About the speakers
MeiLee Dozier is an Asia-focused analyst with over 13 years of experience living and working in the region and nearly a decade devoted to in-depth analysis of its shifting geopolitical landscape, as well as its domestic conflicts, transnational threats, and other national security issues.
Ms. Dozier was most recently in Sri Lanka to assess the situation after the Easter Day attacks by suicide bombers and visited the hotels and church sites where they occurred.
She has developed a broad perspective from working in multiple fields, including journalism, international development, NGOs, private sector investment, academia and think-tanks.
Now based in Washington DC, Dozier continues to travel to the region for research and maintains an extensive network of contacts. She received her M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and her B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Jeff Moore
Dr. Jeff Moore is the CEO of Muir Analytics. He last spoke at Westminster on the Evolution in Islamic Insurgency in Asia. He earned his PhD in Thai counterinsurgency strategies and tactics from the University of Exeter in the UK in 2011. He has a BA in political science and an MA in US history with a concentration in military affairs from East Carolina University.
Dr. Moore has worked as a defense contractor and security consultant since 1998. He has supported the US Army’s Plans and Operations Division (G-3) in the Pentagon and The Department of Defense’s Force Transformation, among others. He also taught counterterrorism and COIN at National Defense University.
Dr. Moore is published in a wide array of magazines such as UPI’s “OutsideView,” “Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre,” the US Naval Institute’s “Proceedings” and “Naval History” magazines, “Small Wars Journal,” “World Refining,” “Asia Inc.,” “Mass Transit,” “World Oil”, and PropertyCasualty360, an insurance magazine. He is the author of two books: Spies for Nimitz: Joint Military Intelligence in the Pacific War, and The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency.
Jeff has given briefs to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, JUSMAG Thailand, the Overseas Security Advisory Council in Singapore, Thai Special Forces Headquarters, the Thai National Security Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, The American Society for Industrial Security, the FBI, and other like entities.
Robert R. Reilly:
We’re welcoming someone new to the podium tonight and also welcoming a veteran back because Jeff Moore was here earlier in the year speaking on the Evolution in Islamic Insurgency in Asia, which if you haven’t heard, I encourage you to go to the Westminster YouTube channel and see Jeff’s superb presentation on that subject.
What we’re talking about tonight is, of course, somewhat related, but it will be a tag team affair because MeiLee Dozier is also going to speak. We are delighted to have her here as she is an Asian-focused analyst who has worked in a broad array of areas, including journalism, national security issues, the shifting geopolitical landscape, etc., and relevant to our topic tonight is that MeiLee went to Sri Lanka and visited the sights of the Easter attacks, the hotels and the churches, so that she learned even more through the experience of witnessing that.
She received an MA in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins SAIS, and her BA at the University of Pennsylvania. Jeff Moore is the CEO of Muir Analytics. I told you the topic he addressed here last time. He earned his PhD in Thai counter insurgency strategies and tactics from the University of Exeter in the UK, obviously.
Now, Jeff has worked widely in the defense area as a contractor, security consultant, supported U.S. Army Plans and Operations division G3 in the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense’s force transformation among other things. He taught counter terrorism and COIN at National Defense University.
Jeff has published widely in a number of journals, magazines, Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, U.S. Naval Institute proceedings, etc. Most notably, he’s the author of two books, including Spies for Nimitz: Joint Military Intelligence in the Pacific War and, the other book, The Thai Way of Counter Insurgency. Tonight, Jeff and MeiLee will be addressing ISIS’ leaderless jihad and the Sri Lanka attacks. Welcome.
So tonight we’re going to get a little tactical on you. We’re actually going to unpack a little bit about the strategy, but a lot about the tactics behind the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, and we’re going to do it the same way we did our presentation back in September about ISIS in Southeast Asia.
We’re going to do it by data points and we’re going to flow through them pretty quickly, and we’re going to get to the end and talk about some policies and assessments, what does this mean for the future.
Our agenda: we’re going to check the map, talk about a summary of the attacks. We will linger on that for just a minute because it wasn’t just about a couple of churches and hotel bombings, it was a much broader and in-depth operation. We’ll talk about who did it, a little bit about the bombs, and then the actual attacks on the churches and the hotels, and then there were three more devices that went off, and then the aftermath, where another device went off and lots of arms caches were found, and then, of course, conclusion.
Like Robert said, this is a briefing based on open sources, but MeiLee was on the ground there. She stayed at two of the hotels that were hit. She interviewed quite a few people on the ground and actually got a government person to drive her around a little bit and picked up some extra information that way.
This was a 9/11-style event for a country that had gone through thirty years of warfare with the Tamil Tigers, so it was a great shock to them. And one quick note, the situation is what we call out of the critical stage. The actual terrorist cell that carried out this attack is no more, but the broader organization still exists and the aftermath of what they did is having a ripple effect on the Muslim vs Buddhist-type strife that is ongoing in Sri Lanka and they actually had a big riot on Monday where at least one person was killed. And so, these data points are still evolving and the investigation into exactly what happened is also still evolving, so what we have is the best we could do up to this point, but we have a lot of good data and some good conclusions.
Check the map. Everybody knows where Sri Lank is. The red dots – or the red squares mind you – are where actual kinetic action happened, where some explosions happened, and the orange squares are where some what we call combat support or combat service support activities happened, bomb making and those kinds of things, but there are scores of other places on the map that this particular organization touched, and then there’s again a lot of strife in the northern part of the country right now between Muslims and Buddhists.
So a summary of the attack. Again, it was just three churches and four hotels, it was a three phased operation. It was a spectacular attack, the kind that Al Qaeda and ISIS really like to carry out. It was highly synchronized and organized. It was a multi stage operation as we can see here and it was what the U.S. Military calls a ‘high payoff target’ or a ‘high payoff event’. And again, it happened mostly in the greater Colombo metro area and in one town in the east, Batticaloa.
So what were the three phases? Phase one was Easter, D-Day for this particular terror attack. 21 April 2019, eight suicide bombers hit three churches, and then one, two, three, four, five suicide bombers hit four hotels. And they just didn’t hit the hotels, they didn’t hit the lobbies, they hit the restaurants? Why? Because the restaurants were packed full of people, people attending the big Easter breakfast buffets, very popular throughout Sri Lanka, especially in the five star hotels. The last hotel hit was like a budget hotel, the new tropical inn.
Phase two happened within or it began within about 90 minutes after the first bombs. We have a vehicle-born IED or a car bomb or technically a van bomb that went off or they tried to explode it, mind you, outside St. Anthony’s Shrine, but it did not blow up. We’ll get to that later.
There was a road-side IED planted near the airport. That did not detonate either, but this lure or come-on bombing did occur when law enforcement went to the house or the condo of one of the bombers’ wives. She was waiting for them with a suicide device. She detonated, killing herself, unborn child, three children, and three police. This was planned. It wasn’t something that happened by chance.
Phase three: Phase three was technically the last stand of this particular section of this terrorist cell. They knew that law enforcement was going to come serve a warrant on them or an arrest warrant or a search warrant at some point, and they were laying in wait for them, engaged in about a one hour firefight and then detonated their suicide devices, killing sixteen people, including themselves.
So overall there were about twelve operatives involved, at least fourteen to sixteen bombs, fourteen to sixteen IEDS. They targeted eleven entities and successfully hit nine of them. Casualties were pretty astronomical: 258 killed and 500 wounded. That’s over 700 casualties, and if you do the math, a marine battalion is about a thousand people. Three battalions still make up a regiment, a regiment is about three thousand people, so that is a very high casualty rate for a terrorist attack, and the culprits were – we’ll get into that in a minute – NTJ, JMI, which was an ISIS franchise.
And having gone over the summary, we’re going to turn it over to MeiLee, who’s going to talk about the indicators and warnings that were coming along through history that a lot of folks absolutely missed, but should have picked up to figure out that these bombings were actually going to happen. MeiLee?
Indicators and Warnings
Okay, on that note I have to say that this really is an extremely truncated list. We’re really only going to cover the period of 2013 until the day of the Easter bombing attacks.
First, we will talk about multiple Muslim vs Buddhist strife. There are at least five major instances of this between the period of 2013 and the last six years. There are multiple instances of Islamist-Jihadists vs Sufi Muslim clashes and, again, there are at least five instances of this. Some of these occurred before 2013 because the vast majority of that tension occurred in the mid-2000s.
Also, there are at least five major instances of moderate and Sufi Muslims informing on Islamist jihadists directly to the Sri Lankan government. Actually, there are many more and I can’t say this enough. I came across this a lot. A lot of them did report it. They told the government under the radar, so this is really an undercount.
There are also at least eight major instances of Sri Lankans and foreign governments giving threat indicators to the Sri Lankan government. This has been considered a major intelligence failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government and that’s really kind of one of the big stories of this attack.
Buddhist vs Muslim Strife
Okay. Let’s talk about Buddhist vs Muslim strife. This really – again, this is an incredibly truncated list – and there’s a major event in Aluthgama in 2014 that reflects what is a rising Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka not so different from the one we’re seeing in Myanmar.
But on the 3rd of March in Digana Kandy, a Buddhist man was beaten by Muslim youth and this led to five days of religious communal violence. Miraculously, only two people were killed, however, twenty mosques, 224 houses, 119 businesses were damaged or destroyed.
There’s video footage of this. There’s CCTV footage of police actually not stepping up and disappearing, and this really made Muslims feel like the police were not going to protect them. I think a lot of people see this as the point where a lot of Muslims really started to turn and the point where you know this is kind of a tipping point for the Islamist jihadists as well.
On the 26 of December, young men on motorcycles went around a town and they defaced Buddhist statues. They would take them and whack off their faces. It was incredibly insulting to the Buddhists. This is a Buddhist majority country. Muslims make up only about 10%, 70% or more are Buddhist.
Islamist jihadists vs Sufi Muslims
Okay, let’s go back a little bit to Islamist jihadists versus the Sufi Muslims because this is sort of a harbinger of a future radicalization. On the 10th of March in 2017, there was something called the Aliyar Junction Clash. Zaharan Hashim, who we will talk about later as the ringleader of this cell that caused the Easter bombings, he and his followers met up in theory to debate with Sufis.
Sufis are basically more mystical followers of Islam and they are indigenous to Sri Lanka and to South Asia. They came from the Arabic traders traveling through the region. The Arabic traders came to Sri Lanka and married the Tamil women, so Sri Lankan Muslims are both ethnically distinct and religiously distinct and this identity issue has been an issue for them for years.
In the mid-2000s, especially in 2006, there was a huge rash of violence against Sufi mosques by other Muslims and what would become Islamist jihadist Muslims. So a little context to explain this: in the ’80s, the Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia was starting to have a real impact and maids and workers and students who had gone abroad started coming back with more of a Wahhabi, more of a Salafist way of thinking about their religion. And they started changing the way they dressed, and the way they thought, and much more into the one Allah concept, whereas the Sufis had a different concept of Islam. And again, they were much more spiritual not activist in that way.
Now, let’s go back to what I said was really the most serious attack on Muslims that instigated these attacks on Easter and look at the date, on March 2018, that is about a year ago and most people say it took about a year to prepare for these bombings. I mean it takes a year at least to collect all the material, to train, etc., especially, given that they have hands-on people from ISIS there, training them.
So in March 2018 after the Digana Kandy riots, Zaharan Hashim, again, we’ll talk about him later, released a video. He said, “We have to target non-Muslims, moderate Muslims” – moderate Muslims, even – “and police in Sri Lanka. Bombs should be set off all over the country,” and he wanted – this is kind of important – he wanted to target Muslims who preached peace.
Now, this really upset moderate Muslims a lot and so they handed over a bunch of these videos to authorities who didn’t act on them. Also in 2018, two police were killed. At the time, they assumed because of Sri Lankans sort of infrastructure and military, their thinking, they had had thirty years of war with the Tamil Tigers, they actually wound up arresting two Tamil insurgents from the past and did not look at Muslims at all.
So basically, we can see this video that he released and it’s incredibly inflammatory, serving as an official warning, which is normal in Islamic jurisprudence, and he acted on it starting with the killing of the two police, but obviously with the Easter bombings.
On various occasions beginning at least three years ago, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, All Ceylon Jamiaythul Ulema and a range of other Muslim groups, some of them Sufi, began warning the government about Zaharan Hashim. They provided CDs, you know, there really wasn’t any shortage of material. They gave names of people and he had YouTube videos, social media postings, even Al Qaeda stuff.
In March 2019, Taslim, who is a Muslim provincial official, was shot in an attempted assassination and this, again, didn’t seem like anything, people didn’t understand what was going on, but he had been looking into an ISIS training camp after the attack on the Buddhist statues. He had been looking into those youth and they led them to this massive training camp that we’ll talk about in the next section.
Direct Threat Warnings
Okay, so, the next section is really about direct threat warnings on this Easter attack. In 2013-2014, 24 Sri Lankan citizens joined ISIS. The Army Chief said, “We knew what was coming.” November 2016, Justice Minister Rajapakshe gave an ISIS speech to Parliament. He said, “I knew ISIS was preparing for an attack here, but nobody listened.” He was then labeled an anti-Muslim bigot.
You have to understand that Muslims do have political clout there, so they’re very sensitive about saying much to them. This is democracy. They matter, their votes matter, and they often vote as a bloc. You can ask me questions about politics later.
In January 2019, an ISIS training camp and bomb factory was discovered. It was massive: over 200 pounds of explosives detonators, all kinds of things to make bombs. It was located north of Colombo. This is an area that’s really not even Muslim-dominated territory.
Okay, in 2019, April 4, 9, 11, and 21 – that’s the day of the attack – even two hours before the attacks, even ten minutes before the attacks, foreign intelligence agencies were warning Sri Lanka about these bombs. They had names, they had addresses of the attackers. It included the targets that they were planning. They had so much information. This came out of information that they had mined out of a Coimbatore cell that they were looking into, so they knew this was coming.
Okay, the culprits. The major culprit: you probably recognize this man here. The National Thowfeek Jamaath, the National ‘One Religion/One God’ Organization. Its origins come from the Thawheed Jama’ut in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which began in the early 2000s. They protested social evils and were rumored, again, to have money coming in from the Middle East.
Hashim founded the NTJ in Sri Lanka in 2012, but at the time it was just a social goods-positive social works [organization]. He donated food and stuff like that. They were not radicalized.
Hashim was ‘kicked out’ of the NTJ in 2007. This is possibly a denial and deception tactic or the NTJ could have needed to protect themselves from so much oversight because after 2017, which is when that attack I told you about before occurred, he went underground. There was a warrant out for his arrest.
The other group, JMI, the Organization of the Way of Abraham: this group gets very little attention in the news and as a researcher, I find that really, really amazing and maybe telling. Only one source talks about this group that I have come across, and he said there are about 150-200 members.
These are affluent, urbanites recruiting for ISIS since about 2015, so just in context: a lot of the affluent, urban Muslims are in Colombo, which is on the west of the country and in the east is more like Zaharan Hashim, more sort of industrial, fishing village, working class Muslims, so a little bit of a socioeconomic difference.
Okay, the leadership. For this particular tack, almost certainly Mohammed Cassim Mohamed Zaharan (Hashim), this man right here. He was born in ’86 so he’s in his early 30s. He was radicalized as a teen. He had different ideas from his other Muslim teachers. Because his family is so poor, he was sent to a Muslim school, which was probably funded by the Middle East.
His sister said about him, “He started to preach against the government, the national flag, against elections, and against other religions. He brought catastrophe upon our family.” That’s probably an understatement, but she may have been lying about her association with him. I can talk about that later as well.
So he assembled a likeminded group of people, including members of the JMI who started to be very hardcore, violent extremists, and he aspired to live up to his preaching and he did.
Obviously, the biggest culprit of all is ISIS. Basically, the leaderless revolution strategy: that is co-opting individuals and groups via the internet and via dawah. It’s about convincing people and groups to train, plan, and execute operations on their own.
On the 29th of April, al-Baghdadi came out with a video, his first time in five years. They thought he was dead. He claimed the Sri Lanka ops for ISIS and he talked about it as being revenge for losing the caliphate. At this time, Baghuz had just fallen. Al-Baghdadi’s video featured Easter Bombers’ videos pledging to ISIS, which is – I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s just classic ISIS propaganda.
In it he says, “Our battle today is one of attrition” and “God ordered us to wage jihad and did not order us to achieve victory.” ‘The only effective method against those governments by man-made law is war. They need to return to the Almighty God.’ “As for you brothers in Sri Lanka, they have pleased and healed the muwahideen’s chests with their suicide operations that unsettled the crusaders in their Easter celebration to avenge their brothers in Baghuz.” He’s making it very, very explicit.
“This, by God’s permission, is only part of the vengeance awaiting the crusaders and their supporters. All praise is due to God, for among those killed were some Americans and Europeans.” We have seen “the savagery, brutality and ill intentions of the Christians towards the Muslim community.”
Dr. Jeff Moore:
So we’ve seen all the data points that were happening. You can see them. If you lived in Sri Lanka, they were happening right in front of you in the newspapers, they were happening on the television, and behind the scenes again.
There were local communities of Muslims saying, ‘these Islamist jihadists are in our mosques, they are in our neighborhoods, they are coming in our country now, they are taking over parts of our Muslim population, and they are becoming radicalized, we’ve got to do something’, and nobody did anything about it.
So now we will get to the technical aspects about the bombs. Now, there are all sorts of crime scene investigators from foreign countries and the Sri Lankans do a pretty good job themselves, and so these are the data points we have so far about the bombs. They were quite powerful. We have some pictures coming next, so bare with me here.
Direct your attention please to the picture in the upper right hand corner. This, again, is Hashim with the one finger salute, the ISIS salute. Next to him is his brother, one of his brothers, Rilwan. And you’ll notice he’s holding an AK-47, but he’s holding it with stubbed fingers, and investigators believe that he was intricately involved in the bomb making, and the bomb making had gone on for an estimated – about a year’s timeframe.
So they were experimenting with different types of explosives. They were experimenting with timing devices, particularly from washing machines, and they were testing these things on motorcycles. It was a year of trial and error and what you see here, with the picture of Rilwan with the AK-47 with the missing fingers and the damaged eye, was the error part of trial and error.
When the bombings first happened, a lot of commentators came out and said there’s no way that this local, yokel type group would have been able to build these very sophisticated, powerful bombs on their own. They said they had to have some kind of ringer come teach them how to do this or the cell members had traveled outside of Sri Lanka and learned how to do it, perhaps in the Middle East, and then came back to apply their trade here.
We don’t think that’s necessarily true. If you have a year of trial and error, number one, and number two, if ISIS and Al Qaeda – and they do – post how to make bombs on the internet, you can do a lot of this stuff on your own. Moreover, the type of explosive used was probably TATP, so investigators are saying now they have TATP residue from the scene and possibly other explosives were used, this stuff called watergel.
And if you direct your eyes to the bottom picture, you’ll see a bunch of things that look like blue sticks of dynamite. That is watergel and watergel is a mining explosive, so you get your watergel, you go out to a rock quarry, you dig a hole, you shove the watergel in there and explode it, And parts of the mountain come off, and you can carve out a highway or mine it or what have you.
And this stuff is made locally in Sri Lanka and gelignite used to be made there as well, so there is watergel and gelignite throughout Sri Lanka. Every now and then some fishermen will get their hands on a couple of sticks or a case of it. They will use it to fish with, so they’ll use explosives instead of nets and hook and line, and the Sri Lankan Navy was arresting these guys for doing this well before this bombing attack ever happened.
The moral of the story is this: the logistics-security, the security chain from the maker of these explosives to the end user, is leaking, obviously, because the fishermen had it and now we see that this cell had it and they didn’t just have a couple of sticks. We counted these. There were about a 182 sticks of this material.
And it blows up very rapidly, so the bullet fired from an M4 Rifle that the American soldiers carry: that bullet goes just under 3,000 feet per second, right, ‘faster than a speeding bullet’. These explosives, the watergel, can blow up at a rate of 14,000 feet per second or up to 17,000 or 20,000 feet per second, and that is why explosions bust down walls, turn over cars, and kill people. If you put shrapnel around something that moves that fast, it’s going to do triple the damage.
TATP is a type of explosive that both Al Qaeda and ISIS like to use. It has a velocity of detonation of VOD of about 20,000 feet per second as well if you mix it correctly, but it is incredibly volatile and they nicknamed it the ‘mother of Satan’ and Rilwan is a testament to that. It’s not very shock resistant. The watergel you can take and throw on the ground. It’s not going to explode most of the time. The TATP if you shake it, if you move it, if it sustains even a light shock it can explode.
So, again, the compound they think was a cocktail of TATP and some of these other explosives and maybe even Antho, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, mixed with fuel oil. Shrapnel: nails and ball bearings, and we’ll show you some shrapnel damage in just a minute in some pictures.
The trigger or switch was a pull strap on the backpack, so they’re wearing the bombs. Their backpacks are containing these bombs. They walk in, they grab the switch or the trigger in their right hand. We saw one of the bombers fiddle with one of his triggers in one of the restaurants of the hotel and this particular device didn’t go off. He actually sat down in a booth and tampered with it to try to make it work.
The other bombers walked in, pulled their sticks, basically, pulled their straps and boom. The detonator or the initial part was a lightbulb filament and that’s what they think at the moment. They have found lightbulb filaments at some of the bomb factories that this cell was operating. They also apparently found a lightbulb filament near the body of Hashim in the Shangrila.
These were some pretty bad bombs. They did a lot of damage as we will see. Saint Sebastian’s: two pictures of that. On the left you can see it blew the tiles out of the roof, but you can see the pockmarks from the ballbearings and it’s hard to see the nail pockmarks, but those holes it looks like you could stick your thumbs into – that’s from ballbearing damage.
St. Anthony’s: you can see the blast tore through the plaster and concrete and the congregation was standing right there. In St. Sebastian’s, the congregation was sitting and at Zion Church down here – and MeiLee’s going to talk about this in just a minute – he tried to get into that Romanesque archway there into the church. They wouldn’t let him, so there are children out playing in this courtyard and he detonated himself right then and there.
The Kingsbury hotel on the left: you can see the restaurant damage. It’s over an 80 ft, probably around a 100 ft, blast radius and you can see the pockmarks of where the ballbearings hit the windows and they flapped out.
The Shangri-La: this is where there were two bombers that came into that particular restaurant. They detonated at either end of the restaurant, so their blast overlapped each other.
And then the Cinnamon Grand: this was the only picture we were able to get of that, but you can see the damage in there. Lots of people were injured and killed in that particular blast, so the bombs were quite nasty. They were very well built, unfortunately, high casualty rate.
Now, MeiLee’s going to come in and talk about the church attacks.
The Church Attacks
Okay, the first bomb that detonated detonated at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo. I visited this church. It is a beautiful, historic church in downtown Colombo or slightly outside of downtown Colombo.
It’s often attended by VIPs. This time it wasn’t. On a normal Easter Sunday, leaders, politicians, would have been there and they could have killed the politicians and I really think that’s what they had hoped for. Unfortunately, there’s some infighting going on and nobody showed up. Lots of people showed up, but not the politicians. This church is commemorated on a stamp. It’s a big symbol in Sri Lanka.
The bomb detonated at 8:45 AM. It was the first bomb. As you can see, the only video we have of this bomb was from a dash cam on a car and the smoke you see in that top picture on the right is basically, sort of the back entrance to the church. The front of the church is on the right or the area where the priest would hold mass.
The church was packed for Easter Sunday, so the bomber couldn’t get very far and he wound up detonating mostly in the back, and it actually prevented I think too many casualties. Even so, there were at least 54 killed.
St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo: this is the highest casualty rate and this is why. This is also a beautiful and huge church in a courtyard and I went to visit and it’s massive. He walks through the courtyard. There’s video of him just sailing through, no issues, nobody is stopping him, and he doesn’t look like he belongs, he’s wearing a backpack.
Everyone’s going to church. He sails through no big deal. He touches a little girl’s head on his way there as if it’s no big deal. You can see him in that little bit of a doorway. That’s him, but he actually goes a couple doorways forward. You see it’s not packed the way St. Anthony’s was, and so he can literally just walk right in the middle of the church, I mean he’s a guy with a big backpack – and as a result, his bomb detonated at 8:47, [killing] 105 people.
Okay. The third church is the Zion Church in Batticaloa. In fact, this was not the targeted church and I looked at the targeted church, and this, again, the churches that were really the targets were high church, Catholic churches, traditional churches, very beautiful, huge number of masses, a lot of times a thousand people.
They wanted high casualty numbers. They wanted the high profile churches and this would have been probably one of the biggest churches in Batticaloa, which is not in Colombo. The rest of these attacks were happening in Colombo. Batticaloa is an area on the east coast.
This guy’s wanderings are a little bit convoluted. At 8:30 AM, he walks to inquire about mass at St. Mary’s. Mass is normally at around 8:45 AM like everywhere else. Apparently, he missed mass and everyone is gone, and so he can’t detonate at 8:45 AM like all of the other bombers.
Plus, he also was refused entry. He doesn’t look like he’s dressed for church and he looks suspicious, so he returns to the mosque where he was resting before. Before he returns to the mosque, I think there’s video footage of him walking down the aisle toward Zion Church, which is really around the corner from St. Mary’s. He probably finds out at what time mass is there. That’s my guess.
Then he goes back to the mosque, hangs out, changes his clothes, does all these things, come back, again in his bomber uniform, again they’re all wearing caps and have the backpacks. They’re trying to look like normal people.
He tries to convince the people at the Zion Church and St. Mary’s that he is just wanting to film them. Somebody at the Zion Church does not want to let him in. They seemed to think he was suspicious. As a result, he wound up detonating outside of the church, which kept the casualty rate down. Unfortunately, the children were in the courtyard playing, which is why 26 were killed, almost all of them were children.
I did a little sleuthing to figure out what time he detonated because the CCTV footage is all over the place and he probably walked eight minutes from this mosque. I don’t know if you can see. This is a mosque that he hung out at and this is only about five minutes to St. Mary’s. The Zion Church, just a few more minutes away, so he didn’t have far to go. And I don’t think that’s an accident that they chose these areas that had a lot of churches and mosques that they could take a break in before hitting a church. And Jeff will go over the hotel attacks.
The Hotel Attacks
Thank you. Alright, the hotel attacks. The first was the Kingsbury Hotel and MeiLee actually stayed there. This individual in the far upper right – that was that particular bomber. He checked in wearing that bomb backpack. There was video of him, CCTV of him, doing that, and in the morning, he simply got up, walked into the harbor court breakfast buffet, and detonated at 8:47 AM.
It was packed. The Kingsbury Hotel however, didn’t release a lot of information on casualties. We were able to find for sure that there were four Chinese nationals killed and two European nationals and beyond that we don’t know, but the damage was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the hotel actually was able to remain open, again, because the bomber hit the restaurant not the lobby or the other part of the hotel. It did not sustain any structural damage in the actual part where guests stay.
In the Shangri-La a very similar pattern: the bombers checked in using their real name or one of them used his real name, and again, this was probably a lure tactic because he knew that the police shortly afterwards were going to go to his house where his wife, wearing a suicide bomb, was waiting, but nevertheless.
So there were two bombers, again, at the Shangri-La. They were filmed in the elevator, laughing and joking with each other, smiling, and it’s not hard to see. They were actually happy about what they were about to do. They entered the table one’s breakfast buffet restaurant area, apparently from different sides so their blasts would overlap and they detonated at 8:51 AM, and they killed 33 people.
As a testament to the Shangri-La, they thought that they were going to be able to open much later on the 19th, but they worked really hard and they were able to open on the 12th. It’s very important to Sri Lanka and these hotels that they get back to business as quickly as possible not just for business’ sake, but also for national salvation.
And that was the same actually in India in Mumbai after the Mumbai hotel attacks, and the attacks on the train station, and the Jewish center, and whatnot. It was a point of national pride to get that city up and operational again. In Sri Lanka, they feel the same way.
Alright, the Cinnamon Grand in the upper left hand corner, the bomber is here on the bottom left. He checked in using a fake name and the next day entered the breakfast buffet just like everybody else did and the video of him, if you watch it, they don’t show blood and carnage, it’s a very technical thing to see, he steps back and forth, side to side, wasn’t sure about what he should do, but at 9:12 where that’s timestamped, he definitely figured out what he should and he’s detonated.
And everybody you see there in the picture was killed, 20 people killed there. The hotel actually remained open and MeiLee actually spent some time there as well.
Now, the New Tropical Inn was a little different. The bomber is in the upper left hand corner. The owner of this small hotel is in the right hand corner. The original target of the bomber was the Taj Samudra Hotel, another five star hotel. This guy checks in at 4:53 PM with a piece of roller luggage. He leaves the hotel very shortly thereafter and comes back the next day with another piece of roller luggage.
CCTV shows him next walking around the Ports of Call restaurant in the breakfast buffet just like everybody else with his grey backpack, toggling on this strap that was supposed to denote his device. It did not explode. He sits in a booth, toggles with it some more, it does not explode, so he leaves.
He leaves with all three pieces of luggage: the little square roller, his backpack, and a high, rectangular piece of luggage. It looks like they were going to do a double tap bombing in the hotel, so that’s what we think based on the evidence.
He was going to detonate in the restaurant and either as people fled the hotel through the lobby, which is where we think he had prepositioned his other device, again, a roller piece of luggage, or as first responders came in, that was going to detonate as well, but it didn’t happen. He was constantly on the phone, very frustrated with his device not going off, and obviously, he either received orders or figured out on his own because it was prearranged – we’re not sure which.
He left the Taj Hotel, checked into the New Tropical Inn, again, a budget hotel. That happened at 9:30. He left shortly thereafter, comes back at 1:30, and boom, he detonates. There were two people in the hotel and they both got killed and it nearly leveled the building.
Three More Bombs
Alright, three more bombs. Again, the day of the attack there was a police raid on one of the bombers’ condominiums where his wife was waiting with an IED. Police came to the door, she met them, she runs up the stairs to where her children were, police follow her, again, she detonates, killing her unborn child, three children, and three police officers.
Later on, Hashim’s brother Rilwan said, “Our wives are going to detonate and they are going to meet us in heaven,” so again, there’s no question that these were come-on or lure-style attacks, these were ambushes, and it was all thought out like a chess match.
Same day, 21 April, this pipe bomb that did not detonate near the airport, reporting right now, the best data points we have, say it was at the airport access road. MeiLee came and went from the airport. There’s a lot of roads around the airport, a lot of ways to access this airport, but the one, main access road was about a hundred yards away from the airport.
This was where we think the IED was placed, but we’re not sure. If it is the case however, 110 pounds of explosives – so said the government – would have created a blast radius of about 400 meters, so if the bomb was about 100 or more meters away, that shockwave would have hit the airport, it would have hurt or killed people between the blast wave and the airport, and it could have damaged the airport as well. The airport would have been shut down.
So think about this. Three churches, four hotels, these lure/come-on bombs, and an airport bombing. If it had all happened, it would have been more spectacular than it already was and it was already hellacious enough as it was. But again, the air force ground team ended up blowing that up not in place, I think they removed it and blew it up later, and that’s a piece of the pipe from that bomb.
22 April: police found this white van outside St. Anthony’s shrine. It had an IED in it. They were either inspecting it or preparing it to blow it in place and it detonated. Again, that was the bomb that was designed to catch first responders that were going to St. Anthony’s shrine. If that had blown up according to plan, again, the casualty rate would have been much, much higher.
Aftermath, alright, MeiLee is going to tackle this.
Despite a lot of the political issues that led up to the intelligence failure that led to the bombing, the aftermath was a little bit better, a lot better, actually. There was a nationwide emergency curfew [that] was imposed, lots of increased security. When I went there, security almost outnumbered people on the streets. The arrest powers were widened.
Social media was restricted. I was still able to use WhatsApp, but Facebook, Twitter, these things were down. As a background, Facebook was used to cause a lot of the problems that I described before and there’s a whole back story to that, but it also was being used to create riots and we see this everywhere in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar, people would take to Facebook and post fake news and they would meet and there would be violence, so a lot of people really feel like this was not a bad move. Actually, even the liberal society that wanted to remain liberal complained about it because it prevented some people from communicating with their loved ones, actually. We know Facebook is a double-edged sword.
Anyway, there was a ban on face veils, so like I said before, Muslim women had started to wear face veils a lot more than they used to because traditionally, in the past when the Sufis were more of a majority – and now they are a minority – they looked like regular Sri Lankan women who are majority Buddhist and they might have something covering their head, but not a veil over their face.
There were weeks and weeks of raids and search ops, and they were televised. You can actually watch these. That’s on purpose to send a message. This is what my government contact told me. They would search women as well, Muslim women, and my Muslim community leader asked me to ask the military, my military friend, why they would do this because it was offensive for men to search women, and he said it was to send a message that there would be no tolerance and, to be fair, women were included among these suicide bombers. It was a valid thing to do.
So over 500 were arrested: 102 in police custody were brought in for links to the attack, scores of weapons, lots and lots of weapons were found. I would want to add that there were white dresses found. This is the dress that Buddhist women wear on major Buddhist holidays, especially one that was coming up, and we’re not going to go into it here, but a second wave of attacks might have been, and very logistically would have been, at a major Buddhist holiday on May 19 called Vesak.
There were also military uniforms found and they actually wound up arresting a man who was making these uniforms. There was a government scandal. There’s a lot of infighting going on that’s probably part of the intelligence failure, probably. There were scores of resignations. This attack exacerbated an already bad situation between the president and the prime minister of Sri Lanka. The police chief refused to resign, but he was let off. The defense minister and intelligence chiefs did resign. Over nine Muslim ministers were asked to resign, forced to resign, volunteered to resign, we were not sure.
The FBI, India’s NIA, their intelligence agency, Australia, Interpol, all cooperated in getting suspects. Saudi Arabia deported five Sri Lankan citizens linked to the attacks. One of them, Mohammad Milhan, is considered maybe part of the leadership of the next wave of attacks. He was also connected to a 2018 killing of the two police that I mentioned several slides back.
There were numerous deportations from Sri Lanka, 600 with links to Islamism, including 200 clerics who used to have a free ride coming in to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was kind of considered a migration hub for other Muslims visiting and they had free rein to preach however they wanted. People who had expired visas from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives were all forced to leave.
Again, Buddhist and Muslim violence not surprisingly became a problem again in places, especially in the northwest of the country. Hundreds of Muslims were left homeless. There was an attack – I think Jeff mentioned it – as recently as Monday, so this is really an ongoing problem and to be fair, the government is messaging as much as they can about trying to keep the peace. And Muslim leaders and Catholic priests have said repeatedly to their flock to calm down, not to be involved in riots.
Another huge aftermath would include Hashim’s family’s final stand. On the 26 April at 7:30 PM in Sainthamaruthu, local police went with local Muslims in the neighborhood to look at this house where people were coming and going, and they seemed very suspicious, and they hadn’t always lived there. The special task force came in and also police, regular police, actually, three forces came in, and there was a firefight between some young men in the house and the special task force.
After about an hour, three suicide bombs went off. When they went in, what they found was nine of Hashim’s family members, including six children, nieces and nephews, and one child was his son. This included Hashim’s father and two of Hashim’s brothers, including the one with the missing digits from attempting to make bombs.
They had been in a video earlier – the three of them, his two brothers and his father, who had all been involved in NTJ along with Hashim – in a video, basically saying that this was not the end. Zainee, his younger brother, said “the killings won’t stop here, even if we are destroyed…you can be sure you will meet more of these attacks in the future.”
Also, there were explosives found, an ISIS flag, not to far from this, from where they detonated. They had just found another huge kind of safe house and lots of bomb making materials, including a drone, a drone that was really popular among ISIS fighters back in 2016. I think that might show up in the next video.
They also found a terrorist training camp, another one, remember before they found one north of Colombo? This one was closer to Kattankudy, which was a Muslim majority town and this is where Hashim came from. On May 4, they found this – I think it’s about ten acre plot of land owned by Mohammed Milhan and it was covering as a chicken farm, but they believed that over 100 militants trained here from far away, foreigners, Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan, so not just local trainees. They found pipe bomb materials and evidence of firearms training. Jeff will start with the conclusions.
So I’m going to cover some of the tactical analyses, what we learned, what it means up to this point, and then MeiLee is going to wrap it up with assessments, what might all of this mean for the future.
And again, this was a very technical operation, very well done. It looks like it was ISIS’s first major post-Caliphate operation, so it was the first big operation they conducted after losing the physical caliphate. Again, from the beginning in the opening, we know it was a very sophisticated series of multi-stage bombings. This wasn’t one suicide bomber walking into some place and yanking his own cord. This wasn’t some lone shooter going into a place, shooting the place up. This was a highly synchronized, very well organized, multi-stage event.
We would rate it as highly successful both tactically and strategically. Why is that? The kill rate, the casualty rate, 758 total. It achieved the requisite level of shock and horror, and tourism was negatively impacted. We can see tourism in Sri Lanka was just starting to build up. The Lonely Planet guidebook said that Sri Lanka was the number one tourist destination for The Lonely Planet series books for 2019 and that’s over. They were earning about $4.4 billion, roughly 5% of their GDP on tourism, and it was just getting bigger and bigger.
The giant hotel chains that are based actually not far from here were pouring money into Sri Lanka. They were building great big properties there. They will definitely be going forward with that, but they’ve lost a year of tourist revenue, and of course, the government was negatively impacted as well.
There are criminal indictments being filed against various ministers, various government personnel that did not forward the appropriate intelligence to the people that needed it on time.
The tactical, operational analysis in military terms: this particular cell had its personnel, intelligence, operational expertise and logistics, the G1-4, G1, 2, 3, and 4. They had it all lined up very well. They did an amazing job. We did not include finance and communications on this, but that’s for another presentation, but suffice to say, they operated like a well-oiled military machine, and the results prove it.
Again, at least twelve operatives, eleven targets, nine good hits and again, they studied and understood the flow of Sri Lankan law enforcement and military operations, and they were able to get inside those security-operation decision cycles and attack them. That is what the American military refers to as operational art. These guys were really good at what they did.
Intelligence failures: intelligence failures are well-talked about in the press and the Sri Lankan government is beating itself up more than anybody else, but we categorized those intelligence failures under two particular issues.
A failure to heed the intelligence: they had the information right in front of them, it talked about how bad the threat was, it said exactly what the threat was going to be or at least some of the targets, and they didn’t do anything about it. That literally means somebody in the Sri Lankan government saw that material and said, eh, that’s not a big deal.
Failure to disseminate: somebody in the Sri Lankan government was looking at that intelligence and decided my colleagues don’t need this. The police/special operations outfit, they don’t need this. The Air Force ground element they don’t need this and we know Sri Lankan military personnel and they are very good at what they do. The police that I know if they had had that intelligence, they would have acted on it immediately, but that didn’t happen.
Also, PC hysteria being called a Muslim bigot, standing in front of parliament saying, ‘Sri Lankan people are joining ISIS and now they’re coming home. This is a problem. We’ve got to do something about it’. That helped blind the government and obviously the government infighting between the president and the prime minister’s office helped as well.
We would categorize hotel security as negligent in this particular case. Why? Because if you are working security in Sri Lanka, especially at hotels, and you’re reading the morning newspaper, you’re watching these things unfold on television, the Muslim vs Buddhist riots, the ISIS camp that was discovered in January with over 100 sticks of explosives and about 100 detonators, etc., that spells trouble.
And this is a paradigm that we’ve seen unfold in Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, different places in Africa, all over the Middle East. This is how the Islamist jihadists operate, so if you’re in Sri Lanka, you’re operating a hotel, you see this coming your way. This is what we call totality of circumstances and they didn’t do anything about it. It could be that somebody in security at one of the hotels said hey boss, we would really like to implement some kind of bomb inspection team as people are coming in and it could have been that someone said no, but we might not ever know that, but we believe this was a case of negligence.
And one more issue about target selection. ISIS, Al Qaeda, other Islamist jihadists, they pick hotels and churches, especially hotels, but certainly in the past couple of years, Christian institutions, as a priority. It’s part of their standing operating procedure. This is what they do.
So hitting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka or the fact that they pick these targets is not that much of a surprise, but it does reflect how vicious they are. The other interesting analytical point that comes out of this is that these were targets within targets, so they just didn’t hit a hotel as in drive up, a car bomb in front of the lobby, and have that detonate. That would have been spectacular in and of itself, but they decided to instead attack the Sunday buffet lines and Easter congregations, right?
So they were looking for the biggest mass of people that they could target and they were methodical. They sat down and they said how can we build an explosive device that will spew shrapnel into these masses of people and where should we do that, and that is where these data points come from and that was the final analysis here, so it’s pretty cold, pretty calculated on their part. And we are about to wrap up with final analyses, and I’m going to let MeiLee cover that, the conclusions.
Okay, so ISIS will act on its words, per usual, so what were its words? What they said, basically: war for the sake of war. In other words, the end goal of victory is not necessary. Attrition: high casualty counts. Again, I think they aim for higher, but they got high. Revenge: in this case, the new angry motivation for losing the caliphate. Tawaghits: this is governments ruled by man’s law, particularly democracies, which are haram, forbidden, un-Islamic. American and EU citizens: they’ve said it before, these are their targets. And then, more to come: they talk about having more targets. This is the official Islamist jihadist warning that has been issued already by Al Baghdadi, also by the Islamist jihadists in Sri Lanka.
Okay, ISIS basically sowed the seeds of religious war in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very culturally and ethnically diverse country. It’s not hard in these regions with this kind of diversity to do this. The Sri Lankan bombing operational model is to be replicated when and where possible. It was clearly successful. Why would they not replicate this? The leaderless revolution will continue.
Strikes against non-traditional targets and across the dispersed ISIS provinces: non-traditional targets meaning Sri Lanka, which was not traditionally in the sights of Islamists, but then within the provinces and we know on May 10, in May, several provinces were announced; Turkey, India, and I think one other.
Tourism and hotels are increasingly at risk, obviously, because they have foreigners, especially Westerners, and tourism impacts the country and countries are made up of governments. Governments are not Islamic. Churches, Christianity and other religions, Muslim minorities like Sufis, who are not practicing the ‘right’ type of Islam, are increasingly at risk as we saw in Sri Lanka.
So governments cannot combat ISIS alone. This is really a whole of society effort. They need to cooperate between governments internationally. Corporations need to be involved. People need to be involved. Citizens need to be involved.
Something I’ve noticed happening over the past few years is that I’d love to see the lessons learned there applied here. I wonder how wise our police forces, government agencies, are coordinating. What you see happen is you know say something happens in Prince George’s County, an incident, and they just swarm. It’s like everybody and his brother goes there and there are so many police vehicles there, it takes them a long time to get out because they’re all blocked in, and it would just seem like any kind of terrorist watching this would learn from this, do a diversionary thing in one area and get all the assets there and I mean I wonder how well coordinated our police in this area are in measuring what’s the need, and send proportionate personnel, but retain the rest of the personnel in place.
Right, because of a double tap-style of situation.
Or triple or quadruple.
Right, exactly, and like what happened here, so the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI and other law enforcement entities in the United States they have intelligence assets under their own roofs and they study these kinds of things, but I’m not 100% sure how much of this will translate to a standard operating procedure of exactly what you’re talking about, sending just the right amount of people and watching for that follow on style of attack. That is definitely something to look for and ISIS wants to replicate this, it’s like MeiLee said. This is the standard bearer for bombing operations going forward.
Now, can they do it? We’ll see. This took a lot of planning. It was very sophisticated and we say the enemy gets a vote. Right, but the governments get a vote also when ISIS is trying to carry out an operation.
Thank you very much for your presentation. I thought it was very interesting. My question has to do with the role of clergy. I’m Catholic. The clergy when you mentioned the priests, it seems to me that if you never fight back, you’re always going to lose. Do you have an opinion on that?
Do I have an opinion? I think that’s a valid statement. In the context of Sri Lanka, they are a minority and they are actually multiethnic. The Catholics and Christians come from the different ethnicities in Sri Lanka unlike the Buddhists, who are typically Sinhalese, and the Muslims, who have their own kind of Tamil origins.
Every situation’s a little different. This was a little bit of a blindspot that happened in Sri Lanka. Christians were not a traditional target of anybody and this is why I think some of the intelligence failure was based on the idea that there really wasn’t an issue between Muslims and Christians, historically. There were grievances between the Tamil Tigers and the Buddhists. I mean it was everywhere, really, except Christians. That particular Venn diagram of Christian-Muslim strife was not there. You saw me describe some of them and that was not one of them, so they don’t have this mindset that they have to fight back and I think that has more to do with it than should they fight back.
I don’t think they’re seeing themselves in this right now as part of this global group of Christians who are being persecuted. I think that’s changing. I think that’s definitely changed after this attack and you hear the cardinal say some of this, and they really take the politicians to task for their intelligence failure. They lost so many people.
Thanks. The similarities between this attack and the Mumbai attacks back in 2008 are striking, of course. The National Thowfeek Jamaath, of course, is Deobandi as are many of the terror Islamic groups of South Asia. And we know of course that the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by the Pakistani ISI intelligence service. What are the connections that you see with the Sri Lankan attacks and Pakistani intelligence?
None yet, it’s too early. I’m sure there will be some kind of accusations coming out, but I have no idea.
Didn’t some of the attackers train in Kashmir?
There have been rumors that they trained in all sorts of places. I haven’t seen hard data points to that, and that’s what we’re looking for that, we’re waiting for that, but we present the hard data points that we could find and if it was leaning a bit toward the rumor bill, we backed off of it a little bit, but it does make sense. You bring up a great point.
There’s a lot. Even one of them you know going to Syria. There’s one very reliable source that he did go, another very reliable source that he didn’t go, so there’s a lot of information that’s not known and so, Kashmir could be. Most of the contacts with Sri Lanka have to do with India, southern India and Kerala.
Sir, you mentioned people not paying attention to the warning signs.
Might that not have been deliberate with people on the inside? And might not the failure to raise the issue like we’ve seen here, you’re called nasty names if you point out the threat.
Right, there were those accusations made in Sri Lanka that some of the politicians wanted something like this to happen in order to benefit politically from the carnage. There was one individual who was quoted in the press and I can’t remember who he was, but he said something akin to ‘we didn’t think it was going to be that bad’, and when you have somebody say something like that, it leans a little bit more toward what you’re bringing up, but we’ve only heard one instance of that, but it certainly is possible. Do you have anything to add?
No, that’s exactly it. There are politics that we didn’t get into here and I think sometimes it’s the politics that say more about the situation than we can…
The first point here is that the LTTE has left huge caches of ammunition and weapons in Sri Lanka and these will be used. I’m not sure where and when. The second point is that there was a tacit truce between the Tamil Tigers and the Muslim groups…
The Home Guard.
…when the Tamil Tigers became truly an effective military force and whether this continues to be an extension of that I’m not sure, and I leave it at that. Having said that, I wrote about the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
Long term logic for something like this: and your first point in the conclusions was war for the sake of war and I understand that point because it does matter if we win immediately, but there is long term logic. I surveyed the first ten issues of Dabiq magazine. I wrote a paper on it, surveying the sources that they were citing and it was all Hadith and Quran sources. I mean 70-80% of it, of the actual copy, was that.
They’re following example. The actual jurisprudence – specifics of these kind of attacks aside – they’re following the example of striking terror and I was just noticing I think in the last couple of days, here we are eighteen years post-9/11, and there is an initial swing towards getting serious about this kind of stuff too, but look where we are as a nation now in terms of being afraid to being politically correct, treating with kid’s glove.
We haven’t even labeled the enemy in stark terms. It’s very vague and very general still.
Yeah, so there’s a psychological effect of these things, so I don’t know if you have any thoughts of about sort of the long range strategy and logic of what they had done.
The U.S. or ISIS strategy?
They feed off of all that chaos, so you know the management of savagery was the ISIS playbook, originally written by Al Qaeda, but adopted by ISIS, and this is what they want. This is precisely what they needed and they needed this internal strife in Sri Lanka to boil over and get worse, so they can come in and literally, according to ISIS phraseology, manage that savagery and step in and say, we will be the harbingers of law and order now. All you have to do is join our ideology and we’ll make everything better. That’s really what they want to do in just about every theater they operate in, but they also create that savagery as well. They create that kind of chaos.