COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A top Sri Lanka official said Tuesday the Easter bombings that killed 321 people were carried out by a Islamic fundamentalists in apparent retaliation for the New Zealand mosque massacres last month by a white supremacist, while the Islamic State group sought to claim responsibility for the suicide blasts at churches, hotels and other sites.
The comments in Parliament by Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister of defense, came shortly before IS asserted it was responsible for the bombings in and outside of Colombo, although the group gave no evidence to support its claims. Sri Lankan authorities previously blamed the attack on National Towheed Jamaar, a little-known Islamic extremist group in the island nation.
Wijewardene also blamed “weakness” within Sri Lanka’s security apparatus for failing to prevent the nine bombings.
“By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending attack,” Wijewardene said. “However, this information has been circulated among only a few officials.”
He said the government had evidence that the bombings were carried out “by an Islamic fundamentalist group” in retaliation for the mosque shootings on March 15 in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people, although he did not disclose what the evidence was.
File Photo: Relatives carry a coffin for burial during the funerals of three members of the same family, all died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
The office of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a statement responding to the Christchurch claim that described Sri Lanka’s investigation as “in its early stages.”
“New Zealand has not yet seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based,” it said. An Australian white supremacist, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, was arrested in the Christchurch shootings.
As Sri Lanka’s leaders wrangled with the implications of the apparent intelligence failure, security was heightened Tuesday for a national day of mourning and the military was employing powers to make arrests it last used during a devastating civil war that ended in 2009. Among the 40 people arrested on suspicion of links to the bombings were the driver of a van allegedly used by the suicide attackers and the owner of a house where some of them lived.
Authorities announced a nationwide curfew would begin at 9 p.m.
The six near-simultaneous attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels and three related blasts Sunday was Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence in a decade that left 321 dead and 500 wounded.
In some places, the violence struck entire families. On Easter Sunday, as they did every Sunday, Berlington Joseph Gomez and his wife, Chandrika Arumugam, went to church at Colombo’s St. Anthony’s Shrine. And as always, they brought their three sons: 9-year-old Bevon, 6-year-old Clavon and baby Avon, just 11 months old.
Two days later, they were all being mourned by dozens of neighbors gathered at the modest home of Berlington’s father, Joseph Gomez.
“All family, all generation, is lost,” Gomez said.
Word from international intelligence agencies that the local group National Towheed Jamaar was planning attacks apparently didn’t reach the prime minister’s office until after the massacre, exposing the continuing political turmoil in the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government.
On April 11, Priyalal Disanayaka, Sri Lanka’s deputy inspector general of police, signed a letter addressed to the directors of four Sri Lankan security agencies, warning them that a local group was planning a suicide attack in the country.
File Photo: Sri Lankan police officers clear the road as an ambulance drives through carrying injured of Church blasts in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019. A Sri Lanka hospital spokesman says several blasts on Easter Sunday have killed dozens of people. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
The intelligence report attached to his letter, which has circulated widely on social media, named the group allegedly plotting the attack, National Towheed Jamaar, identifying its leader as Zahran Hashmi, and said it was targeting “some important churches” in a suicide attack that was planned to take place “shortly.”
The report identified six individuals likely to be involved in the plot, including someone it said had been building support for Zahran and was in hiding since the group clashed with another religious organization in March 2018.
On Monday, Sri Lanka’s health minister held up a copy of the intelligence report while describing its contents, spurring questions about what Sri Lanka police had done to protect the public.
It was not immediately clear what steps were taken by any of these security directors. Disanayaka did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.
Heightened security was evident at an international airport outside the capital where security personnel patrolled with explosives-sniffing dogs, checked car trunks and questioned drivers on roads nearby. Police also ordered that anyone leaving a parked car unattended must put a note with their phone number on the windscreen, and postal workers were not accepting pre-wrapped parcels.
A block on most social media since the attacks has left a vacuum of information, fueling confusion and giving little reassurance the danger had passed. Even after an overnight curfew was lifted, the streets of central Colombo were mostly deserted Tuesday and shops closed as armed soldiers stood guard.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could unleash instability and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to act against those responsible. He later warned at a news conference that more militants and explosives were “out there.”
Authorities said they knew where the group trained and had safe houses, but did not identify any of the seven suicide bombers, whose bodies were recovered, or the other suspects taken into custody. All seven bombers were Sri Lankans, but authorities said they strongly suspected foreign links.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka attack via its Aamaq news agency, but offered no photos or videos of attackers pledging their loyalty to the group, which has often accompanied such claims.
The group, which has lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility. It recently offered its first claim of an attack in Congo.
Also unclear was a motive for the bombings. The history of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million including large Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities, is rife with ethnic and sectarian conflict.
In the nation’s 26-year civil war, the Tamil Tigers, a powerful rebel army known for using suicide bombers, had little history of targeting Christians and was crushed by the government in 2009. Anti-Muslim bigotry fed by Buddhist nationalists has swept the country recently.
In March 2018, Buddhist mobs ransacked businesses and set houses on fire in Muslim neighborhoods around Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka that is popular with tourists.
After the mob attacks, Sri Lanka’s government also blocked some social media sites, hoping to slow the spread of false information or threats that could incite more violence.
Sri Lanka, though, has no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment.
Associated Press journalists Bharatha Mallawarachi, Jon Gambrell and Rishabh Jain in Colombo and Gemunu Amarasinghe in Negombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.
Follow Emily Schmall on Twitter @emilyschmall