Sri Lanka on Tuesday described the devastating string of Easter bombings that killed at least 321 people as a response to attacks on two mosques in New Zealand last month, even as the radical Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
Three hotels and three churches were attacked by suicide bombers on Sunday in an operation that was the subject of a warning days earlier in an intelligence report that circulated within the Sri Lankan government.
“Investigations have revealed that the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists in retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand,” State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene told Parliament. On March 15, a white supremacist killed 50 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch.
However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was more circumspect in a news conference Tuesday. “It is possible [that Sunday’s attacks] could have been because of the Christchurch attacks,” he said. “We cannot say yet.”
“There seems to have been foreign involvement,” he added. “Some may have traveled abroad and come back. . . . So far it is only Sri Lankan citizens that have been taken in for questioning.”
Wickremesinghe continued: “The security apparatus is of the view that there are foreign links, and there is evidence that points to that. When the ISIS claimed it, we will follow up on the claim.”
In a statement carried Tuesday by the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency, the extremist group said Sunday’s attacks targeted Christians and “coalition countries” and were carried out by fighters from its organization. The claim could not immediately be confirmed, and the group has been known to make opportunistic claims of responsibility for previous attacks conducted without its involvement.
A subsequent Islamic State communique said seven fighters took part in the attacks, which it said killed “nearly 350 Christians and [wounded] 650 others, including citizens of Crusader coalition states,” according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
However, a photo published by Amaq of what it said was the attack group showed eight people, all wearing identical long tunics. A bearded man in the center, his face uncovered, was shown carrying an assault rifle. The faces of the others were obscured by headscarves. Three of them visibly held knives in their right hands.
Wijewardene did not mention the Islamic State but said the attack was carried out by members of two local radical Islamist groups, the National Thowheed Jamaath and the little-known Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.
A U.S. official said the Thowheed group has links to the Islamic State, but their significance is unclear. Investigators here and abroad were working to determine whether the group received help from overseas.
Wijewardene did not offer any evidence for the connection between the attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and when later pressed, said it was because churches and foreigners were targeted. He also acknowledged there were security lapses that allowed Sunday’s attacks to occur.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, an opposition leader and Sri Lanka’s former strongman president, ascribed the security failure to rivalries between the president and the prime minister.
“Don’t take this as a joke,” he said. “As long as the division between the president and the prime minister exists, you can’t solve this problem. My security division knew about the advance notice [of the attack]; I did not.”
Leaked copies of a report by intelligence officials earlier this month warned of plans by the National Thowheed Jamaath group to attack churches. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne has called for the resignation of the top police official for not taking any action.
By Tuesday morning, 40 people had been arrested, including three being held by the Terrorism Investigation Department, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara.
Mujibur Rahman, a member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, said police have informed lawmakers that “eight or nine others linked to this ring” are still at large and are being sought.
Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, corroborated that, telling reporters Tuesday that some people linked to the bomb plot are on the run and could be armed with explosives.
He confirmed during Tuesday’s news conference that a fourth hotel was targeted but said the attack failed. He refused to name the hotel.
Asked how he felt when he learned that intelligence on the plot had been withheld from him, the prime minister said, “I was shocked when I heard about it.” He added: “What has happened is a breakdown of communication. . . . We have to make some changes.”
If the intelligence on the plot had been shared, “certainly we could have prevented many of the attacks in the churches, had more security in the hotels” Wickremesinghe said. “We could have prevented all the attacks or reduced the attacks that have taken place.”
Some officials who failed to pass on information “will be removed from their posts,” he said.
The prime minister said 32 Sri Lankan Muslims left the country to join the Islamic State. Some have been killed, but others have come back, and intelligence agents “have been following them,” he said.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s attacks, police have been given emergency powers to detain and question suspects without a court order. Such powers were used extensively during Sri Lanka’s civil war but have not been employed since 2011.
It was also announced that schools and universities would be closed, at least until Monday, and Masses at churches were canceled until further notice. The country has been on edge, with three bomb scares, including one at the U.S. Embassy, taking place in the last 24 hours.
Police have been instructed to look out for five bikes, a cab and a van suspected of carrying more explosives.
At the central morgue in Colombo, relatives of those killed continued to arrive Tuesday throughout the long, hot afternoon. Thiruchelvam, who goes by one name, came to collect the death certificate for his brother-in-law, who was killed in a blast at St. Anthony’s Shrine, the largest Roman Catholic church in the capital. He said his wife was devastated by the loss of her only brother, a photographer with two young children.
Thiruchelvam said he wished that the government had told its citizens what it knew about the threat. “If people had known, they would have avoided the churches,” he said.
Funerals, meanwhile, were being held for the victims.
“Endless crying” is how Malini Vijaysingha, 60, described the hours since the attack as she paid her respects outside one of the bombed churches. She blamed the bombings on the Islamic State. “The whole world should destroy IS,” she said. The links between the perpetrators and the Islamic State remain unclear.
The United States pledged support for the investigation, dispatching FBI agents to help and offering laboratory experience to test bomb evidence. At least four U.S. citizens are among the dead, and “several” Americans were seriously injured, the State Department said Monday.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in an update Tuesday that 34 foreign nationals have been identified among the dead and that 14 others “are unaccounted for at present and could be among the unidentified victims” at a government mortuary. The confirmed fatalities include two people holding dual U.S. and British citizenship, the ministry said. Sixteen injured foreigners remain hospitalized; others have been treated and released, it said.
Investigators will be looking into how the local Islamist group, whose name roughly translates to National Monotheism Organization, was able to carry out such a planned, coordinated and deadly attack and whether it had overseas help, as officials suggested Monday. President Maithripala Sirisena asked for international assistance in determining any foreign links.
As news of the supposed advance notice about the attacks spread, mourners responded with rising anger mixed with grief at funerals and other gatherings in Christian communities.
“This is the government’s fault. They are incompetent. They knew and they did nothing,” said one man who was weeping Monday outside a funeral in Negombo. He did not give his name but turned away and joined others entering a house where the coffin of a woman lay on a cloth-covered table, surrounded by silent mourners.
Two officials provided The Washington Post with the three-page intelligence report that the health minister alluded to, in which a senior police official warned of potential suicide attacks by the same Islamist extremist group.
The authenticity of those documents were verified by Wijewardene, Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense. The report also identified several members by name, including the group’s alleged leader.
Rahman, the member of Parliament, said he was briefed on the report and that it was based on information from Indian intelligence agencies.
Authorities said the main attacks – on churches and hotels – were carried out by seven suicide bombers.
A Sri Lankan security official characterized Thowheed Jamaath as a shell for the Islamic State and said it has been active in Kattankudy, an area in the eastern part of the country and home to one of its largest Muslim populations. The group’s leadership is believed to be based there, the official said.
The official said there could be additional explosives or potential suicide bombers.
“Right now, they are searching everywhere for possible bombs and people involved,” the official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed “Islamic radical terror” for the attacks. He also spoke Monday morning with Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, and pledged “all possible assistance” to Sri Lanka.
“This is America’s fight, too,” Pompeo said at a news conference. Although the Islamic State’s “caliphate” has been destroyed with the collapse of the group’s last strongholds in Syria, “radical Islamist terror remains a threat,” he said. “We have to remain active and vigilant, and it’s going to require attention.”
Thowheed Jamaath “wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” said Michael Leiter, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He said the attack probably had an international nexus, given that not only Sri Lankans were targeted.
“It wouldn’t surprise me either if there were at least a couple of people who had traveled to Syria,” Leiter said. “There was never a large Sri Lankan population there, but it only takes one or two to return and inspire a local group to align itself ideologically and tactically with a global violent jihadist organization.”
It might be too soon to say whether the Sri Lankan bombers had outside assistance, said Nicholas Rasmussen, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council who also ran the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama and Trump administrations.
“But it wouldn’t take much – a connection between Sri Lankan foreign fighters in Syria with like-minded people back home – in order to create such a connection,” Rasmussen said. He added that the high death toll and simultaneous attacks suggested a degree of sophistication in bombmaking and organization, which are “characteristic of an established group.”
The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist activity online, said Monday that an unidentified Islamic State supporter distributed photos of three alleged “commandos” involved in the Sri Lanka attacks. The photos were posted in pro-Islamic State chat rooms, and the men, pictured holding weapons in front of Islamic State banners, were described as “among the commando brothers in Sri Lanka,” SITE said.
The group reported Sunday that Islamic State supporters were portraying the attacks as revenge for strikes on mosques and Muslims.
The highly coordinated attacks left the island nation reeling, a crushing blow after almost a decade of peace since the end of its civil war.
In that time, tourism in Sri Lanka had been steadily growing, the country transformed by the apparent end of instability, bloodshed and frequent suicide bombings over the 26-year war.
A three-minute silence was observed countrywide at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Tensions remain high across the island nation. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a tweet that a bomb disposal unit had verified that a suspicious package near the embassy building was not an explosive device.
The incident was the third such bomb scare over the past 24 hours.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Joanna Slater, Amantha Perera, Shibani Mahtani