Sri Lankan police arrested 40 people in connection with a series of suicide bombings at hotels and churches on Easter Sunday that left more than 300 people dead and more than 500 injured, the government said Monday, blaming National Thowheeth Jama'ath, a little-known radical Islamist organization, for the attack.
Sri Lanka's security forces were warned at least 10 days before the bombings that the group planned suicide attacks against churches, but apparently took no action. Top government officials say the warning never reached them.
At a news conference Monday, the health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, said there had been a warning as early as April 4, reiterating that the prime minister and his allies had been "completely blind on the situation." He also called for the police inspector general, Pujith Jayasundara, to resign and noted the lack of cooperation within the government, saying that when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attempted recently to call a security council meeting, members of the panel refused to attend.
An April 11 letter from the police official, citing foreign intelligence services, not only named the group believed to be planning an attack, whose name roughly translates to National Monotheism Organization, but also named individual members.
"We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken," Wickremesinghe said Sunday.
The National Thowheeth Jama'ath had a reputation for vandalizing Buddhist statues but little history of carrying out terrorist attacks.
Senaratne called the group "a local organization" and said the suicide bombers appeared to be Sri Lankan citizens. "All are locals," he said at a news conference Monday. But, he added, "there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded."
No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the bombings.
FBI agents are being sent to assist Sri Lankan police in their investigation, according to a law enforcement official. The FBI has also offered laboratory expertise in testing some of the bomb evidence, and analysts have been scouring FBI databases for any pieces of information that could shed additional light on the plotters, officials said.
At least four U.S. citizens are among the dead, and "several" Americans were seriously injured, the State Department said Monday. Sri Lankan Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said a total of 39 foreigners were killed and 28 wounded.
Thowheed Jamaath "wasn't on anyone's radar," said Michael Leiter, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the 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."
But the absence of any clear claim of responsibility from an established international terrorist organization suggests 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.
A forensic analysis of body parts found at six sites determined that seven suicide bombers conducted attacks at three churches and three hotels, according to The Associated Press. Most attacks were carried out by single bombers, but two men targeted the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Two other bombings at a guesthouse and at the suspects' apparent safe house remain under investigation.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was implemented for a second night Monday in Colombo, the capital. And major social media and messaging services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, have been blocked by the government to try to curb the spread of misinformation.
In a sign of rising tensions in the wake of the attacks, 22 Muslim refugees from Pakistan living in Negombo faced threats and intimidation from a group of local residents. Police arrived and separated the two groups, said Kosela Navaratna, the officer in charge at the Katana police station in Negombo. The refugees are in police protection.
Politics was subsumed Monday by the sobbing and the shuffling of feet in Maha Hunupitiya, a Roman Catholic neighborhood near St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, a city about 20 miles north of Colombo, the capital.
The suicide bomber's blast was so powerful that it blew off much of the church's roof. Heavy clay tiles rained down on worshippers, and dozens were killed. White funeral flags fluttered everywhere. Mourners flowed down roads barely wide enough for one car, lined by profusions of pink and white bougainvillea. Their blank faces were a mirror of what so much of this country is feeling.
All day Monday, through the steamy heat, mourners in the neighborhood quietly stepped inside a small room and paused in front of a sealed coffin containing what was left of Sneha Savindi Fernando.
Sneha was 11 years old and standing in line for communion at Easter Mass on Sunday when she was blown apart. A picture of Sneha sat next to the door. A faint smell of jasmine hung in the air. Her family said she loved to cook and eat cake. For her next birthday, she was hoping to get a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
"Why did you leave me?" her grandmother, Lalitha Hettiarachchi, cried, sitting in front of the coffin and rubbing its sides, the anguish tight in her hands. "There are so many bad people in the world. Why kill the innocents?"
Information for this article was contributed by Jeffrey Gettleman and Dharisha Bastians of The New York Times; and by Joanna Slater, Amantha Perera, Shibani Mahtani, Rukshana Rizwie, Devana Senanayake, Niha Masih, Chico Harlan, Souad Mekhennet, Devlin Barrett and Julie Tate of The Washington Post.
Relatives weep Monday near the coffin of 11-year-old Sneha Savindi Fernando, who was a victim of an Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
A Section on 04/23/2019
Print Headline: 40 jailed in Sri Lanka attacks; officials say police were given warning but took no action