Funerals have begun in Sri Lanka for over 300 people killed in coordinated terrorist attacks in the country on Easter Sunday. Sequenced explosions targeted churches and hotels in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, with seven suicide bombers reportedly detonating in crowds who had gathered for Easter celebrations. As information emerges on the perpetrators, their motives are clear: to stoke religious tensions and target symbols of Sri Lanka’s carefully safeguarded co-existence.
Sri Lanka’s defence minister has claimed the violence was in response to March’s mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. But this horrific tactic is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. In January, ISIS suicide bombers killed 23 people during mass at a cathedral on the southern Philippine island of Jolo. Our Institute’s Global Extremism Monitor found that over half of the Christians targeted by violent Islamists in 2017 were attacked at their places of worship. The report also showed such tactics were not restricted to ISIS. Al-Shabaab’s attacks outside Somalia have focused on Christian communities in Kenya, and al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria have staged sustained operations against Christian cities and their inhabitants throughout the bitter long war against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
And it’s not just churches. Mosques and shrines have also been targets of many violent Islamist groups. ISIS has a history of using attacks against Shia and Sufi places of worship to demonstrate its violently sectarian dogma. ISIS militants conducted Egypt’s most deadly terrorist attack by killing 311 worshippers at a Sufi mosque in North Sinai in 2017. More than a decade earlier, an ISIS predecessor bombed the al-Askari Shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra, sparking sectarian violence that killed thousands.
Speculation is growing about the Sri Lankan attackers’ exact links to ISIS, and many observers have cited the scale and sophistication of the violence as indicators of a larger, longer planned operation. ISIS used its Amaq news agency to claim responsibility for the assaults days later, contradicting earlier statements from the Sri Lankan government that named a local Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath, for the attacks. Whether inspired or coordinated by ISIS, the attacks throughout Sri Lanka signal the start of ‘post-caliphate’ ISIS and the striking repercussions of the group’s international network of support. Highlighting the global nature of the violent extremist problem, the Sri Lankan defence minister added that one of the suicide bombers had studied in the UK and Australia.
Although a tactic monopolised by today’s violent Islamist extremists, targeting worshippers is not a method restricted to the Islamists. The attacks on Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers at mosques in Christchurch were carried out by a far-right extremist. Eleven people were murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 by an armed assailant who told police officers that “all Jews must die”.
There are many reasons why extremists have prioritised carrying out attacks in places of worship. In part, perpetrators have made a sinister calculation that these sites are busy but vulnerable and insecure—often dubbed soft targets. Big congregations, particularly during festivals and holy days, offer easy targets for those trying to kill large numbers.
Beyond that, churches, mosques and shrines hold symbolic significance that interacts with extremist ideologies and narratives. These sites are primarily physical representations of what extremists see as the wider enemy population. Worshippers are the archetypal ‘others’, embodying a belief system that contradicts the extremists’ worldview and defies their ideological doctrine.
Moreover, diverse places of worship are found in multicultural communities. For extremists, these buildings can be manifestations of their belief that society has become impure, corrupt and immoral and requires urgent violent solutions. The Sri Lankan bombings, like many other terrorist attacks, seem to have been carried out by local individuals who knew the churches well and had presumably long processed their symbolism.
Attacks on religious sites can play into the perceived historic and religious identities that form the basis of many extremist groups’ ideology. ISIS’s targeting of Christians in Europe has drawn on apocalyptic notions of a holy war against crusaders and the Roman Catholic Church. The Christchurch attacker’s ‘manifesto’ included references to defenders of Christendom and leaders of the medieval Crusades.
Extremists also calculate that attacking a community at the heart of its religious identity can sow division and reinforce schisms. Not only do successful attacks cement cohesion among an extremist group, but they can also foster hostility and fear throughout society. When al-Qaeda in Iraq began large-scale sectarian assaults, it set in motion widespread violence that increased radicalisation on all sides. Violence can encourage reprisals, and religious extremists try to exploit this along faith lines.
There have been attempts to address this devastating tactic and physically protect places of religious sanctuary. In the UK, funding for security at religious premises was increased after the Christchurch attacks. Charities, such as the Community Security Trust, which protects British Jews from anti-Semitism at sites including synagogues, have helped safeguard worshippers.
Beyond physical security, more must be done to resist attempts to divide societies. Outpourings of support across Christchurch for the city’s Muslim community, accompanied by messages from New Zealand’s prime minister that the country remained united as “one”, countered the extremist’s aims. Places of worship are highly significant, not only for violent extremists, but also for those targeted. When violence is used to exploit this, the rest of the community must stand by and support those affected, promoting peaceful co-existence.