The Sri Lanka attacks are a sad reminder that the world is not free from terrorism

Whoever turns out to be responsible for the bombings, it is crucial that extremism in all its forms be challenged and rooted out

Sunday 21 April 2019 18:02
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Sri Lanka Easter Sunday explosions: What we know so far

The bombing of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka has left a new black mark on an island which might have thought terrorism was a thing of the past.

So far the death toll from the multiple attacks stands at over 200, though it seems reasonable to suppose that number will rise. Some foreign nationals are among the dead, including five Britons, but the vast majority of victims are local people. The murderous assaults were plainly well planned, and timed to coincide with Easter services. The carnage they have inflicted is unutterably grim.

The Sri Lankan government has concluded that suicide bombers were responsible for most if not all the blasts, while seven people have been arrested. No group has yet claimed liability for the attacks: the motive might be domestic, but the authorities will also be considering whether those who planned such destruction were driven by a broader, international outlook.

It is a decade since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers brought Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war to a brutal conclusion. Violence in recent years has been sporadic, perpetrated predominantly by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority against Muslim targets including mosques and businesses. Just over a year ago the authorities were moved to impose a state of emergency after a number of such attacks, said to have been carried out in revenge for the beating of a Buddhist man by a group of Muslim men.

So, sectarian tensions on the island have not disappeared. It is notable, however, that the targets on this occasion had connections either to the tourism industry or to Christian places of worship. That might point to the kind of extremism born of ideology that pays little heed to national borders.

The response of the Sri Lankan authorities has been quick. The country may not have enjoyed political stability in the last few years – indeed, it was beset by a constitutional crisis only last autumn – but security agencies have acted swiftly in the face of today’s tragedy. A curfew remains in place, with warnings that further attacks cannot be ruled out.

Shutting down access to social media services is less than ideal – but understandable as a means of preventing the circulation of wild rumours. Nevertheless, in a country which has seen its fair share of repression it is to be hoped that civic rights will be restored as soon as reasonably possible.

One thing is certainly clear from recent events, and that is that the world is not free of terrorism. Any thought that the fall of the Isis caliphate in Syria might have that effect was always likely to be facile – partly because the extreme beliefs which gave rise to that particular group are not confined to it; but also because there are plenty of other extreme views which can (and do) manifest themselves in violence.

We have seen that in recent days in Northern Ireland, where the emergence of the New IRA – and the murder of Lyra McKee – is a bleak reminder of historic woes. We have seen it too on the British mainland, where Brexit – and the factors which led us here in the first place – have fuelled the ire of many on the political right.

The attacks on Muslim worshippers in New Zealand last month were a shocking demonstration of where far-right extremism can lead – as if we didn’t already know. Islamist terror remains a threat too, while the example of Myanmar is proof that sectarian violence is not confined only to the Abrahamic religions.

Whoever turns out to be responsible for the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, it is crucial that extremism in all its forms be challenged and rooted out. Tit for tat violence on this scale should be avoided at all costs. And in the meantime, the world yet again mourns victims of terror who had done no wrong.

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