Eight separate explosions took place, at least two of which were suicide bombings: three targeted churches celebrating Easter Sunday Mass; four targeted hotels frequented by Western tourists on Easter holiday; and one house blast, which killed three police officers, occurred during a later security operation.
At least 39 foreigners—including citizens from the United States, Britain, Australia, and Portugal—were among the slain.
Most fatalities occurred in the three church bombings. The worst took place in St. Sebastian’s, a Catholic church in Negombo; there at least 150 Christian worshippers were killed. At St. Anthony’s Shrine, another Catholic church in Colombo, the nation’s capital, 52 were killed; and at the evangelical Zion Church, 38 were killed.
The Sri Lankan government said a local Islamic extremist group, the National Thowheed Jamaath, was responsible for the carnage; 21 people affiliated with the group were subsequently arrested. Although “[a]ll are locals,” said a government official during a news conference, “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.” Two days later, the Islamic State claimed the attack, though “the group’s wording did not make clear whether it had direct ties to the [local] bombers, or if the attackers were heeding the Islamic State’s calls for Muslims to attack in their home countries.”
One India, a news site, gives more context:
The problem of the Islamic State has been rampant in Sri Lanka since 2016. That year the Parliament was told that 32 Muslims from elite families had joined the ISIS. The following year, scores of Sri Lankan ISIS terrorists had returned from Syria, following which there was a spike in Jihadi activity. It may also be recalled that a postgraduate student from Sri Lanka, Mohammad Nizamdeen was charged with ISIS affiliated terror related offence in Australia. He was accused of being part of a plot to assassinate an Australian politician. Incidentally he is the nephew of MP Faiszer Musthapha, a cabinet minister in the Sri Lankan government
According to Sri Lanka’s 2012 census, Christians account for 7.4 percent of the population, whereas Muslims account for 9.7 percent. The majority are Buddhist—70 percent—with 12.6 percent Hindu.
Negombo, where the worst church attack occurred, “is fondly called the ‘little Rome,’ with shrines and ancient churches,” explained a local. “[S]ince the churches in these areas date back to 19th century, people flock in huge numbers to attend the Mass on Easter and Christmas”—making it an ideal target for terrorists looking for maximum casualties.
“I don’t have words to express my pain,” said another Christian man who survived St. Sebastian bombing in Negombo:
We lost so many people…. The smell of flesh is all around me…. We are a peace-loving community in this small city, we had never hurt anyone, but we don’t know from where this amount of hate is coming. This city has become a grave with blood and bodies lying around…. Since the past three years, we don’t know why, but we see an extremist’s mindset developing among the Muslims. I know many good Muslims, but there are also a lot who hate us, and they have never been so before. It is in these three years that we see a difference.
“People were in pieces,” recalled Ms. Silviya, 26, concerning the bombing of St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo. “Blood was everywhere. I closed my son’s eyes, took him out, passed him off to a relative and ran back inside to look for my family.”
Hotels celebrating Easter and offering special platters were especially targeted. The Hindu describes one such attack: “The suicide bomber waited patiently in a queue for the Easter Sunday breakfast buffet at Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Grand hotel before setting off explosives strapped to his back. Carrying a plate, the man, who had registered at the hotel the night before as Mohamed Azzam Mohamed, was just about to be served when he set off his devastating strike in the packed restaurant,” which “was having one of its busiest days of the year for the Easter holiday weekend.” “There was utter chaos,” recalls the manager. “It was 8:30 am and it was busy. It was families. He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast.”
Minutes before a bomb ripped through another hotel, the Shangri-La, a young girl posted a family photo (below) depicting seven smiling people sitting around a table. “Easter breakfast with family,” she had written on Facebook.
The suicide bomber of that hotel is believed to have been popular Muslim cleric Zahran Hashim. He is on record preaching all the usual hostility for non-Muslims, including by extolling the doctrine of al-wala’ w’al-bara’—which calls on Muslims to be befriend and be loyal to fellow Muslims, while hating all non-Muslims—and asserting that “Even if a Kafir [non-Muslim] does good things, i [sic] hate him, because he is a nonbeliever.”
Although Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, said that “we never expected such a thing to happen and especially on Easter Sunday,” Islamic terror attacks targeting Christians during Easter Sunday are hardly uncommon.
In 2017 in Egypt, Islamic terrorists bombed two Coptic Christian churches during Palm Sunday mass, which inaugurates Easter week, leaving 50 dead and 120 injured. On Easter Sunday, 2016 in Pakistan, an Islamic suicide bomber detonated near the children rides of a public park where Christians were known to be congregated and celebrating; over 70 people—mostly women and children—were killed and nearly 400 injured. On Easter Sunday, 2012 in Nigeria, Islamic terrorists bombed a church, leaving some 50 worshippers dead.
The recent Sri Lankan terror attack—which in death toll eclipses all other Muslim attacks on Christians during Easter—is a reminder that, if the Islamic State is on the retreat in the Middle East, the hate-filled ideology it and likeminded Muslims adhere to continues to spread, finding new recruits and new victims around the globe.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of the new book,Sword and Scimitar, Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.