Simultaneous suicide bombings at several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on April 21 were of a scale, sophistication and level of coordination that hasn’t been seen since 9/11. Nine suicide bombers targeted three churches and three hotels on Easter morning, and the resulting casualties numbered 359 dead, including 45 children, and about 500 injured.

The complexity of the attacks suggests the bombers received help from an outside organisation, likely the Islamic State (IS). Sadly, security warnings from Indian intelligence officials, which might have helped to prevent or minimise the attacks, were ignored by Sri Lanka security weeks earlier. In the wake of the massacre, two of Sri Lanka’s top security officials were asked to resign, and Sri Lanka’s president promised to completely restructure state security.

Contradiction to the terrorism report

The twin calamities provide a dramatic counterpoint to an observed global decrease in terrorist attacksA motivation for the Sri Lanka tragedy is thought to be the March 15 shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 50 people were killed and 50 more were injured. A 28-year-old Australian white supremacist was arrested and charged with murder.

Taken together, the twin calamities provide a dramatic counterpoint to an observed global decrease in terrorist attacks, as documented in a recent report.

The suicide bombers in Sri Lanka were eight men and one woman, most of them well-educated and coming from the middle or upper class. One was the leader of National Thowheeth Jamaath, the homegrown militant Islamist group the government has blamed with carrying out the attacks. There is also evidence to corroborate a claim of responsibility by IS. Some 60 people have been arrested in the investigation. Even days later, police continued to find explosives and said there was still danger.

Multiple attacks

One explosion on Easter morning occurred at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, 20 miles north of Colombo, where more than 100 were killed. Another bomb killed 28 people at the Zion Church in Batticaloa, and an unknown number died at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Roman Catholic church in Colombo.

The three hotels that were attacked were all in Colombo – the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury

The three hotels that were attacked were all in Colombo – the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury. Two more explosions happened Sunday afternoon, one at a small guest house and another at the suspects’ safe house, where three officers were killed.

Security at houses of worship has been a high-profile concern in the United States in recent years following incidents such as an attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in downtown Charleston in 2015 that killed nine people. Just last October, 11 people were killed and six others injured in a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Hardening security at churches

It’s no longer enough to pray for a safe and secure environment,” commented Patrick Fiel of PVF Security Consulting in an Expert Panel Roundtable discussion. “Churches are soft targets. Clergy and parishioners will need to work closely with security consultants and local law enforcement to harden their facilities.” Access control, CCTV solutions and mass notification systems are all helpful and can be placed unobtrusively so as not to interfere with aesthetics of the church, Fiel adds.

The scale and scope of the bombings in Sri Lanka provide a wakeup call to the global likelihood of terrorist attacksIt doesn’t appear technology would have made much difference in the case of the Sri Lanka attacks, although awareness and vigilance can have an impact. At Zion Church in Batticaloa, for example, a bomber was stopped by pastors from entering the congregation area where some 500 people gathered. Because of their suspicions, the bomb was instead detonated in a courtyard where children were eating breakfast; 28 people died.

The scale and scope of the bombings in Sri Lanka provide a dramatic wakeup call to the continuing global likelihood of terrorist attacks. The last territory of the Islamic State in Syria fell in March, but IS and its ideology live on, and continue to be a global terrorism threat. And that’s just one among many possible sources of terrorism worldwide. Hopefully, the recent incidents do not foreshadow more attacks that are even more deadly.

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Larry Anderson Editor, SecurityInformed.com & SourceSecurity.com

An experienced journalist and long-time presence in the US security industry, Larry is SourceSecurity.com's eyes and ears in the fast-changing security marketplace, attending industry and corporate events, interviewing security leaders and contributing original editorial content to the site. He leads SourceSecurity.com's team of dedicated editorial and content professionals, guiding the "editorial roadmap" to ensure the site provides the most relevant content for security professionals.

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