Sri Lanka’s Muslim community said they warned military intelligence officials about the Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), who the government believes are behind the April 21 attacks that killed 290 people and nearly 500 injured during Easter Sunday mass.
Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, stated he warned government official about the NTJ and its leaders. “I personally have gone and handed over all the documents three years ago, giving names and details of all these people. They have sat on it. That’s the tragedy,” Ahamed told Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, the government has acknowledged that more than 10 days before the attacks, a foreign intelligence agency gave security officials a detailed warning of a possible threat. Police said 24 people had been arrested, all of whom were Sri Lankan, but they gave no more details.
Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne on Monday called on the inspector general of police to resign. “The intelligence services had done the work, but it was not acted on at higher levels,” he told reporters in Colombo. On Monday, the Sri Lankan government reported that NTJ, an offshoot of the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ), is believed to be behind the recent bombings of churches and hotels, yet no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. “Still the investigations are going on,” Ariyananda Welianga, an official at the government’s forensic division said. As probes continue, on Tuesday, the military was given special powers to detain and arrest suspects, just as it was used during the civil war but withdrawn when it ended. A nationwide state of emergency has been declared, amidst warnings of continuing possible attacks.
This wave of attacks comes in a country still reeling from a 26-year long civil war between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority which ended in 2009. Since then Buddhist extremists have led sweeping anti-Muslim bigotry, the most recent flare-up was in March 2018. However, the island never had a history of Muslim militants.
According to the director of the Centre for International Security at Mumbai’s Gateway House think-tank, Rajitha Senaratne, this is probably why the authorities did not take seriously the idea that an Islamist extremist group was capable of coordinating such a well-planned and deadly attack, since the government has been used to dealing with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatists.
“Targeting the non-Muslim community is something they encourage — they say you have to kill them in the name of religion,” Ahamed added. However, the NTJ is being considered as a fringe group of the minority Muslim community which constitutes only 9.7 percent of the Sri Lankan population.
But for the Sri Lankan government, the NTJ did not act alone as “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded,” Sri Lanka’s Health Minister told reporters.