensions could lead to dangerous situations.
An alarming theme in today’s news is that warnings were received by Sri Lanka’s government two weeks before Easter, but nothing was done. The New York Times reports that the memo included names, addresses, telephone numbers, and personal information about the attackers. “The country’s security agencies had been closely watching a secretive cell of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a little-known radical Islamist organization that security officials in Sri Lanka now say carried out the attacks and may have received help from abroad.”
The New York Times also claims that the Sri Lankan government knew churches were potential targets, and notes that 24 people were arrested within hours, suggesting they knew exactly where to look.
The failure to prevent the attacks is being blamed on political in-fighting and lack of communication, but Shiral Lakthilaka, a senior adviser, denied that there had been any security lapses. “Everyone has done their job,” he said. “These kinds of alerts are coming time to time. Even U.S. or anyone will not try to panic people.”
The suspects, it would seem, were not thought to be a very high risk. They had previously been involved in “minor attacks” according to The Times, vandalising Buddhist temples and releasing inflammatory YouTube videos.
Isis/Islamic State Involvement
The massive escalation of activity from a “minor threat” to Easter Sunday’s horrific bombings suggests that they had advice, collaboration or even leadership from a group such as Isis, and experts point out that the co-ordinated attacks follow Isis patterns.
At least 32 people are known to have travelled from Sri Lanka to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Isis, and The Times says some may have returned with this training. It’s also possible that terrorist groups communicated via social media or other internet channels.
“The choice of targets — hotels appealing to western tourists and churches overwhelmingly attended by a local Christian minority — is also highly indicative of Isis.”
What does that mean for us?
Most governments recognise that Isis still poses a threat and there will almost certainly be increased security in many places following these attacks.
In the wake of such tragedy it’s important to remain vigilant, but we don’t believe in giving in to terror or panic. Rather, remain informed with every bit of relevant information available, make sure you have the appropriate travel insurance – including cover for acts of terrorism – and have a plan in case of any emergency.