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Sri Lanka names local Islamist group National Thowheed Jama’ath behind Easter blasts; govt to investigate role of 'foreign links'

Sri Lanka has blamed local jihadist group National Thowheed Jama’ath for one of Asia’s deadliest terrorist attacks in years, admitting there had been several warnings from foreign intelligence agencies about the impending violence, which the government ignored, leading to a series of suicide blasts at various locations across the country on Monday, including churches packed with people praying on Easter morning.

The toll in the coordinated attacks which rose to 290 on Monday, was carried out by seven suicide bombers, the Sri Lankan government claimed a day after the strikes.

The Sunday attack targeted foreign tourists and Christians staying in five-star hotels and prominent churches of the capital city Colombo, Batticola and Negombo marking a shift from the violence that fueled a three-decade civil war in the country.

Warnings ignored

Sri Lanka’s health minister Rajitha Senaratne said at a press conference on Monday, "There had been several warnings from foreign intelligence agencies about the impending attacks."

"Persons named in intelligence reports are among those arrested. Some named in the reports had died during attacks.

"We don’t see how a small organisation can do all of this

"We are now investigating international support for the group and their other links.... How they produced the suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this,” he added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in an address to the nation late on Sunday that authorities had received warnings but “not enough attention had been paid".

He apologised to the people admitting to an "intelligence failure".

One of his Cabinet ministers, Harin Fernando, tweeted an internal police memo dated 11 April warning that a local group called National Thowheed Jama’ath planned to bomb Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission.

“On 4 April, international intel agencies had warned of these attacks, those reports said targets are churches and tourist destinations. The IGP was informed of this on 9 April, including names of suspected terrorists (were given),” Senaratne said, addressing the media.

Senaratne stated that the country’s Security Council wanted to meet on Sunday but since the president was overseas, the Council could not be held.

Local militants involved

The Sri Lankan government accepted on Monday — after speculations of foreign involvement — that all the attackers were local and part of the National Thowheed Jama’ath, a Sri Lankan organisation. Police have so far arrested 24 people in the wake of the attacks. However, no detail about them have been divulged. But according to AFP, authorities have said they will look into whether the attackers had any "overseas links" or "international support".

Sirisena said Sri Lanka will be seeking foreign assistance to help track international links to National Thowheed Jama’ath. The newly formed radical Islamist group in Sri Lanka is a strong proponent of the global jihadist movementThe Guardian reported.

 Sri Lanka names local Islamist group National Thowheed Jama’ath behind Easter blasts; govt to investigate role of foreign links

Sri Lankan firefighters stand in the area around St Anthony's Shrine after a blast in Colombo, on Sunday. AP

Jama’ath, a radical Muslim group, was not only plotting attacks on churches but also the Indian High Commission, the alert had stated. The group had also been linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka in 2018, reported.

The group's secretary, Abdul Razik, was arrested in 2016 on charges of inciting racism, reported.

Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, told The New York Times that the group was not a separatist movement but aimed to sow divisions in society.

“These attacks appear to be quite different and look as if they came right out of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and global militant jihadist playbook, as these are attacks fomenting religious hatred by attacking multiple churches on a high religious holiday,” she said.

Meanwhile, a nationwide emergency will be declared in Sri Lanka from midnight on Monday, reports said. The president also appointed a committee to probe the blasts. The three-member committee will be submitting a report within two weeks. It is headed by a top court judge. A curfew will be imposed in Sri Lankan capital Colombo at 8 pm on Monday and will continue till 4 am on Tuesday.

Many countries, including the UK and the US, have issued travel advisories to their citizens as there are reports of "more attacks" being planned in the South Asian nation.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 16:33:23 IST