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Home / World / One week after the attacks on Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka is no closer to understanding and healing

One week after the attacks on Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka is no closer to understanding and healing

The week after the attacks, there have been several revelations about fluctuating intelligence and security breaches, mainly due to political struggles and a dysfunctional government that does not even present a united front or give adequate security to the public.

This is not far from Kattankudy, the hometown of eastern Sri Lanka, the alleged mentor and leader of Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran Hashim. As a radical Islamist, Zahran has been known to the authorities and the local Muslim community for years as a dangerous and violent personality. Weeks before the bombings, Indian intelligence warned its Sri Lankan counterparts that Zahran was planning an attack on churches and hotels.

Before these unusually specific intelligence reports, there were other signals that something big was imminent ̵

1; small signs that in retrospect seem to be blood-red alarms. Last December, a number of Buddhist statues were destroyed by radical Muslim youth in Mawanella, central Sri Lanka. Local Muslim leaders linked Zahran with these attacks.

Four men were arrested in January after police found 100 kg of explosives on a coconut farm in Wanathawilluwa, western Sri Lanka. Local media reports that the police suspected the discovery was linked to earlier attacks on Buddhist shrines.

Earlier this month, a motorbike was blown up in Kattankudy, Zahran's hometown, which the police believed was a test run of Sunday attacks.

In the meantime, moderate Muslims and some Buddhists were worried about Zahran's sermons, which were shared on YouTube and Facebook and became increasingly violent.

Easter Massacre

On Sunday morning at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, auxiliary priest Sanjeewa helped Appuhamy at Mass. It was Easter Day, the most important feast in the Christian calendar, and the benches were crammed.

Dozens of worshipers stood outside under a large glass awning and watched the service through doors that stood in front of the facade of the church in pink and cream concrete. Many of them carried small children who were unwilling to spend the long service.

CCTV shows a young man in glasses entering the yard. He wears a light blue polo shirt, dark trousers and flip-flops. He carries a large, blue backpack, the weight of which is supported by tight-fitting chest and waist straps. He walks casually toward the doors of the church, taking a short break before going in, about five pews away from Appuhamy.

Next, the priest saw a swirling cloud of dust, debris and glass pierced with screams and screams. When the dust was tidied up, the church resembled a disaster zone. Many benches had shattered in piles of wood, covered in corpses and spattered with blood. "Shards of glass, dust suddenly covered the whole church, people shouting and crying, we did not know what was going on," he later said.

Here more than 100 people were killed and many more injured.

At about the same time, six other bombers detonated in two other churches, one in Colombo and one in eastern Sri Lanka, and in three hotels in Colombos upscale Galle Face area. There, Zahran, the alleged ringleader, had blown up – according to authorities, dozens of tourists were reportedly killed at Shangri-La Hotel as they had breakfast in a café overlooking the waterfront.

Soon after, there were two more explosions. One was an obvious accident when a perpetrator settled in the guest house where he was after failing in his attempt to attack another hotel. Another case occurred when the police raided a large house that was believed to have been owned by one of the bombers in central Colombo.

Elite Bomber

The bombings themselves were not the only shock. Then came the revelation that the perpetrators came from the highest levels of Sri Lankan society. Several were trained abroad, and at least two had connections to one of the richest families in Colombo with several expensive real estate and successful businesses. The spouse of this family, the spice merchant Mohamed Yusuf Ibrahim, is being questioned by the police because he is suspected of supporting two of his sons, Imsath and Ilham, who are blown up in the attacks.
  The spice merchant Mohamed Ibrahim, center, watches as his son Imsath 2016 is congratulated by a minister of state.

The police believe that the group that carried out the bombings originated in a local extremist organization, National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ). It was planned that the authorities in a number of safe houses across Sri Lanka were planning the subject of recent raids. The group was also linked to an alleged training camp at the coconut farm in Wanathawilluwa, where explosives were found in January, and bombing facilities near Colombo and the east coast.

Sri Lankan and Indian intelligence agencies say bombers have received overseas support as well. ISIS has taken responsibility for the attacks and released a photo of Zahran and the other alleged attackers who pledge allegiance to the terrorist group. The extent of external influence, however, is unclear.

Zahran seems to have been the bomber's spiritual leader and could have radicalized some of them. In videos he published online, he preached a hateful, violent form of Islam and called for attacks on other Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.

  Zahran Hashim, center, with the other alleged suicide bombers from Sri Lanka.
In his hometown of Kattankudy, locals said they were frightened Zahran, even after the police confirmed his death in the attacks. They drew a portrait of a community that was becoming increasingly radical, partly because of the influx of foreign money for mosques and schools, as moderate Muslims of Zahran and his followers were harassed and even subjected to violence.

While many members of the Muslim community in both Kattankudy and Colombo repeatedly tried to warn the authorities against Zahran, the other bombers seem to have operated extensively under the radar. When revelations about their origins came up, many who knew them or their families talked about their shock. If such highly educated, wealthy men could take such a deadly path, what should prevent their own children from being misled?

"We are totally embarrassed as a community, we have failed as a community to monitor what had happened in our backyard," said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. "This worries me as the parent of two little boys, and we are always worried that they may be radicalized over the Internet."

At least one bomber seems to have been radicalized overseas. Friends of Abdul Lathif Jameel Mohamed, the bomber who exploded in the guesthouse after failing to attack a hotel, described him as an open-minded, friendly youth who became an increasingly withdrawn, highly religious man during his postgraduate studies in Australia.

"My memory of him was that he was always a very happy guy," said Jezeem Jameel, who knew Lathif as a teenager. "This is not a guy who is not trained, he would ask you back, not someone who could easily be indoctrinated."

Like others, he was shocked when Lathif's name emerged as one of the alleged bombers. "We could never have foreseen this, we had people in our class, we were loners (but) he was a friendly man," said Jameel. "Something happened on the way, something went wrong."

Lathif's failure as a suicide bomber was not his only setback as a would-be ISIS fighter. According to a presentation prepared by the Sri Lanka Army and shared with CNN, Lathif traveled to Turkey sometime between 2013 and 2019, "hoping to enter Syria." It is not clear why he failed to get to Syria – in parts that were under the control of the self-proclaimed IS caliphate at the time, but in the briefing notes he returned to Sri Lanka.

Lathif's sister said he believed he had been radicalized in Australia, a view supported by another friend who spoke with CNN. This friend said he had met the bomber in Australia and saw him as a very different, withdrawn person than the boy he knew in Sri Lanka.

Leadership Failure

hours after the attacks, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called for a call for unity. "I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today," he wrote in a post on Twitter. "I call on all Sri Lankans to remain united and strong in this tragic time, and the government is taking immediate steps to stem this situation."

But in the following days the government was far from unanimous. Wickremesinghe blamed President Maithripala Sirisena for failing to keep him up to date and not relaying any specific warnings from Indian intelligence agencies on Zahran's plans. The two have been arguing for months – after a troubled coalition, President Sirisena attempted to dismiss the Prime Minister at the end of last year, triggering a constitutional crisis that could only be resolved with the intervention of the Supreme Court.

While both men claimed they had tried to pull themselves together after the bombing, the country operates essentially in parallel with governments. The offices of the prime minister and the president hold separate security sessions, entertain each other and display competing narratives, while both attempt to blame others for their repeated failure to prevent the Easter Sunday tragedy.

Prior to this month's Sri Lanka, after a 25-year civil war against Tamil separatists entrenching suicide bombers as a weapon of guerrilla terrorism, they were able to claim considerable success in creating a stable and prosperous country. Well, this stability is in danger.

"We could not sustain the peace won," said Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who led the troops who eventually defeated the Tamil Tigers. "We lose it again."

Fonseka, now a Member of Parliament and Minister of Government, said on Friday that little progress had been made since the attacks. "I do not think we've done anything constructive yet," he said.

"We can not waste time," said Fonseka, a member of the President's political party, but widely regarded as an independent personality. "In the end, we will experience more and more catastrophic events … I am 100% sure that there will be more attacks, we can not stop everything overnight."

Increasing the sense of chaos is a growing concern among many Sri Lankans – and the large international contingent of international media to cover the attacks – that government and police statements can not be trusted.

When the police released photos of refugees seeking to track them down, they had to make an almost immediate and painful retreat as it turned out to be a Boston-based author. Four days after the investigation, the number of casualties for the attacks was reduced by about 100 – a move that Fonseka considered premature and believed he could rise later. Both the presidential and the prime minister's camps allegedly denied each other's final statements.

It took a week for the Sri Lankan security services to identify all suicide bombers, and they still do not know how many accomplices are at large. Friday raids that continue over the weekend have led to more bombings. In a shootout with the police, ten civilians, including six children, and six alleged terrorists were killed.

Many important questions remain unanswered: where do the attackers get their funding from? How many are still on the run? To what extent was the operation overseas managed? And most of all, how did the Sri Lankan authorities ignore so many warnings on so many levels?

In a country that was about to become a major South Asian tourism hotspot, its international reputation has been destroyed not only by a devastating terrorist attack, but also by the mere incompetence of its own government, which could not prevent it it and then failing – even refusing – to contract in succession. This week, Fonseka spoke to Parliament about the frustration of a nation.

"In any other country, the entire government would have had to resign if that happened," he said. "But it's not the way things are done here, so stay here."

CN Ks Sam Kiley, Sandi Sidhu, Ingrid Formanek, Kocha Alorn, Rebecca Wright, Jo Shelly, Ivan Watson, Will Ripley, Nikhil Kumar, Sugam Pokharel and the journalists Iqbal Athas, Tyron Devotta, King Ratnam, Sandun Arosha F'do and Ajith Wickremesinghe reported from Kattankudy, Negombo and Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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