TERROR has visited Sri Lanka before. And yet the Easter Sunday atrocities were still as new as they were shocking.

That is because this weekend’s attacks on churches and five-star hotels were the work – early reports suggest – of violent Islamist extremists rather than Tamil insurgents.

Until 2009, Sri Lanka’s government, dominated by the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community, fought a civil war against largely Hindu Tamil separatists from the island’s northern tip.

Government forces were criticised internationally for the brutal way they put down the Tamil rebellion. But separatist Tamil Tigers were proscribed as a terror group after carrying out assassinations, bombings and even suicide missions.

However, Sri Lanka’s main ethnic conflict has sometimes masked other tensions in this multi-cultural multi-religious society. The island, once called Ceylon, has significant Christian and Islamic communities, both of which have long histories. Christians came to Sri Lanka before they reached Britain. Muslims – often referred to on the island as Moors – arrived as traders from the Arab world long before the centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and finally British colonisation.

Around 10 per cent of Sri Lankans are Muslim, most speaking Tamil. They have repeatedly suffered violence at the hands of majority Sinhalese. There were anti-Muslim riots in 2014 and again 2018 following a long tradition of pogroms on the island. Hard-line Buddhists have attacked mosques and Christian sites in the past.

Some analysts have said the island is “ripe” for more serious trouble. Officially, the Sri Lankan government attributed the latest violence to a group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath. It was best known, until now for minor abuse. But terrorism experts sense some international hand behind the bombings. “These synchronized attacks are out of the ordinary for Sri Lanka. Compared with similar attacks in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, it has the DNA of attacks carried out by Islamic State and al Qaeda,” Alto Labetubun, an anti-terrorism expert, told Reuters.

Sri Lankan health minister Rajitha Senaratne named the local group yesterdayon Monday but added: “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

Violent Islamism has long spread from Afghanistan and the Middle East into Africa, Europe and even south-east Asia with Islamic State claiming responsibility for deadly attacks in Indonesia and Philippines.

Sri Lankan Muslim extremists may have served with Islamic State in Syria or Iraq. The old Tamil Tigers focused their violence on political targets. The latest atrocities were firmly aimed at people of faith, Christian faith, and international visitors. That looks like global Islamist terror.