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RELATIVES carry a coffin for burial on Monday during the funeral of three members of a family who were among the bomb blast victims.—AP
RELATIVES carry a coffin for burial on Monday during the funeral of three members of a family who were among the bomb blast victims.—AP

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka decided to seek international assistance in investigating the bomb attacks that killed 290 people and wounded 500 others across the country on Easter Sunday, as 87 detonators were found at a bus stand in the Pettah area and officials defused another bomb on Monday.

Investigations conducted so far pointed out that a local extremist group, National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) — a spin-off group from the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath — was behind the six suicide attacks on three churches and three resorts, besides two blasts in the suburbs of Dehiwela and Dematagoda. A total of 24 suspects have been arrested so far, while the government announced a national state of emergency from Monday night till Tuesday morning.

Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said investigators were looking at whether the NTJ group had “international support” for the series of attacks. “We don’t see that only a small organisation in this country can do all that,” he said.

“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.” On Monday, 87 detonators were found at a bus stand in Colombo’s Pettah area while later during the day a bomb disposal squad isolated and defused a bomb transported in a van heading towards St. Anthony’s church in Kochchikade which was targeted on Sunday.

The Easter Sunday attacks, which also left 38 foreign nationals dead, was the first such incident after the end of 37-year war with the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009.

Death toll rises to 290; state of emergency declared; 87 detonators found at bus stop, another bomb defused; investigations point to local religious extremist group

The Thowheed Jamath in Sri Lanka, established and modelled after the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath, is often blamed for radicalising Indian Muslims. The Sri Lankan Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) had vehemently protested progressive measures such as amending of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) in Sri Lanka to prevent child marriage and abuse of women within marriage, especially in rural Eastern villages, in the past.

SLTJ Secretary Abdul Razik was arrested in 2016 for inciting hatred against Buddhists and later issued an apology.

Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando has declared that investigating authorities in Lanka would be receiving the FBI, Interpol as well as Australian police assistance after growing outrage among Lankans that the Sri Lankan government had been warned by foreign intelligence authorities of the possibility of terror attacks on specified targets.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who also holds portfolio of defence, had been abroad during the tragedy and had not appointed an acting defence minister prior to his overseas visit, government spokesperson, Minister Rajitha Senaratna admitted at a media briefing on Monday.

Officials said Sirisena would meet Colombo-based diplomats on Tuesday to seek international assistance in the investigation. “The intelligence sections have reported that there are international terror groups which are behind the local terrorists,” the statement said, adding that international assistance would be sought to combat them.

Meanwhile, security forces and police personnel have been deployed to protect all places of worship, hotels, hospitals, embassies and many other important buildings. All catholic schools have been declared closed till April 29.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who denied having received any information himself, also pledged to investigate why a prior warning about the attack had been ignored after a few government ministers tweeted that they had information of possible attacks. He also vowed that all measures would be taken to wipe out terrorism and ensure that such incidents would not occur again.

Monday evening saw an emergency meeting held at the Ministry of Muslim Religious Affairs, where Muslim organizations and representatives had discussed how to combat Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka and assist law-enforcing agencies.

Representatives of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka have stated that their members had alerted military intelligence some three years ago about radicalised persons and had provided all names and relevant details to commence investigations.

Sources within the Muslim community said there were indications based on intelligence reports that about 90 to 100 Lankan Muslim youth had been radicalised, but around 40 of them were removed from the danger list since the extent of indoctrination did not seem to have affected them deeply.

Among the rest, one seems to have blown himself up at Dehiwala on Sunday. Members of the community, including a minister, asked for the list of radicalised persons so that they could be aware of the danger and control it internally. But the intelligence unit carrying out investigations believed that the information should be confidential, at least for the time being.

Also, there has been criticism of some Muslim ministers intervening to get released suspected extremists after they were arrested. In 2016 then Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha told parliament that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims from ‘well educated’ families had joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Rajapaksha’s statement was then dismissed and condemned by Muslim politicians as racism.

Lankan Muslims, however, have now started speaking out as Twitter saw several comments from the community members demanding action and vigilance by Muslims in the Buddhist-majority island nation.

In a bid to address the growing religious and ethnic divide in the country, the Colombo-based Centre for Islamic Studies (CIS) has been, in the past two years, instrumental in opening up mosques for people of other faiths and conducting mosque tours regularly to give a clearer picture of Islam. It has also issued statements and produced posters condemning extremism in all its forms.

“There are allegations that there are radicalised youth moving about in the community. If so, why is our intelligence service not revealing their names so that we are made aware of the danger in our midst and can take appropriate action,” queried Asiff Hussein, Vice President of the Outreach CIS. “Some might say that divulging their names will ruin their future and prevent any hope of rehabilitation. However, one could counter argue that their future is already over as they have been radicalized beyond redemption and what is important now is not their future, but the future of the country as a whole,” said Hussein, who authored many books on Sri Lankan history especially on how Muslims have contributed to the country.

COLOMBO: Women living near a shrine run for safety after police found explosive devices in a van on Monday.—AP
COLOMBO: Women living near a shrine run for safety after police found explosive devices in a van on Monday.—AP

The US State Department, meanwhile, warned of further attacks in a revised travel advisory, urging increased caution and adding: “Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka.”

Memories of civil war

Ethnic and religious violence has plagued Sri Lanka for decades, with a 37-year conflict with Tamil rebels, followed by an upswing in recent years in clashes between the Buddhists and Muslims.

Two leading Muslim groups issued statements condemning the attacks, with the All Ceylon Jamiyaathuul Ulama, a council of Muslim theologians, urging the “maximum punishment for everyone involved in these dastardly acts.”

The churches targeted included St Sebastian’s in Negombo, north of the capital, which was surrounded by security forces on Monday.

Dozens of people were killed at the church, including friends of 16-year-old Primasha Fernando who was at her home nearby when the suicide bomber struck.

“When I got to the church there were people crying and screaming,” she said. “I saw parents carrying their dead babies.”

Many of the dead from the attacks were taken to the government morgue and relatives on Monday begin the gruesome task of identifying their loved ones.

Eighteen bodies were released after relatives recognised the victims from video shown on a screen in a corner of the morgue courtyard.

Janaka Shaktivel, 28, father of an 18-month-old son, sat in shock outside the building waiting for the body of his wife to be handed over. “I recognised her body from the wedding ring that she always wore,” he said. “I have no words to explain my feelings.”

For many, the blasts stirred painful memories of Sri Lanka’s civil war, when bomb attacks were a frequent occurrence. “The string of blasts brings back memories of the time when we were afraid to go in buses or trains because of parcel bombs,” said Malathi Wickrama, a street sweeper in Colombo.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019