A horrific wave of terrorism hit Sri Lanka. The island nation came under attack by National Thowheeth Jama'at, a militant group with evil ideology causing high scale of casualty, communal tensions and security threat to the whole region. It is the worst violence the country has witnessed since the end of a brutal 26-year long civil war which ended a decade ago.
On April 21, Easter Sunday, three churches in the east and west coast of Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in the capital city ‘Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated terrorist suicide bombings leaving 258 innocent people dead including at least 46 foreign nationals and three police officers, and at least 500 were injured.
According to Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, all nine of the suicide bombers in the attacks were Sri Lankan citizens associated with National Thowheeth Jama'ath, a local militant Islamist group with suspected foreign ties.
Two days after the attack, Amaq News Agency, a propaganda outlet for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), stated that “the perpetrators of the attack targeting the citizens of coalition countries and Christians in Sri Lanka were Islamic State fighters.” But this claim was seriously questioned by the experts.
Suicide bombers struck three churches in three separate cities and three five-star hotels in the capital city of Colombo. The attacks started at around 8:30 A.M. local time when Easter Sunday services were underway at the churches: St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the capital’s largest Catholic congregation, as well as one of the country’s oldest and best-known Christian houses of worship; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo; and Zion Church in Batticaloa on the country’s East Coast. The hotels targeted in the attacks were the Shangri-La Hotel, Cinnamon Grand Colombo, and Kingsbury Colombo Hotel.
All six of the first set of blasts targeting the churches and hotels were carried out by suicide bombers. The first blast took place in the Shrine of St. Anthony, a historic Catholic church in the capital, where more than 50 people were killed. The second blast took place in St. Sebastian's Church in the Christian-majority suburb of Negombo, to the north of Colombo and Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Over 100 people were killed at St. Sebastian's Church. St. Sebastian's is also close to Sri Lanka's main airport, Bandaranaike International Airport, where security was heightened.
On the other side of the island in Batticaloa, a bomb blast 15 minutes later killed 28 people at the Protestant evangelical Zion Church.
Three 5-star hotels on the beachfront in central Colombo were attacked around the same time as the churches: the Shangri-La Hotel, the Cinnamon Grand Hotel and The Kingsbury.
The Shangri-La bombers struck at 08:57 A. M. during breakfast buffet in the restaurant on the hotel's third floor, which was reportedly full of foreign tourists who made up the bulk of the hotel's clientele.
The suicide bomber who struck at the Taprobane restaurant in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel had checked into the hotel with a false name the night before, claiming to be on a business trip. The bomber entered the queue of the packed restaurant's breakfast buffet the next morning and detonated explosives strapped to his back as he was about to be served. One of the hotel's managers who was welcoming guests was among those who were killed instantly by the blast.
The reception hall of a guest house, the Tropical Inn in Dehiwala, was also attacked later in the day, with two deaths reported. Later on, during investigations, it was found that the bomber's original target had being the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo. CCTV footage given to the media by the hotel, shows the bomber attempting to detonate his vest three times in the dining area and upon failing, leaving the premises at 8.49 A. M.
A further bombing occurred later in the day when police executed a raid at a suspect's house in the suburbs of Colombo; in Dematagoda killing three police officers and four others at the premises including the suicide bomber herself. The pregnant suicide bomber, whose three children were killed in the blast, was the wife of Ilham Ibrahim, the Shangri-La suicide bomber, and the sister-in-law of Inshaf Ahmed Ibrahim, the Cinnamon Grand suicide bomber.
The eyewitnesses gave a horrific description of the attack. Harsha de Silva, the country's Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, said he visited the St Anthony’s Shrine and the Shangri La hotel.
He said, “Horrible scenes. I saw many body parts strewn all over. Emergency crews are at all locations in full force … We took multiple casualties to hospital. Hopefully saved many lives.”
“It was a river of blood,” said N. A. Sumanapala, a shopkeeper near St Anthony’s who said he had run inside to help. “The priest came out and he was covered in blood.”
Alex Agileson, a witness who was in the vicinity, said buildings in the surrounding area shook with the blast.
The bombings killed 258 people and injured at least 500. Initially, 359 fatalities were reported; the Ministry of Health later reduced the number by 106 after cross-referencing DNA samples to body parts. The majority of the dead are Sri Lankans, with at least 46 foreigners among those killed.
A ministry statement said the highest number of victims were from India (11) followed by Britain (six), China (four) and Denmark (three). Saudi Arabia, Spain and Turkey lost two nationals each. Bangladesh, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States all lost one national. There were six other people with more than one nationality.
World leaders including Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina strongly condemned the horrific attacks carried out against civilians. In their statements they expressed their heartfelt condolences to the families, victims, government and people of Sri Lanka. They also urged Sri Lankans to stand united in the face of the carnage.
After the attack, security forces of Sri Lanka launched a crackdown against the suspects. Sri Lankan authorities set a nationwide curfew and blocked access to social media sites and messaging services in order to prevent the spread of misinformation — and fuel the ethnic violence it is now well known to cause in Sri Lanka and other countries. Facebook, Instagram, Viber, and WhatsApp were all blocked after the Muslim community, their property and mosques came under attack all around the country.
On April 22, after an online posting sparked a bout of anti-Muslim communal violence that has left dozens injured and two people dead. Mobs attacked mosque after mosque and targeted Muslim-owned businesses and homes.
As the anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka spread throughout, the Sri Lankan government imposed the nationwide curfew
Dilara (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) told TRT World that a mob of around 500 people attacked her husband’s business last week. They pelted stones at the family business and looted items from the display cases while her husband and his three employees were inside.
“They had come and started throwing big blocks of stones, bricks. He was ducking, he was ducking,” Dilara said.
When they succeeded in breaking into the shop, they physically attacked Dilara’s husband and his three employees. Dilara’s husband was dragged outside by the mob armed with iron rods and sticks.
“And when they were about to beat him, thank God army jeep had come [sic]. And two army commandos had got down and chased this mob away,” Dilara said
The authority also imposed a ban on Burkha or Abaya worn by Muslim women.
Police arrested eight people residing in the Colombo suburb of Dematagoda on the day of the attacks. Five more suspected attackers and accomplices were arrested at a house during the night. Police confirmed on the day after the bombings that 24 people were arrested. By 23 April, the number of people arrested was 40. Three police officers and two civilians were killed by bombs that exploded during the captures. By 24 April 60 people had been arrested with possible links to the attacks with 32 in custody.
On April 26 the Sri Lankan Police had more than 70 suspects held on charges of suspicion of terrorism, aiding and abetting terrorism and conspiracy to commit terrorism. Four high-level suspects are being held by the Terrorism Investigation Department, and 33 are being held by the Criminal Investigation Department. Most of them are friends and family of the suspected suicide bombers. Nine suicide bombers were involved in the attacks, and police have identified all of them associated with terror group National Thowheeth Jama’at (NTJ).
A report from The Hindu newspaper which has been picked up by media organizations throughout Asia, reports that the alleged mastermind behind multiple terror atrocities against the Sri Lankan people trained in India for several months visiting multiple states. Specifically, and of great importance, an unnamed Sri Lankan “top military source” claims that suspected terror leader Zahran Hashim spent “substantial time” training in “southern India”.
The terror group National Thowheeth Jama’at (NTJ) named by Sri Lankan leaders as the culprit behind the attacks has been revealed by multiple sources as having its training base located in the same part of India’s Tamil Nadu that was once the training base of the anti-Sri Lankan LTTE terror group, a possible pattern of state sponsored terror began to emerge.
While Indian officials did not state that Hashim had travelled to India, they did point out that he had maintained virtual links with youth believed to be of Indian origin, said The Hindu.
Hashim's ties with south India were also confirmed by Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “Hashim had shifted base to Southern India,” he told AFP, adding that “all his videos have been uploaded from India. He uses boats of smugglers to travel back and forth from southern India.”
The politicization of the suicide bombings has already begun with the President and the Prime Minister blaming each other for the security failure. The Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has publicly stated that he was not invited to National Security Council meetings and was kept out of the loop on issues concerning national security.
The Prime Minister claimed that there had been advance warning of a possible attack, but that it was not acted upon, and it’s not yet clear why. A top police official alerted security official in an advisory 10 days ago about a threat to prominent churches from a radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath but it was unclear what safeguards were taken.
The Indian intelligence warned the Sri Lankan authority several times in regards to a potential attack. They also shared intelligence information two hours before the attack took place but for some mysterious reason no action was taken.
Sri Lankan Muslim groups say that they also made warnings about growing extremism of National Thowheeth Jama’at (NTJ) after its leader, known alternately as Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashem, became known for incendiary speeches. “Some of the intelligence people saw his picture but they didn’t take action,” N.M. Ameen, the president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told the Associated Press.
In recent years, resurgent hardline Buddhist groups have perpetrated a series of ethnic violence against Muslim and Christian communities.
Easter Sunday’s attacks targeting Christians represents another turn toward more religion-political violence.
It is still a mystery why the Christians were attacked when the Islamists’ grievance was possibly more in retaliation against rising Buddhist extremism.
Given the facts suggests that there is a mystery behind the motive of the attack and some crucial questions will remain unanswered. The Sri Lankan communities and government need to work in concert with one another to ensure harmony among themselves and safeguard the country from sliding back into its internecine past.
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