Sri Lankan security personnel and police look through blast debris outside Zion Church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

A radical and little-known Muslim group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath was responsible for the spate of suicide bombings on Easter Sunday that killed at least 310 people and injured a further 500, Sri Lankan officials have said.

It was also alleged that the prime minister and Cabinet were not informed about an intelligence warning from Indian officials of possible attacks – because of the bitter rift between the PM and the President, as the latter oversees national security.

The attacks occurred at three churches and three hotels in the capital Colombo and other towns across the country, primarily targeting Christians and tourists on the island nation.

On Monday evening, there was a report of a further explosion near St Anthony’s Shrine, one of three churches targeted on Sunday, as police tried to defuse a new bomb found in the capital. There was no immediate information on injuries in the blast, or how large it was.

Cabinet minister and spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne said the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) was suspected to have carried out the attacks “with the help of [an] international network.”

Previously, the NTJ was known mainly for vandalizing Buddhist statues. Three years ago, its secretary, Abdul Razik, was arrested on charges of inciting racism.

“We don’t see that only a small organization in this country can do all that,” said Senaratne. “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.”

Indian security sources have speculated at possible involvement by rogue elements within the Pakistani intelligence. They said some Sri Lankan and Maldivians had trained in Afghanistan along with the IS-Khorasan Province, an affiliate of the main Syria-based Islamic State. This indicated growing radicalization and ferment among Muslim youths in Sri Lanka, they said.

State of emergency

The Sri Lankan government declared a state of emergency to take effect from Monday evening. And yesterday, government authorities shut popular social-media messaging sites such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to prevent “rumor-mongering”.

At least 24 people were reported to have been arrested – all Sri Lankans, but there was no official comment about any of the individuals in custody or those involved in the bombings, as local officials have been wary of stirring ethnic and religious tensions.

While no names have been revealed, intelligence sources said the international network allegedly linked to the attacks could be Islamic State. However, the group was not known to have made any claim at the time of writing.

PM ‘not told about warning’

On Sunday, there were reports that a “foreign intelligence agency” had alerted Sri Lanka 10 days earlier that the country could face terror attacks – and that the Sri Lankan police chief issued a letter to provincial police officials warning them of this.

But it was only today that details emerged to explain why political leaders appeared to have been taken little action after the intelligence warning.

Senaratne said the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cabinet had not been privy to the warnings about possible attacks because they were not invited to national security council meetings led by President Maithripala Sirisena.

“The prime minister was not informed by these letters and revelations,” Senaratne said. “We are not trying to evade responsibility but these are the facts. We were surprised to see these reports.”

The rift between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena is well known, given the president sought to sack the prime minister in October. These bombshell revelations have led to fears that political infighting between the PM and the president has greatly endangered public safety – and that the country could be thrown into political turmoil again.

A spokesman for the Indian High Commission was quoted today as saying it had obtained some information about the impending attacks and had shared the intelligence they had with the Sri Lankan government, which boosted security to the Indian High Commission.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reportedly acknowledged that “information was there” about possible attacks, but just said that an investigation would look into “why adequate precautions were not taken”.

Meanwhile, the Indian Coast Guard also issued an alert on Monday to say they have intensified patrols in the Palk Straits to prevent any “suicide bombers” or others linked to the attacks from escaping via sea to India. The suspected NTJ group is believed to have a base in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Radical cleric

Investigators in Sri Lanka were checking unconfirmed reports yesterday that a Muslim cleric identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim was one of the suicide bombers who targeted the Shangri La hotel in Colombo. Hashim allegedly had a record of posting incendiary videos on YouTube and other social media sites.

In April 2018 the New York Times published an investigation that revealed that Facebook was used by Sinhala Buddhist groups to target Muslims. This led to riots targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka. Tensions between Muslims and the Sinhala Buddhists have reportedly remained high in the year since then.

A screen grab of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jama’ath Facebook page.

The attacks on Sunday were the worst seen since the end of the country’s 26-year-long civil war a decade ago. The war began after Tamil-speaking minorities formed insurgent groups to fight against “discriminatory policies” imposed by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Sinhala Buddhists form nearly 74% of the population.

Led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), the civil war raged until May 2009 when the last militants and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran were killed by Sri Lankan forces. New Delhi had sent the Indian Army to first protect the Tamil minorities under a bilateral accord in 1987. But this force, known as the Indian Peace Keeping Force, had to quickly switch gears and take on the LTTE. It was withdrawn in early 1990, before then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who sent troops to Sri Lanka, was assassinated by an LTTE member in the run-up to the 1991 general elections.

Tensions between the ethnic Tamils and the Sinhala majority continue to be fraught, but Tamil Muslims generally avoided taking sides through the civil war.

Indian security sources said the NTJ had emerged as suspects in an attack in southern India and was also associated with a local terror group, but nothing more occurred. The Easter Sunday attacks were reportedly the first in which the NTJ was named by Sri Lankan authorities.

Read: Easter blasts at Sri Lanka churches, hotels kill nearly 300

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