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Sri Lanka Attacks Live Updates: Terrorist Group Is Identified, and Death Toll Rises

Monday 22 April 2019, by siawi3

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/world/asia/sri-lanka-bombing-explosion.html

Sri Lanka Attacks Live Updates: Terrorist Group Is Identified, and Death Toll Rises

Live Briefing

Video here 2:07 Sri Lanka Attacks: Nation On Edge Mourns Victims

The death toll from the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka was raised to nearly 300 people and the authorities have blamed a little-known radical Islamist group for the attacks.CreditCreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

By The New York Times

April 22, 2019

• The government on Monday blamed a little-known radical Islamist group for the devastating Easter Sunday suicide bombings that killed nearly 300 people. Officials said the group, which had not carried out any serious attacks before, had received help from an international terrorist organization.

• Sri Lanka’s security forces were warned at least 10 days before the bombings that the militant group was planning attacks against churches, but apparently took no action against it, indicating a catastrophic intelligence failure. Top government officials say the warning never reached them.

• The Sri Lankan police have arrested 24 people in connection with the explosions at hotels and churches.

• A dusk-to-dawn curfew was in effect for a second night on Monday in Colombo, the capital. And major social media and messaging services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, have been blocked by the government to try to curb the spread of misinformation.

Image: Relatives unloading the coffin on Monday of Sneha Savindi, 11, who was killed in a suicide bombing at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Death toll rises to 290

The number killed was lifted significantly overnight, to 290, the police said on Monday, adding that about 500 people had also been wounded in the attacks on sites across the country.

The Sri Lankan tourism minister, John Amaratunga, said that at least 39 foreigners were among the dead. Those countries that have confirmed their citizens were killed include Australia, Britain, China, Japan, Portugal and the United States.

Ruwan Gunasekera, a police spokesman, would not reveal how many people had been killed at each location.

The identities of the victims have started to emerge. These are their stories.

More explosions rocked parts of the country on Monday, and while no new casualties were reported, the blasts racked already strained nerves.

In one case, it appeared that a bomb detonated while the police were trying to defuse or move it, near one of the churches that was hit on Sunday. Smaller blasts were reported that may have resulted from the police intentionally detonating suspicious packages.

Image: This advisory sent by a police official alerted security officials about a threat to churches from a radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Government officials have blamed the group for the attack.

A warning went unheeded

Ten days before the bombings, a top Sri Lankan police official warned the security services that a radical Islamist group was planning suicide attacks against churches, but no action was taken against the group. It was unclear what other precautions, if any, the security agencies had taken in response to the threat warnings.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Sunday that neither he nor his cabinet ministers had been informed of the warning, highlighting the power struggle between him and President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the defense minister. Late last year, the feud led, for a time, to there being two officials claiming to be the rightful prime minister.

The apparent intelligence failure and the breakdown of communication within the government are likely to prompt political recriminations and attract attention in investigations into the attacks.

At a news conference on Monday, the health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, said there had been a warning as early as April 4, reiterating that the prime minister and his allies had been “completely blind on the situation.” He noted the lack of cooperation within the government, saying that when the prime minister attempted recently to call a security council meeting, members of the panel refused to attend.

An April 11 letter from the police official not only named the group believed to be planning an attack, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, but also named individual members, and even gave addresses where they could be found.

The information came from “foreign intelligence,” the letter said. It did not specify which country had supplied the intelligence, but Indian security officials said they had given it to their Sri Lankan counterparts as early as April 4.

“We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said on Sunday.

[Look at images from the devastation of the Easter Sunday attacks, and see how the country is mourning.]

Sri Lanka Bombing Maps: What We Know About the Attack Sites

The attacks struck churches, five-star hotels and other sites in multiple cities.

Who are National Thowheeth Jama’ath?

Officials on Monday said a little-known Islamist group that promotes a terrorist ideology in South Asia was responsible for the attacks.

The group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, had a reputation for vandalizing Buddhist statues but little history of carrying out terrorist attacks.

Rajitha Senaratne, the health minister, called the group “a local organization” and said the suicide bombers appeared to be Sri Lankan citizens. “All are locals,” he said at a news conference on Monday.

But, he added, “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

In a news release, Mr. Sirisena, the president, said that, according to Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies, “there are international terrorist organizations behind these incidents.”

No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the bombings.

A forensic analysis of body parts found at six sites determined that seven suicide bombers conducted attacks at three churches and three hotels, according to The Associated Press. Most attacks were carried out by lone bombers, but two men targeted the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Two other bombings at a guesthouse and at the suspects’ apparent safe house remain under investigation.

Sri Lanka does not have much history of Islamist terrorism. The country is predominantly Buddhist, with significant Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities.

From 1983 to 2009, separatists from the Tamil ethnic group, which is mostly Hindu, fought a civil war against the government, dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority, most of whom are Buddhist.

Image: Security officers inspected the debris of a car that exploded as the police tried to defuse a bomb near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on Monday.CreditJewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The bombs hinted at a worrying level of expertise

Whoever designed the suicide vests used in the blasts showed considerable competence, a fact that is certain to worry law enforcement agencies, said Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm based in Austin, Tex.

When small, homegrown extremist groups use explosives, they often start with a series of failures. Some bombs fail to detonate completely, and others explode early, late, or not at all.

But in the Sri Lanka attack, it appears that all seven suicide vests detonated and did heavy damage, Mr. Stewart said, indicating skill at making bombs and manually activated detonators, and suggesting access to a large supply of military-grade high explosives.

“You don’t do that by accident, so they must have a fairly decent logistics network and funding,” he added.

But Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said he would not be surprised if a small group had been able to stage the attack without direct help.

“There is so, so much instruction and guidance available on the open internet these days, not to mention whatever is circulating on encrypted chat groups, widely available in terrorist circles if not totally public,” he said.

Unexploded bombs, apparently not designed for suicide attacks, were found in other public places in Sri Lanka. That suggests that the bomb maker (or makers) was less expert at detonation using timers or remote control, Mr. Stewart said.

Image: A woman was consoled by friends and relatives at the burial of three family members killed in the bombing at St. Sebastian’s Church.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Searching for an Islamic State Link

In Washington, intelligence and counterterrorism analysts were scrutinizing possible ties between the Islamic State and the attackers, but as of Monday afternoon had not reached any definitive conclusions.

Nicholas J. Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the presence of some Sri Lankan fighters in Syria and Iraq raised the prospect of informal connections with members of National Thowheeth Jama’ath still in Sri Lanka.

“It’s hard to imagine an attack of this complexity without some form of organization and support from a group that has done this kind of thing before,” Mr. Rasmussen said in an email.

Lisa Monaco, a former homeland security adviser for President Barack Obama, who also served as assistant attorney general for national security, said that if the attacks in Sri Lanka had been inspired by ISIS, it should serve as a stark reminder to the Trump administration.

“It’s a reminder that we should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate — as important as it is through tremendous efforts by both the Obama and Trump administration — we should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate with that of the virtual caliphate,” Ms. Monaco said.

“It’s a movement and it, as we’ve seen, can take hold around the world,” Ms. Monaco said. “That’s going to require a partnership with governments and the private sector when it comes to addressing abuse of social media platforms.”

Image: Two men inspect damage from the roof of a restaurant at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo on Monday.CreditJewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

U.S. warns of additional attacks

The State Department said that terrorist groups “continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka” and raised its travel advisory to warn visitors to the country about potential threats.

It said terrorists could attack “with little or no warning,” and listed several potential targets, including tourist spots, transportation centers, markets, malls, government offices, hotels and places of worship.

The travel advisory level was raised to “exercise increased caution,” the second-lowest of four levels. It had previously been at the lowest level, “exercise normal precautions.”

The advisory gave no specific details about any groups that could be planning attacks or about who might be responsible for Sunday’s violence.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia also raised its advisory level and urged travelers on Monday to “reconsider your need” to go to Sri Lanka.

Image: Personal belongings at St. Sebastian’s Church on Monday.CreditAthit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Government responds with a curfew, a social media blackout, and more

Sri Lankan officials took a series of extraordinary steps in an effort to keep control of their shaken country, aiming to prevent further extremist attacks and retaliatory violence.

Mr. Sirisena, the president, said the government had given additional powers to the police and security forces to detain and interrogate people, and for the second day in a row, a curfew was imposed, from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m.

The government temporarily blocked several networks, including Facebook and Instagram. Users also reported being unable to access the messaging services WhatsApp and Viber.

Though Sunday’s attacks have no known link to social media, Sri Lanka has a troubled history with violence incited on the platforms. The ban was an extraordinary step that reflected growing global concerns about social media.

Mr. Sirisena appointed a three-person panel to investigate the bombings, headed by a Supreme Court justice, Vijith Malalgoda.

The president also directed the authorities to increase security around churches and other potential targets. And he declared a national day of mourning on Tuesday.

Image: Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar in 2017.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Religious persecution and conflict rise in Asia

The bombings in Sri Lanka underlined the rise of intolerance and violence across the region, based at least partly on religion and often feeding on government rhetoric.

Perhaps the worst example has been the persecution in Myanmar of the Rohingya Muslim minority by the government and by members of the Buddhist majority, especially since 2016. Thousands of Rohingya have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

In Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, politicians have increasingly made appeals to sectarian resentment, and tolerated their political allies’ calls for violence.

On Easter Sunday in 2016, a suicide bomber killed more than 70 people in a busy park in Lahore, Pakistan. A splinter group of the Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it had specifically targeted Christians.

Last May, suicide bombers struck three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, killing 28 people, and in January, two bombs ripped through a cathedral in the Philippines, leaving 20 dead. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Reporting was contributed by Russell Goldman, Austin Ramzy, Sandra E. Garcia and Eric Schmitt.