The peace that Sri Lankans had earned after decades of civil war was shattered by a wave of attacks by extremists.
After a decade-long period of peace, Sri Lanka was jolted on Sunday when a string of suicide bombings targeted churches and hotels in different parts of the country.
The government says a little-known group called National Thowheed Jamath could be behind the coordinated attacks, which left more than 290 people dead.
“This has nothing to do with local issues in Sri Lanka. It’s a result of Daesh’s radicalisation,” says Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at RSIS, a Singapore-based school of international affairs.
The Jamath is seen as a Daesh affiliate, which was able to easily plan and execute the bombings because Sri Lanka no longer focuses on counter terrorism like it did during the civil war, he told TRT World.
According to reports, police on April 11 had an intelligence brief flagging the possibility of a terrorist attack by the same group but authorities did not pursue the leads.
Security hasn’t been a top priority for the law enforcement officials in this tiny island-state of 22 million people since the war between majority Sinhalese and ethnic Tamil separatists ended in 2009, says Gunaratna.
“The government wasn’t vigilant because it’s focused on economic development and tourism. This has been been a huge mistake. Economic growth and political stability need security.”
Sri Lankan forces and Tamil fighters fought a bloody war for three decades, resulting in 100,000 deaths.
The end of the conflict allowed law and policymakers to make rebuilding infrastructure and institutions their main priority.
A new type of terrorism
Muslims, who make up around 10 percent of the population, have lived peacefully, except for small bouts of tensions such as the one last year when Buddhist radicals burnt several Muslim shops and homes.
What could have prompted such brutal bombings on congregations of Christians and tourists, with many women and children among them, has left officials searching for answers.
Sri Lanka’s Minister for Housing and Culture Sajith Premadasa called the Easter Day attacks a “brand new type of terrorism”.
"Since the end of the war in 2009, we have not experienced this type of attack so we are extremely disturbed and concerned about this," he said.
Jamath came into the limelight late last year when one of its top leaders, Abdul Razik, was arrested for inciting people against other communities.
While experts were concerned about the group’s hardline rhetoric, it was not seen as big a threat to be banned. The group itself hasn’t claimed responsibility.
Mainstream Muslim organisations have condemned the Jamaat for its radical leanings.
Dr Ajit Singh, a South Asia security expert at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, says the well-planned attack couldn’t have been carried out without outside support.
“Sri Lankan government has itself acknowledged that 32 of its nationals had gone to fight for Islamic State (Daesh) in Syria and Iraq,” he told TRT World.
“There was always a threat that returnees will carry out exceptional attacks.”
While details are still sketchy about those involved in the bombings, which happened in the capital Colombo and the cities of Negombo and Kochikade in the south, links are being made with international events.
“Targets were foreigners and Christians. You must co-relate this with the attack on mosques in New Zealand. It seems the Islamic State [Daesh] was looking to carry out attacks at a place where security wasn’t high,” says Singh.
The attacks come at a time when the Sri Lankan government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been struggling with a slowing economy that has struggled to pay off foreign loans.
In recent years the country has gone through political turmoil with Wickremesinghe having a difficult relationship with President Maithripala Sirisena, who is from another party.
All this has left officials distracted, says Singh. “Planning for this type of attack must have taken them months. It’s not just one or two but seven suicide bombers we are talking about.”
The incident will put pressure on the government to react especially to dismantle terrorist cells and stop extremists from using social media, experts say.
“Government must also prevent radical preachers in the Middle East from coming to the country, ensure integration of Muslim community and rehabilitate those who have been radicalised,” says Gunaratna.
But the attacks will not leave any long-term impact on the unity of Sri Lankan people, he says.
“Sri Lankans are very resilient. They will recover.”