Beware the false narrative.

ISIS and a junior defense minister in the Sri Lankan government have claimed that the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in the island nation were a response to the white supremacist attack on mosques in Christchurch on March 15. The claims need to be treated with skepticism. Here’s why.

Having been defeated on the battlefields of the Levant, ISIS now urges its followers to return to decentralized terrorist attacks as a form of irregular warfare. It wishes to show continued strength by claiming that it can orchestrate attacks world-wide and that no country can escape its reach. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka fit that narrative.

The truth is otherwise. The Sri Lankan attacks may have taken inspiration, and perhaps even logistical support from ISIS but planning and preparation began well before March 15. It is true that ISIS called for retaliatory attacks after the Christchurch attacks, and it could well be possible that March 15 was a precipitant event for the Sri Lankan bombings. But there was and is a larger and yet more local picture in play.

The Easter Sunday bombings occurred against a backdrop of rising violence against both Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhist militants, something that has accentuated in the last year and is the underlying motive for the attacks. These were not random or foreign in origin, but represent a violent response by one oppressed minority using terrorism against another minority and tourists in order to make a sharp point to the constitutionally empowered majority that it sees as increasingly oppressive in nature (70 percent of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism, which is the official religion of the country and which has constitutionally protected privileges). Christians were the targets because they were left unprotected by an indifferent or incompetent government, while tourists were attacked because the country depends on them for hard currency revenues. Neither targeted group were the real subject of the attacks, nor was the objective of the attacks strictly about them.

Operationally speaking, the effort to engage in coordinated, simultaneous attacks against multiple soft targets using significant quantities of explosives and involving at least 7 suicide bombers requires months of target surveillance, stockpiling and concealment of bomb-making ingredients, manufacture of human-portable bombs, coordination and communication between perpetrators and accomplices and logistical support in at least three cities, all under the veil of secrecy. Whether or not Christchurch served as a precipitant or ISIS called for revenge attacks in its wake, the making of the Easter Sunday plot was long in the works well before the white supremacist gunman walked into the Masjid al Noor.

Simply put, the Easter Sunday bombings simply could not have been put together in the month after the Christchurch attacks. Moreover, the Sri Lankan security services were warned several times before March 15 that Muslim extremists were preparing to launch attacks, followed by specific information two weeks ago that Catholic churches were being targeted on Easter. The complexity of the attacks and the repeated warnings of them strongly suggests that ISIS’s claims are opportunistic rather than truthful.

Likewise, the uncorroborated claim by a Sri Lankan junior minister that Christchurch was the reason for the Easter Sunday atrocities appears to be reckless attempt to deflect attention away from the gross negligence that led to the intelligence “failure” that facilitated them. In an atmosphere of rising ethnic and religious tensions, the Sri Lankan government received repeated and specific warnings about the impending attacks and yet did nothing. It did not increase security around churches and hotels and did not seek to preemptively arrest suspects on various extremist watch lists. Instead, rendered by partisan infighting and weighed down by incompetence, the security forces cast a negligent eye on what was going to happen. That may be because the attacks can serve as an excuse to crack down on the Muslim community, something Buddhist hard-liners have been seeking for some time. Whatever the reason, it was not an intelligence “failure” that facilitated the attacks. The security services knew, or at least were warned about what was going to happen. They either could not or chose not to act.

In truth, ISIS and some Sri Lankan government interests converged in making Christchurch part of the narrative. Falsely claiming that the Easter Sunday attacks were revenge for Christchurch makes it seem as if they are part of a larger struggle in which Sri Lanka is a pawn. The reality is more simple: the attacks were a local Islamist response to increased ethno-religious conflict in Sri Lanka in recent years, which itself is part of a larger struggle within South Asia between Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as their lines of division continue to harden.

Therein lies the danger of the false narrative embedded in the ISIS and minister’s claims about Christchurch. They feed into the “clash of civilizations” argument put forward by ideological extremists that the world is in the midst of an cultural and religious conflict in which only one side can win. Subscribing to this argument justifies so-called “tit for tat” responses, whereby an attack by one side leads to an attack by the other, creating a cycle of violence that is designed to spiral into an existential confrontation between antithetical “others.” Although the vast majority of religionists the world over are non-violent and tolerant of other beliefs, this is the apocalyptic vision that extremists want to propagate.

The antidote to this is to place responsibility where it belongs and to not buy into false opportunistic narratives about revenge-based existential conflict. Sometimes the blame for atrocities lies closer to home, both in terms of root causes and inadequate responses.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Radio New Zealand web site ( on April 25, 2019.

13 thoughts on “Beware the false narrative.

  1. While I agree with you that it takes time to prepare for an atrocity like this and therefore the original target was not Christian, it takes no time at all to change targets. It therefore seems highly likely that the original targets were hotels and, possibly, Buddhist temples, but that the targets were changed to Christian churches due to the events in Christchurch. After all, there is far more purchase terrorizing your “oppressors” (Buddhists) than another disregarded minority.

  2. McDoc:

    It has been a while. You could well be right, but as I understand it leaders in the Muslim community told authorities months ago that there were extremists in their midst who were plotting against churches. This led to the warning two weeks ago about the Easter attacks on churches and hotels. So it could be that the targets remained unchanged and the warnings went unheeded. Plus, changing targets at the last minute opens up the risk of mission failure because of unforeseen conditions, circumstances etc.

    Of course, the attacks could have been orchestrated by militant Buddhists with or without security service complicity in order to justify a crack down on Muslims. That could help purge the security apparatus of more moderate opponents because they “failed” to detect the plot or ignored warnings. I am not a fan od Deep State theories of any stripe but in countries with fragile governments and strong partisan and/or ethnographies-religious sentiment in the security apparatus, such things have been known to happen.

    The one thing I am certain of is that the SL govt is no more to be trusted on the truth of the matter than is ISIS.

  3. Changing targets, even between two soft targets, isn’t a trivial matter. While materials and training can still be used, the process of “scoping” the target can be quite a lengthy one. Especially if you’re scoping multiple targets at once – the odds of some random complication happening during the scoping process is very high.

    I won’t say it is -impossible- for seven new targets to be scoped in a month but it is very unlikely. The attackers would have had to have been incredibly well organised, very lucky, and they would have had to have decided to change targets pretty much the day after the ChCh attacks.

    I think Pablo is right – this was an attack that was already planned and the association with the ChCh attacks was just an attempt to get more attention to it (an attempt, I have to say, that seems to have worked pretty well).

  4. I agree that re-scoping targets is not a trivial matter, but given that the perpetrators had a month since Christchurch AND did not have to change the hotel targets, I think it is eminently achievable. I’m struck by the fact that there were no Buddhist or government targets. To me, it seems very odd that a well-thought out terrorist attack of this nature omitted prime targets like these.

    Having said that, I think the Sri-Lankans would be making a big mistake just passing this attack off as a “reprisal” – I think they have much bigger problems than that.

  5. I think the non-targeting of Buddhists shows that the attack wasn’t really about Sri Lanka’s internal politics, even if the attackers were themselves Sri Lankans. It was designed to be part of a global anti-christian struggle, playing to a globalised audience, and Sri Lankan christians were targeted simply because it was a target of opportunity. The attempt to associate it with Christchurch supports this – Christchurch is still being talked about globally, so why not attempt to create an association?

  6. Sri Lankan intel agencies were quite possibly expecting the Tamil Tigers to restart their campaign of violence, and hence took their eyes off the ball with every other threat. In spite of being tipped off by the local Muslim community. The friction between the Sri Lankan PM and his deputy certainly didn’t help either.

    As for ISIS, they have a severe case of Walter Mitty syndrome and are desperate to be in the news. IIRC al-Qaeda pulled the same stunt with the 2004 Madrid bombings, which appeared to be the work of AQ fanboys rather than operatives taking direct orders.

  7. “As for ISIS, they have a severe case of Walter Mitty syndrome and are desperate to be in the news”

    Isn’t this the default for petty much every violent political actor (regardless of whether we use the “terrorist” label or not)?

  8. “Isn’t this the default for petty much every violent political actor (regardless of whether we use the “terrorist” label or not)?”

    Not always. There are black-ops like the 1980 Bologna bombing, and anything officially found to be a false flag, such as the 1931 Mukden incident, also count.

  9. The goal is still to attract media attention though, even if they want to attract attention towards somebody other than the actual perpetrators.

  10. I agree that the reality must be that planning and intent for this attack was begun long before the the Christchurch shooting.

    Although, perhaps, it is believable that the Christchurch shooting did provide some final motivating factor for the actual individual bombers to follow through on an attack that was already planned.

    Also, I’m not sure that any association with Christchurch has made much difference to the attention this attack has gained. Sure, it makes a difference in NZ. But internationally, the Easter bombings have significant attention simply because they were a large-scale terrorist attack.

  11. It’s true that this attack was going to get plenty of attention on its own “merits” without any attempt to connect it to Christchurch. But the Christchurch attack has fed ISIS’ narrative that Muslims are not safe in the west and that western society is innately violently hostile to Islam. That message has a cut-through within Islamic communities that the Sri Lankan attacks don’t.

  12. Except that the NZ govt and majority response to Christchurch gives the lie to the Daesh narrative and there have been no similar scale attacks on Muslims anywhere in the West in recent times. The SL govt claims are just deflection. Reproduction of the “tit for tat” claims in the media is therefore irresponsible and dangerous.

  13. Of course, the narrative ISIS is trying to create is a lie, although like many lies it has a grain of truth. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t work. Muslims are no less susceptible to selection bias than non-Muslims, and those receptive to ISIS propaganda are likely to believe that there are numerous ChCh style attacks that western governments cover up.

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