COLOMBO: Many of the suicide bombers who killed more than 350 people in a series of coordinated Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were highly educated and came from well-off families, the junior defence minister said on Wednesday.
The bombers were breakaway members of a pair of obscure extremist Muslim groups, he said. Officials had earlier blamed one extremist group for the bombings, though they say the attackers may have had support from foreign militants.
“Their thinking is that Islam can be the only religion in this country,” Ruwan Wijewardene told reporters. “They are quite well-educated people,” he said, adding that at least one had a law degree and some may have studied in the UK and Australia.
The news came as leaders vowed to overhaul the country’s security apparatus after acknowledging that some intelligence units were aware of possible attacks before the Easter bombings.
US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz told reporters that “clearly there was some failure in the system,” but said the US had no prior knowledge of a threat before the attacks, the worst violence in the South Asian island nation since its civil war ended a decade ago.
Teplitz called that breakdown in communication “incredibly tragic.” Government statements about the attacks have been confused and sometimes contradictory, with police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara telling reporters on Wednesday that there were nine suicide bombers two more than officials said one day earlier.
One of the additional suicide bombers was the wife of another bomber, Gunasekara said. The woman, two children and three policemen died in an explosion as authorities closed in on her late on Sunday, hours after attacks were launched against three churches and three hotels. The ninth suicide bomber has not been identified, though two more suspects were killed in a later explosion on the outskirts of Colombo.
Gunasekara said 60 people have been arrested so far. A team of FBI agents and US military officials were helping in the investigation, Teplitz said.
The militant Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks but authorities remain unsure of their involvement, though many suspect experienced foreign militants were advising, funding or guiding the attackers. Officials say all of the seven main bombers were Sri Lankan.
“We are conducting investigations at the moment to see if there is any direct link to any international organizations,” Wijewardene said.
The IS group’s Aamaq news agency released an image it said showed the attackers’ leader standing amid seven others with covered faces. It provided no other evidence for its claim.
Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2019