As Sri Lankans buried their dead following the string of suicide bombings of churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, questions about what the government knew, and when, were turning the country’s grief to anger.
The government vowed to overhaul its security apparatus on Tuesday, promising “stern action” after numerous reports revealed that it had received early warnings of possible terror attacks on churches and hotels around the country but failed to act on its intelligence. The Sri Lankan government received warnings from India and the U.S. about the threats to the churches in the country. It didn’t act on them.
The Islamic State group’s claim on the attacks has further raised global alarm, with experts warning that such attacks may augur the group’s next wave of terror post-caliphate.
And though intelligence officials have yet to corroborate ISIS’s claims, the group’s involvement appears increasingly likely. On Wednesday, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa acknowledged the terror group "may be linked" to the horrific attacks, and security officials in the U.K. identified one of the bombers as having studied in England in 2006.
Here’s the latest:
Death toll continues to climb
The death toll has risen dramatically over the three days since the attacks in the Buddhist-majority island nation. On Monday, it stood at 290; by Wednesday, it had jumped to 359. At least 500 people were injured. The attacks claimed victims from Sri Lanka and around the world.
And as the number of deaths has steadily ticked up, so has the outrage directed at the Sri Lankan government for its failure to act. The president, Maithripala Sirisena, has promised to shake up his Cabinet in the wake of the bombings, but he’s faced his own share of criticism for keeping his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe out of security meetings.
The archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said on Tuesday that he would have told worshippers to skip mass had he known there was a threat. “Couldn’t we have prevented the situation?” Cardinal Ranjith said, according to the New York Times. “Why wasn’t there any action?”
One Sri Lankan lawmaker, Wijedasa Rajapakse, has called for investigations into top security officials. And President Sirisena asked his secretary of defense, Hemasiri Fernando, and his head of police, Pujith Jayasundara, to resign.
An overnight curfew between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. will be imposed for the fourth straight night in Sri Lanka, and the military has been afforded war-time powers to conduct its investigation into the bombings. Social media remains blocked in the country.
Sri Lankan authorities warned that terror suspects involved in the attacks were still at large, and the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka said that there are likely “ongoing terrorist plots” in the country.
What Sri Lanka knew, and when
Indian intelligence officials had been watching the man suspected of orchestrating the attacks since 2018, when they discovered an ISIS cell operating in Southern India. And in the days leading up to the bombings, India warned Sri Lanka that the attacks could be imminent.
The man believed to have played a major role in organizing the coordinated attacks, Mohammed Zaharan, also known as Zahran Hashim, was a little known cleric who’d travelled between India and Sri Lanka, preaching the Quran at any mosque that would accept him. He also posted fiery videos on YouTube, in which he argued that Muslims had a right to kill non-Muslims, according to the New York Times.
The Sri Lankan authorities, meanwhile, have identified one of the suicide bombers, Inshan Seelavan, as the “mastermind” of the attack. Little is known about him or his connections to international groups so far. Another one of the bombers, Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, reportedly studied in England in 2006 and 2007, according to CNN.
Though Zaharan was mentioned by name in an April 11 memo written by Sri Lankan security officials warning of the threat of attacks, local officials have yet to confirm his involvement in the wake of the bombings.
Before Sunday’s horrific attacks, the group that he reportedly led, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, or NTJ, was barely known outside the country and has only claimed responsibility for acts such as defacing Buddhist statues. When the Sri Lankan authorities investigated the vandalism, they found that those responsible had been influenced by Zaharan’s teachings — and discovered a weapons cache, along with 100 kilograms of explosives, the New York Times reported.
The NTJ was meanwhile coming under more scrutiny from Indian authorities. They warned Zaharan and his followers were planning to attack churches. After the attacks, Sri Lankan authorities also said a second group, the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, may have been involved.
The Sri Lankans did not dispatch any additional security to churches after getting the tip.
How attackers may have gotten help from ISIS
Even if Zaharan and his group were getting more ambitious, stockpiling explosives and potentially preparing deadly attacks, most security experts don’t believe that he and his followers would’ve been able to carry out this string of coordinated attacks without international help.
“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” said Rajitha Senaratne, the Sri Lankan health commissioner said Tuesday.
Zaharan is believed to have been recruiting for ISIS, according to the New York Times, and experts told VICE News that they find the terror group’s claim of responsibility for the attack to be credible.
The explosives used in the attacks were likely smuggled in on boats that bring weapons and heroin into the country, according to the Times. Zaharan was the only person pictured without a mask in the photo of the alleged attackers ISIS provided shortly after claiming responsibility for the attacks.
Though much is still unknown about how, precisely, ISIS may be linked to the bombings, security experts believe that the attackers likely received direct guidance from the global terror group on how to carry out the bombings. Experts are now watching closely to see if foreign fighters were also involved in the attack.
Cover: Anusha Kumari, with bandages on her left eye weeps during a mass burial for her husband, two children and three siblings, all victims of Easter Sunday bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)