The FCO in London has changed its travel advice for Sri Lanka: after the bombs in Colombo on Easter Sunday, it now advises “against all but essential travel”.
A large-scale attack
On 21 April, three hotels and three churches were targeted in a co-ordinated suicide IED attack against tourists and Christians on Easter Sunday in a number of locations in Sri Lanka. The latest estimate for the dead is 253 (including 40 foreign nationals), with nearly 500 injured, making it the largest terrorist incident in the country since a Tamil Tigers attack in June 1990. Several other devices were destroyed by EOD teams in the subsequent 24 hours, suggesting it could have been even bigger. Security has been increased, social media websites have been blocked, curfews have been imposed every night since the event, and the current state of emergency gives police extended powers to detain and question suspects (76 people have been arrested so far).
Terrorism and political antagonism
A critical concern for everyone (local authorities, the international community, and foreign travellers) will be the emergence of Islamist terrorism in a country that has spent so long rebuilding society after decades of conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels: it now faces a new threat from a new enemy. National security authorities understand that the attack was carried out by a local jihadist group known as National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ). The deliberate targeting of Christians and tourists is a two-pronged attempt to harm Sri Lanka’s tourist industry and to stir up ethnic and religious divisions in the country after ten years of comparative calm. The possibility that NTJ received support from the much larger Islamic State (IS) franchise introduces the concern that external backing and funding is allowing jihadist cells to take root in the country.
Of even greater concern are the political failures at the top of government that seem to have prevented any pre-emptive counter-terrorist action. International intelligence agencies (US and Indian) received an apparent warning of planned jihadist attacks against Christians more than two weeks earlier, which was forwarded to Sri Lankan intelligence. However, a political feud between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has led to such a breakdown in government co-operation that Mr Wickremasinghe is barred from attending intelligence briefings. This seems to have caused a failure to conduct any pre-emptive arrests, to issue warnings, or to put in place any security at vulnerable locations, actions that might otherwise have reduce casualties or even prevented the attacks entirely.
Risk of terrorism and vulnerability of tourists
The risk of terrorism in Sri Lanka is now high, as a domestic jihadist group (that can seemingly recruit men from comfortable local middle-class backgrounds), with international support, has demonstrated a clear desire to conduct devastating attacks against specific targets to undermine national stability. The likely influence of IS in this incident suggests that jihadism in Sri Lanka will be part of a wider strategy that has seen an expansion into south-east Asia (including Malaysia and particularly Indonesia). Jihadism may also cause a return to sectarian violence as ethnic groups seek to conduct retaliatory attacks (IS have already declared this to be a response to the Christchurch mosque shooting of March).
Tourists will be a natural target for future attacks. As Sri Lanka has become an increasingly popular location for western travellers, the country’s tourist industry has profited, to the country’s benefit. Fragile security structures make tourist infrastructure an easy target, particularly as the majority of tourists are likely to be Christians from the west.
NGS recommends that any travellers to Sri Lanka:
- consider the need for travel and pursue alternative options
- monitor local media for political and security developments, and for any changes to the threat levels published by the FCO (or equivalent)
- follow local security advice and do not travel during the curfew without the appropriate permit
- carry ID and travel documents at all times
- avoid obvious tourist centres, places of public gathering, Christian sites and large crowds, all of which may be obvious targets
- keep a low profile, as foreign travellers will be natural targets
- follow the advice of local authorities in the event of any security incident
- ensure you have contingency plans allowing for emergency evacuation or remote medical support
- maintain regular contact with colleagues at home, or consider using a remote tracking assistance company