The shocked, saddened Sri Lankan people are too bewildered and unfocused to take stock of what is in store for the country. The country that heaved a collective sigh of relief 10 years ago when the ruthless terrorist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and scores of his cadres were decimated in May 2009, closing the blood-soaked 30-year chapter of terror attacks of all forms, mainly on innocent civilian targets, today is in shock once again.
The only silver lining in this tragic incident is the hope in the hearts of the people, that the divided polity, leadership and communities would wake up to collectively face the challenges faced by the nation.
Emphasizing the need for collective efforts, President Maithripala Sirisena held an All Party Conference with the participation of political party leaders who represent the Parliament as well as those who do not represent the Parliament to discuss this national catastrophe and the future steps that the government is to take. Furthermore, the President plans to summon all Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islam religious leaders, intellectuals of various disciplines to a single forum to identify a national programme to respond to this situation. “It is very important that we do not allow the spread of false information and believe only the truth. I respectfully request from all of you to stand hand in hand with us in our mission to eradicate terrorism from our country, so that present generation and our children will have a safer tomorrow. In a situation like this, the unity among us is a strength to achieve this goal.”
While the blame game is continuing unabated, everybody is unanimous – at least they say so – that the challenge should be considered as a threat to the nation and it should be faced with strength in unity. The condemnation of this dastardly attack was unanimous. President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem and others called for stern action against culprits. They also vowed to help all the steps taken to ensure there will be no recurrence of this kind of brutal, barbaric attacks on innocent civilians.
President Sirisena, in his address to the Nation on Tuesday, said that the government has already been able to crack down on many criminals, suspects and those responsible for the recent attacks. “Therefore, I truly believe that we can avoid a repetition of such gruesome acts of violence in the future.”
President Sirisena said he would take action to control and curb this movement which has connections with an international terrorist organisation by utilizing modern technology as well as using the strategic methods of security forces and acquiring advice and guidance of countries which use technology against this kind of terrorism. At this time, basically, friendly as well as powerful 07, 08 countries have pledged to provide their fullest support to Sri Lanka in the process of curbing terrorism, we are hoping to work in coordination with them in the future, he disclosed.
The latest information is that Morocco shared sensitive and critical intelligence information with Sri Lanka that helped to identify the nine bombers and their handlers with connections to the Islamic State. The information was also shared with India. This was done within 48 hours of the Eastern Sunday attacks in Colombo and two other cities that have left nearly 360 people dead.
Morocco, a North African country that follows a moderate strand of Islam, has one of the successful records of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization in the Islamic world. India and Morocco have a strong and multi-dimensional agreement on counterterrorism cooperation. Morocco has shared important intelligence and counter-terrorism information in the past with friendly countries like France, Spain and Belgium and with its growing ties with India there is enhanced cooperation on this front between New Delhi and Rabat.
Foreign links of perpetrators
Since, the beginning of the investigations on Sunday afternoon, intelligence agencies were sure about foreign links of the perpetrators. They identified that the terrorist were members of a previously little-known group called the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). The group is believed to have splintered off from another hard-line Islamist group, the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ). International anti-terrorism experts said even if a local group had carried out the attacks, it was likely al-Qaeda or Islamic State were involved, given the level of sophistication. Before being named the prime suspect in the suicide attacks, the NTJ was mainly known for vandalizing Buddhist statues in Mawanella last December. The NTJ was formed in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka, in 2014 and it was founded by Zahran Hashim alias Abu Ubaida.
The India-based Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath, an organisation founded in 2004, categorically denied having any links with NTJ and with the attacks in Sri Lanka.
India media revealed that Indian security agencies had alerted Sri Lanka that another NaTJ team led by Jal al-Quital alias Rilwan Marzag could carry out more attacks. Noufar Moulvi, the brother-in-law of Hashim, recently returned to Sri Lanka from Qatar and had taken charge of the group, they added.
An Indian expert said the attacks couldn’t have been possible without months of planning and international players travelling to Sri Lanka to take part in the execution at different stages. The NTJ was formed in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town in eastern Sri Lanka, in 2014. Its founder Zahran Hashim alias Abu Ubaida is believed to have been the suicide bomber who targeted Shangri-La Hotel with military grade explosives.
India reports also confirmed that India is helping Sri Lanka probe the attacks with technical and intelligence support. They also added that Indian security agencies were keeping vigilance over a Tamil Naidu-based cleric.
The attacks by suicide bombers had all the hallmarks of the IS that has targeted Christians on their holy days, experts and security officials said. Since May last year, IS has claimed responsibility for attacks on churches in Indonesia and the Philippines.
A video released by Al Ghuraba Media featured the seven suicide bombers allegedly involved in the attacks. Except for Abu Ubaida, the others had their faces covered and the video had messages in Arabic and Tamil. Though some quarters in Colombo felt the bombings were in retaliation for the March 15 Christchurch mosque attacks, the people cited above said it was believed the NTJ had been planning the attacks for over three months.
Indian counterterror experts described the NTJ as a self-radicalised Salafi group inspired by the IS, though a link between the two is yet to be established. They said a number of Sri Lankan Muslims who recently flew back from Qatar had been arrested for their alleged role in the bombings.