Sri Lanka says terrorist network behind Easter Sunday church and hotel attacks

The government was warned of a threat two weeks before 290 were killed across the island

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As blood dried on the pews of three churches and three luxury hotels remained on lockdown on Monday, the Sri Lankan government apologised for a security lapse that allowed a co-ordinated wave of suicide bombs to kill least 290 people and wound 500 on Easter Sunday.

The government said it received notice that a local militant group known as National Thowheeth Jama’ath was planning attacks against churches at least two weeks before the atrocities.

The government blamed the little-known extremist group for paralysing the country with at least eight blasts across Colombo, Negombo, a city to the north of the capital, and Batticaloa, a city on the eastern coast.

Police have arrested at least 24 people in connection with the deadliest attack ever on Sri Lankan soil.

Sri Lankan officials suggested the extremist group received assistance from outside the country, although the two-dozen suspects arrested are citizens.

"There must be a wider international network behind it," said Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who also acts as a government spokesman.

"We don't see that only a small organisation in this country can do all that. We are now investigating the international support for them, and their other links – how they produced the suicide bombers here and how they produced bombs like this."

As security operations continued in Colombo on Monday, troops identified a vehicle 50 metres from St Anthony’s Church in the suburb of Kochchikade.

The debris of a controlled explosion in central Colombo, Sri Lanka, with St Anthony's Church in the background, April 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National.
The debris of a controlled explosion in central Colombo, Sri Lanka, with St Anthony's Church in the background, April 22, 2019. Jack Moore / The National.

A bomb disposal unit armed with a minesweeper detonated a suspect package inside a minivan.

The blast smashed shopfronts and house windows, leaving debris and shattered glass on the boulevard in front of the church.

People already on edge ran down the street after the explosion, fearing the worst. But police were quick to offer reassurance.

"It was a controlled blast," a city official told The National.

On Monday, police discovered 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus station and, a day earlier, they disposed of a two-metre pipe bomb found near the road to Bandaranaike International Airport.

All three discoveries underscored the lingering threat and fear of further attacks as authorities try to close in on the network responsible.

The identification of the extremist group behind the attack will do little to lift anxiety in the country as a curfew remains in place. The possibility that some of the culprits may still be at large has brought paranoia and suspicion into the Sri Lankan capital.

“The situation is tense,” said one Colombo resident. “You never know when a bomb will go off next.”

Sri Lanka’s police chief had warned that the extremist group was planning attacks against churches as early as April 11, after he received information from a foreign intelligence agency.

But there will be concern that the Sri Lankan government did not take the threat seriously enough.

The group was previously only connected to the vandalism of Buddhist statues. But in January four of its members were arrested after 100 detonators and a stash of explosives weighing up to 100 kilograms were found.

US intelligence assessments claim the group is inspired by ISIS. Officials at the State Department and the US embassy in Colombo were not immediately available for comment. Calls to National police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera on Monday went unanswered.

The Soufan Group, a US intelligence company, said the assault resembled attacks where local groups receive foreign support.

The US State Department warned of further possible attacks in Sri Lanka in a travel advisory for its citizens released on Monday, urging “increased caution”.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed on Monday that the US would keep fighting terrorists.

"This is America's fight, too," Mr Pompeo said.

It was the first attack against foreign nationals at luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, in a new breed of terrorism to the island that ended a decades-long civil war in 2009 between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers.

One Sri Lankan health official told The National that the country had never seen an attack like Sunday's massacre.

Police have blocked parts of the capital to protect vital institutions after the suicide bomb attacks at the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels.

At the Cinnamon Grand, security cordoned off the entire building apart from booked guests and no damage was apparent. The Shangri-La’s second floor was completely blown out from the Galle Face Green promenade, where its usually thriving shopfronts remained shut.

At the most severely damaged hotel, the Kingsbury, glass and debris was blown 10 metres across the road.

Panes of glass dangled from window frames, smashed tables lay on their side and cables hung from the ceiling. Workers in yellow hats were piling debris into lorries.

The attacks are likely to severely damage the country’s tourism industry, which is a vital lifeline to its debt-ridden economy.

At least 39 foreign nationals from countries including the US, Britain, Turkey, Japan, China, the Netherlands, India, Australia and Portugal were killed in the attack.

Hospitality industry workers say they have already had many cancellations.

Alosias Peter, 58, a flight salesman, said sales had already taken a hit.

“Now we will have to start with very little,” Mr Peter said. “None of our clients from London, New York, Canada. Nobody is coming now.”

Police are much more visible on the streets of the Colombo than in November when a political crisis described as a coup rocked the Indian Ocean democracy.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s allies tried to deflect blame on Monday, saying that national security meetings were chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena and that the premier was not privy to the intelligence about the extremists' plans.

The two men are intense rivals. Last tear Mr Sirisena tried to oust the prime minister and replace him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man accused of corruption and war crimes against the country’s Tamil minority.

Across the country, access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram is restricted in a bid to prevent the spread of misinformation and the stoking of ethnic and religious tension.