Photo: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe. - Photo: 2021

Two Years On: Geopolitics of The 2019 Easter Sunday Crime in Sri Lanka and Cover-Up

The Weaponization of Religion Amid Hybrid Cold War in The Indian Ocean Region

Viewpoint by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

The writer is a cultural and medical anthropologist with research expertise in international political economy, peace, and development studies in South and South-East Asia. Her research spans issues in gender and women’s empowerment, migration and multiculturalism, ethno-religious identity politics, new and old Diasporas and global religion, particularly, transnational Theravada Buddhist networks in the Asia-Pacific region. Darini was a Senior Lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka. Her Bachelor’s degree is from Brandeis University and her MA and PhD are from Princeton University.

COLOMBO (IDN) — “We have met the enemy and he is us”—Walt Kelly from Pogo Comics, quoted in “The ISIS is the US: the shocking truth behind the Army of Terror” [i]

“Crime is a form of communication that is both complex and fascinating as it is always characterized by a relationship that can be established between elements present and something absent, or yet to be discovered…Investigating a crime and trying to prevent recurrence means evaluating every possible voluntary and involuntary message left by an author.. :[ii]

On the first Sunday of March 2021 church congregations in Sri Lanka were joined by Buddhist monks and prominent Muslims for a multi-religious protest to mark “Black Sunday”; the second anniversary of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings that rocked the country two years ago, killing 279 people and injuring many more.

Local and national religious leaders, aware of the ongoing weaponization, fragmentation, and use of religion/s against core values such as ahimsa or non-violence, by external actors interested in advancing their geopolitical interests in this strategically located Indian Ocean island, stood together to call for justice and accountability for the victims of the mysterious ISIS-claimed attacks. Protestors held placards and demanded: “Tell us who the masterminds are?”

The simultaneous attacks staged at 7 different luxury tourist hotels and coastal churches at Easter 2019 were mysteriously claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS), far from this strategic Indian Ocean island.

The carnage that sent the country into lockdown and the economy into a tailspin was clearly designed, hybrid-war style, to cause maximum damage to both the Economy and Society. The attack was clearly staged by a global-local network while the design of the crime reflected foreign interests.

Sri Lanka is in the crosshairs of great power rivalry as a hybrid cyber–Cold War unfolds in the rapidly militarizing Indian Ocean region as big states use transnational religious networks and cultural ‘soft power’ and religious terror narratives including the Islamophobic ISIS narrative, which Delhi-based academic Saeed Naqvi has deemed a ‘diplomatic asset”, to cultivate local-global networks of political influence and bi-partisan corruption rackets to advance their geostrategic interests.

While the attack on hotels was meant to cripple the tourist-dependent and highly indebted island economy, the attack on churches was meant to cause a cascade of inter-religious violence and destabilization of this multi-religious country, rendering it vulnerable to foreign boots on the ground or even to a foreign military base being set up to purportedly ‘protect Christians from ISIS terror’ in the rapidly militarizing Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

However, since Christians and Muslims are minorities in this Buddhist-Hindu cultural majority country and have historically enjoyed excellent inter-religious relations, it appeared that the foreign masterminds behind the Easter crime had miscalculated and imported a Euro-American “Clash of Civilizations” narrative that has little traction in multi-religious South Asian context. There was no local history or motive for a clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims who had amicable interreligious relations on the island.

From a local perspective, the designers of the crime seemed to have targeted the wrong religious community, and so the masterplan behind the deadly Easter crime began to unravel with his Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith declaring that the attacks were staged by international actors who benefit from destabilizing regions and countries and weapons sales.

It was in this context that the powerful Buddhist clergy of Sri Lanka, who have historically confronted colonial projects, backed the Archbishop’s demand for accountability and joined the Black Sunday protest to compel the Government of Sri Lanka to deliver the truth about the masterminds behind the attacks since the recently released Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) Report into the crime had revealed no new analysis regarding those behind the attacks.

For non-recurrence of such violence, identifying the masterminds and holding them accountable would be surely imperative.

Chinese targets in Easter attacks: fundamental questions unanswered in PCoI Report and other investigations

Fundamental questions, or perhaps co-incidences such as why the leader of the attacks, Zaharan Hashim and a second suicide bomber both targeted and died at the Chinese owned super luxury Shangri La Hotel on Colombo’s seafront rather than in a church or Buddhist temple if their crime was primarily religiously motivated, have been ignored in investigations.

Aside from Shangri La the other hotels and churches that were bombed were hit by just a single suicide bomber. There is absolutely no evidence to indicate that Zaharan Hashim, leader of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), the obscure group blamed locally, knew about or was concerned about Uyghurs in China.

Intelligence experts also pointed out that a leader of a terror group would never kill himself at the outset and suggested that the attacks were staged by other actors fronting the local National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), which espoused the Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi project initiated during the Cold War years to weaponized Islam as a bulwark against communist and socialist ideologies—subject to which we shall return.[iii]

Four Chinese marine scientists in Sri Lanka for joint marine exploration lost their lives in the attack on the Kingsbury Hotel. Remarkably, the US and Indian owned, Hilton and Taj Hotels that are next to Shangri La were untouched.

The global and local narrative after the Easter carnage focused on religious motivations in the Easter attack and elided the economic and geopolitical dimensions, while some foreign experts suggested that they were staged in retaliation for attacks on a mosque in New Zealand, a claim that was dismissed by the NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden!

Too many strategic Chinese targets to be a coincidence? Did the designers of the Easter attacks use religion as a partial smoke screen? While media attention and investigations have been focused on the churches that came under attack, the media narrative has been crafted to obscure the vital facts of the crime that may provide clues to the masterminds and messaging evident in the geopolitics behind the Easter carnage and its economic motives.

There has been a veritable infodemic regarding swords in mosques in the local media although no one died of sword attacks. Various other stories about ISIS setting up a Caliphate in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka were circulated by international experts.

Since answers to fundamental questions were missing after 2 years of investigations, people from all religious communities on the island came together to voice their disappointment with the Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), that increasingly appeared to be a bi-partisan party political ‘cover up’, especially of the international actors behind the attack. It was perceived by many locals as part of a larger hybrid war on both the economy and society of Sri Lanka caught in the midst of a Cold War waged by the USA and its NATO allies and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad friends, on China.

In the wake of the attacks, Foreign Minister Mangala Samarawickrama announced that the US Govt. was ready to disburse the 450 million as a Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), ‘grant’ that would give US companies access to land and transport sectors to be re-structured despite a great deal of opposition from Sri Lankan Trade Unions and civil society groups.

Finger Prints in the Design of the Crime point to Hybrid War and local-global networks

Seven simultaneous suicide bombings in the East and West coasts shook Sri Lanka on a bright quiet Easter morning with Hollywood style ‘shock and awe’ precision in April 2019. Youthful bombers with backpacks targeted seafront luxury tourist hotels and churches killing more than 279 people and injuring many more. Four tourist hotels in Colombo and three churches on the West and East Coasts of the country were targeted.

In the aftermath the country’s already debt-trapped, tourist-dependent economy and multicultural society went into a tailspin and lockdown, seemingly a dry run for the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. The latter was imposed with 4 hours prior notice in 2020 again crippling the economy although Covid-19 data indicates that the illness is milder than seasonal flu in Sri Lanka, as in other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam Laos and Cambodia.

The leader of the small group of suicide bombers, Zaharan of the National Thowheed Jamaat, (NTJ), and a second suicide bomber struck the brand new glittering Chinese-owned Shangri La Hotel on Colombo’s luxury hotel strip.

The fact that two suicide bombers, including the leader Zaharan, targeted a Chinese asset Shangri La Hotel, indicated that it was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Easter bombings. St Anthony’s church, famous for miracles, attracts people of all faiths—Buddhists, Hindus and occasional Muslims and overlooks the busiest and most strategic port of South Asia was also bombed. The church was one of the three most important targets after the Hong Kong-owned Shangri La Hotel and Kingsbury Hotel where the four Chinese marine scientists were killed.

The economic and geopolitical targets of the attacks seemed designed to send a coded message to China—hands-off Sri Lanka’s maritime domain.

This strategically located Indian Ocean Island sits at the centre of the busiest trade, communication and energy shipping routes and more importantly, at a spaghetti junction of Submarine Undersea Data Cables (UDCs), which carry over 90 per cent of data that keeps the global economy and financial system going amidst Covid-19 lockdowns and is vital to secure what the United States terms its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

After the Attacks

ISIS claimed the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks had targeted both the island’s economy and society in what appeared to be a hybrid war attack by a global-local network of clandestine actors hiding behind the ISIS narrative. However, the media narrative focused exclusively on religion and elided the economic and geopolitical dimensions of the attacks.

In the wake of the attacks various rumours circulated in global and local media, giving clues to the local-global network behind the attacks. There were narratives from various foreign intelligence agencies and experts, including an expert at the Rand Corporation, Jonah Blank and Singapore-Sri Lankan terror expert Rohan Gunaratne that ISIS intended to set up a Caliphate in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

Stories that Muslim women had been buying white clothes in order to attack Buddhist temples circulated, seemingly to whip up a fear psychosis and cause a cascade of religious violence and stage a “Buddhist-Muslim’s clash of civilizations”? These stories led to isolated confrontations between some Sinhala nationalist organizations and Muslims.

However, there were various clues and coincidences that emerged in the international and local press related to the Easter carnage that points to a network of external actors and funders of the attacks:

  1. Police sniffer dogs had found US diplomats with bomb materials at the JAIC Hilton residencies in Colombo. That story soon disappeared.[iv]
  2. A doctored videotape with ISIS boss Abu Bakkar Al Bagdadi claiming the Sri Lanka attacks ran on global TV channels. The authenticity of the Islamic State video with IS head honcho Al Bagdahdi supposedly speaking about attacks in Sri Lanka could not be independently verified according to CreditSITE Intelligence Group quoted in the New York Times. NYT observed that it was “unclear when or where the video was recorded, while the parts that refer to recent events, like the Sri Lanka attack, are addressed in audio, not video, suggesting that it may have been recorded weeks ago with newer audio portions added later.  [v]
  3. An Israeli news agency Whitestream released fake news that Bitcoin had funded the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, but Bitcoin threatened to sue it. Who is behind this and other propaganda campaigns that ran in the global media to distract investigations?
  4. Exhibit One[vi]

    A reputed Lebanese News Agency, Alahed published a copy of a cable that indicated Saudi Arabia had advance notice of the Easter crime, but unlike Indian Intelligence which shared the information with Sri Lankan intelligence did NOT pass on this information. Indeed, the Same Saudi Government whose crown prince is indicted, ironically, in a recently-declassified CIA Report on the chilling killing of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi in its Istanbul embassy had sent Special instructions to its Embassy in Colombo 5 days prior to the Easter Attack, signed by Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim bin Abdul Aziz al-Assaf. The most important instruction was to destroy any incriminating evidence that may link to the local network of Muslim politicians the NTJ “First: You should delete all documents, computer data and latest correspondence with domestic and foreign members and groups, in addition to imposing a curfew for the embassy personnel unless it is necessary.” <LEFT: Exhibit One[vi]

  5. It was also revealed that M.L.M Hizbullah who was with both the Rajapakse and Yahapalanya regime had got copious funds from Saudi Arabia also to set up a Sharia University and was known to have had financial dealings with the leader of the Suicide bombers, Zaharan Hashim also from Kathankudi.
  6. Saudi Arabia had instructed its citizens to leave the country after the attacks and following revelations of a meeting in Passikudha between M.L.M Hizbullah and Saudi officials soon after the attacks. However, M.L.M Hizbullah, like his West coast partner in Mannar, Rishard Bathudeen, seems to be above the law and have protection from powerful foreign actors who hold sway in Colombo.

Maritime Domain Awareness and the US Ambassador visiting Buddhist monks to discuss MCC

All the sites targeted for suicide bombings were oceanfront, along the east and west coasts of the country, and after the attack, the island’s harbours were locked down. No inland cities were targeted, and attacks had an ocean theme although IS operates in desert and mountain areas.

In the following week the US Ambassador, Alina Teplitz lectured the GoSL on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in an interview aired on the Ada Derana TV station and drove home this message. In the wake of the attack Teplitx also visited the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and met with the Mahanayake to discuss the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), compact against which the powerful Buddhist clergy had declared its opposition.

As Giacomo Buoncompani noted, “criminal behaviour is a form of communication,[vii] a particular, pathological communication that upon further analysis yields value. Crime is a form of communication that is both complex and fascinating, as it is always characterized by a relationship that can be established between elements present and something absent, or yet to be discovered. Communication today plays a leading role that will most likely continue to become even more important. Investigating a crime and trying to prevent it means evaluating every possible voluntary and involuntary message left by an author.

After the attacks, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was expected to visit Sri Lanka to sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact and discuss the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The attacks would provide a perfect alibi for a US military base, purportedly to fight ISIS terrorism and protect Christian communities in the Indian Ocean region, in the face of mounting opposition and protests by Trade Unions, civil society groups and the Sangha against the MCC compact, which was subsequently aborted.

Coincidentally, two months before the Easter Sunday carnage, in February 2019, the United Nation’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), had ruled that the UK-US occupation of the Chagos Islands, southwest of Sri Lanka where the Diego Garcia military base is located, was illegal under international law.

Sri Lanka was once deemed “an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean”!

Located at the ‘crossroads of history’ and colonized by competing European maritime powers (Portuguese, Dutch and British) for almost 450 years before independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, at the centre of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), has been often ‘islanded’ in the historical and social science literature on ethnic and religious conflict and violence in the island.

However, ethnic and religious identity politics and conflict in the island has rarely been exclusively internally generated or bereft of geopolitical power plays, transnational actors and related global-local networks using funds, religious and cultural” soft power” and local political actors networks to advance geostrategic interests. More so today given that Sri Lanka’s urban religious communities are transnationally networked and social media-savvy in a context of significant post/colonial ethnic and religious diasporas.

 During the Cold War period the country was subject to power plays and various covert and overt interventions from India (then officially non-aligned, but close to USSR), and the US and UK[viii].

Sri Lanka’s first socialist Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who nationalized the country’s strategic ports and airports from the British was allegedly assassinated by a monk at the time when the CIA was weaponizing Buddhism (and Islam in West Asia and Afghanistan), to contain the spread of Communism from the USSR and China.[ix] This was a period of US, UK and retreating European empires instigated assassinations, coups and regime-change operations from Patrice Lumumba in Congo to Mossadegh in Iran, to Suharto in Indonesia in the context of decolonization and national liberation struggles sweeping the Global South.[x] 

As Berger argued, the Cold War was a ‘hot war’ in the Global South, which never ended as the US-led Global War on Terror took over. The ‘global struggle for the Third World, arguably just got hotter with the victory of Joe Biden.[xi] Locating Sri Lanka’s tumultuous post-colonial present in that wider global and Indian Ocean geopolitical context remains a challenge for current and future generations of local historians and social scientists.


Pope Francis in Iraq

Remarkably, on the same day of the Black Sunday protests in Sri Lanka against the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attacks and the failure of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Report (PCoI), to shed light on the masterminds of the crime, Pope Francis was in Iraq on his first foreign trip after the Covid-19 crisis, reaching out to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims, the sect that dominates Iran, the US bete noir in the Middle East. Receiving the head of the Roman Catholic Church at his home in the holy city of Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani said Christians should be able to live in peace and security like all other Iraqis.

Pope Francis noted that all “hostility, extremism and violence are “betrayals of religion” at an interfaith prayer service. Multi-religious Iraq was undone by the United States-led invasion in 2003, based on spurious claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Under American occupation Hussein’s Sunni dominated army was disbanded, enabling the birth of ISIS with the patronage of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in order to simultaneously engineer chaos in Iraq, weaponize Shia-Sunni differences, and destroy its multi-religious communities also by staging a “Clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam as a smokescreen for regime change in neighbouring Syria. The latter operation was only stymied by Russian President Putin’s support of Syria’s Bashar Al Assad. This history has been traced in many books including by an expert panel of intelligence officers in a book titled, “The ISIS is US: The Shocking Truth Behind the Army of Terror”.

Is the ISIS monster and narrative created by the CIA after the invasion of Iraq to weaponize a multi-religious society being deployed in Sri Lanka? Is the ISIS initially created by the CIA and Saudi to further spread the Wahhabi-Salafi project through local Muslim politicians and elites now out of control like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was created by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and the Intelligence Bureau?[xii]

The LTTE later assassinated former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi in a classic case of blowback. Or is the ISIS network and Islamophobic narrative a ‘diplomatic asset’ as Saeed Naqvi has suggested for the US to advance its geostrategic interests under the guise of counter-terrorism, all the while selling weapons?

It was hence that, two years later, protestors in Sri Lanka were calling on the Sri Lanka Government (GoSL), to reveal the local-global networks that had funded, trained and designed the Easter 2019 crime claimed by the ISIS, and the foreign hands, funds and masterminds behind the leader and a local group that staged the attacks. The design of the attacks indicate an intent by external actors and networks to weaponize religion/s by importing a Euro-American “Clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam in Sri Lanka where these communities have lived in harmony for centuries and cause a cascade of violence that would de-stabilize the county, rendering it vulnerable to external intervention purportedly to fight ISIS and protect Christians, and distract from the search for the external actors and the motives behind the carefully planned and executed Easter Sunday crime in Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 April 2021]

Photo: Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims hold silent protest to demand the truth about the Easter Sunday massacre. Credit: SL Time, Colombo Page News Desk.

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[i] The Washington Blog, Wayne Madsen, Syrian Girl Partisan, John-Paul Leonard 2016 “ ISIS is US: The shocking truth behind the army of terror.”  Progressive Press. San Diego. California.

[ii] Criminological Communication: Understanding Crime through the Media and Human Communication Giacomo Buoncompagni: Sociology and Criminology:

[iii] Askar H. Enazy 2009 Saudi Wahabi Islam in the service of Uncle Sam’ Middle East Institute. Washington DC


[v] Explosives! US Embassy Plot in Colombo sniffed out by Police Dogs? 

[vi] Lebanese news outlet Alahed News run by News First Sri Lanka reported that they have obtained a top-secret document sent by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Saudi Ambassador to Sri Lanka. The letter which was sent 5 days prior to the attack seems to indicate that the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was aware of the attacks.

[vii] Criminological Communication: Understanding Crime through the Media and Human Communication Giacomo Buoncompagni: Sociology and Criminology:

[viii] Phil Miller 2019 Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries who got away with War Crimes” . London. Zed Books.

[ix] Ford, Eugene 2017 Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.

[x] Bevins, Vincent 2020 The Jakarta Method: Washington’s anti-Communist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped our World. New York. Public Affairs.

[xi]  Mark T. Berger. The Real Cold War was Hot: The Global Struggle for the Third World” See also. David Vine’s 2020 ‘The United States of War’.

[xii] For a comprehensive account of the history of the Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi project please see Askar H. Enazy 2009 Saudi Wahabi Islam in the service of Uncle Sam’ Middle East Institute. (MEI) Washington DC

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