Police investigations into the series of blasts that killed 290 people in Sri Lanka have revealed that one of the suicide bombers who blew himself up at Shangri La hotel in Colombo belonged to an affluent Lankan business family.
Sri Lankan Cabinet minister and spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said in Colombo Monday that a local radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jamaath (NJT), was behind the string of eight bombings that targeted churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.
Senaratne said the role of outside support for this group was also being probed. “We don’t see that a small organisation in this country can do all that…We are investigating international support for them and their other links — how they produced the suicide bombers and bombs like this,” he said.
No group has officially claimed responsibility for the attack. But a nationwide alert sent by police on April 11 specified that NJT was preparing to carry out attacks on churches and the Indian High Commission.
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Senaratne said Sri Lanka had received information about the planned attacks from a foreign intelligence agency on April 4. But in remarks that underlined the differences and absence of communication between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena, the Minister said the Prime Minister had not been informed about the intelligence input — and said he had been kept “blind” on this.
Senaratne acknowledged that the attacks signalled a massive failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government but appeared to blame the President for it.
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Shiral Lakthilaka, advisor and coordinating secretary at the Presidential Secretariat, said probe agencies are yet to ascertain the motive behind the attack. “If you look at the past, most of the South Asian extremist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISIS, had never targeted Sri Lanka. Even the Indian intelligence agencies know that when the Mumbai attacks (2008) and similar terror strikes happened in the region, Sri Lanka was considered safe. In the initial stage of investigation, we suspect that an emerging group of locally radicalised elements have played behind this attack to establish their presence here,” he said.
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Unlike Senaratne, the advisor to the President declined to name the group, but underlined the suspicion that a foreign element was involved. “Definitely, foreign groups worked behind this attack that was seemingly carried out by local groups,” Lakthilaka said.
Sri Lankan police identified one of the two bombers at the Shangri La hotel in the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s court Monday after producing nine persons arrested from a factory owned by the bomber, according to a report in the Daily Mirror.
Seven of the eight bombings were carried out by suicide bombers, Lakthilaka told The Indian Express, adding that six of them had no criminal background.
“One suicide bomber had a case history of being produced before a criminal court under suspicion and later released. It was an act of religious extremism,” he said, adding that the bombers came from different parts of Sri Lanka.
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Official sources linked the bombings to the seizure of explosives and detonators earlier this year in Puttalam. At the time, police had arrested four persons and said they belonged to a “radical local group”. One of the four was released later.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, declared a state of Emergency from Monday midnight. The move gives police, army, navy and the air force the power to make arrests without warrants and detain people without producing them before a court — provisions which were in force during the 30 years of civil war — under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The Sri Lankan parliament is set to meet Tuesday to approve the measure.
On Monday, there was panic in Colombo after an explosion was heard, but officials said it was the bomb disposal squad carrying out a controlled blast in a van full of explosives used by the bombers.
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Interpol has also announced the deployment of a team to Sri Lanka to assist in the investigation. A senior Sri Lankan defence ministry official said Interpol is assisting investigators with their “stolen and lost travel documents and nominal databases” to trace potential international connections of the suspects and bombers.
“As the Sri Lankan authorities investigate these horrific attacks, Interpol will continue to provide whatever support is necessary,” said Interpol Secretary General, Jürgen Stock.