Sri Lanka bombings carried out by Islamist group National Thowheed Jama’ath, minister says

'There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded,' minister says as death toll climbs

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Monday 22 April 2019 11:16 BST
Sri Lanka bomb: Dashcam footage showing the blast at Kochikade St. Anthony's church

Bombings that killed hundreds of victims at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were carried out by a local Islamist group with help from international terrorists, the government has said.

Health minister Rajitha Senaratne said seven suicide bombers who struck on Easter Sunday were Sri Lankan citizens linked to National Thowheed Jama’ath.

“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” he added. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

National Thowheed Jama’ath was previously known for vandalising Buddhist statues and in 2016 one of its leaders was arrested for inciting racism.

President Maithripala Sirisena is asking for foreign assistance to trace the bombers’ international links.

“The intelligence reports [indicate] that foreign terrorist organisations are behind the local terrorists,” a spokesperson said. “Therefore, the president is to seek the assistance of the foreign countries.”

There was no claim of responsibility and officials said 24 suspects were in custody for questioning.

Little over a week before the attacks, National Thowheed Jama’ath was named in a police advisory to security services warning of a potential threat to Catholic churches.

Telecommunications minister Harin Fernando posted images of the letter, entitled “information on an alleged plan attack” and detailing names and other details, on Twitter.

He called for “serious action” on why the atrocities were not prevented and the prime minister launched an inquiry.

Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed he had not personally been informed of the threat, adding: “We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken.”

The targeting of churches and hotels popular with foreign tourists is a technique recently used by Isis and al-Qaeda affiliates.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, pointed out that recent new year celebrations and Buddhist religious events passed off safely.

A letter from police to security services was posted online by telecommunications minister Harin Fernando, saying National Thowheed Jama’ath was planning an attack (Harin Fernando/Twitter)

“If this were local Muslim extremist groups who wanted to retaliate against anti-Muslim attacks by Buddhists, I think the targeting would have been a bit different,” he wrote on Twitter.

“The attacks targeted churches as well as major tourist hotels in the capital, which were having Easter buffets and so on. This signals some coordination and planning by foreign groups.”

A total of nine bombings on Sunday killed at least 290 people and injured more than 500.

Sri Lankan officials said two people were involved in the attack at the Shangri-La hotel.

One bomber each attacked the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels, and St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, St Sebastian's church in the city of Negombo and Zion Church in the city of Batticaloa.

Two bombings hours later at a guesthouse and near an overpass on the outskirts of Colombo are still under investigation.

Sri Lanka Easter Sunday explosions: What we know so far

Suspects detonated explosives at a safe house near the overpass blast as police closed in, killing three officers.

Sri Lankan police found 87 bomb detonators at the main bus station in the capital, Colombo, on Monday and a large bomb was defused on an access road to the international airport.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankan but victims also included people from Britain, the US, Denmark, China, Japan, Portugal and Australia.

The president was to declare a nationwide emergency that will go into effect at midnight on Monday, following a curfew and blocks on social media.

The state of emergency will grant police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate without court orders, was in force at various times during the civil war that raged from 1983 to 2009.

It ended with the government defeating the Tamil Tigers, who launched numerous terror attacks in a bloody campaign for an independent ethnic state.

The Tamil separatists – including Hindus and Christians - had been fighting against Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority, who are predominantly Buddhist.

There were fears the Easter Sunday bombings could spark fresh sectarian violence, with a petrol bombing on a mosque and arson attacks on Muslim-owned shops reported.

Additional reporting by agencies

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