Nation special report

COLOMBO: Following the massacre on Sunday, Sri Lankan authorities swept up more people, including foreigners, for questioning on Thursday as they probed deeper into the Easter Sunday bombings, which killed 359 people in potentially the deadliest operation claimed by the militant Islamic State. According to reports available from capital Colombo, Muslims especially the Pakistanis are fleeing from their homes and cities to safer places while several Pakistanis have reportedly been arrested.

Police said an Egyptian and several Pakistanis were among those detained overnight, although there was no immediate suggestion they had direct links to the attacks on three churches and four hotels that also wounded about 500 people.

In this Sunday, April 21, 2019, a view of St. Sebastian’s Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan authorities blame seven suicide bombers of a domestic militant group for coordinated Easter bombings that ripped through Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels which killed and injured hundreds of people. It was Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne, file)

Police on Thursday said 16 more people were detained for questioning overnight, taking the number detained since Sunday to at least 76. Police said they detained an Egyptian who was found not to have a valid visa or passport. The man taught Arabic in a school about 70 km (45 miles) from the capital, Colombo, and had been living in Sri Lanka for more than seven years.

A police spokesman also said that a group of Pakistanis had been detained among an unspecified number of foreign nationals for overstaying their visas.

The bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

Hundreds of Muslims have fled the Negombo region on Sri Lanka’s west coast since scores of worshippers were killed in the bombing of the St. Sebastian church there on Sunday. Communal tensions have since flared.

Hundreds of Pakistanis fled the port city on Wednesday, crammed into buses organised by community leaders after threats of revenge.

“Because of the bomb blasts and explosions that have taken place here, the local Sri Lankan people have attacked our houses,” Adnan Ali, a Pakistani, told Reuters as he prepared to board a bus.

Sri Lankan officials have said they believed the bombings were carried out in retaliation for the March 15 attacks by a lone gunman on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people.

Most of the Easter Sunday victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities have confirmed at least 38 foreigners were also killed. These included British, US, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

Daesh claims responsibility

A video released by the Daesh militant group on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization. An eighth man whose face is visible leads them.

That man is believed to be Mohammed Zahran Hashim, a little-known radical preacher from Sri Lanka who investigators and experts increasingly believe masterminded the coordinated Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka that have left 359 dead and over 500 wounded.

A statement released by Daesh on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the rash of Sunday bombings and threatened future attacks in both the Arabic and Tamil languages. The group also released a video of the eight bombers who allegedly carried out the attacks.

The Sri Lankan government has previously said the attacks were the work of local Islamist group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NJT). It has also named Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), another Sri Lankan outfit.

Whatever the links between these local groups and Daesh, the claim suggests that the transnational group is still a threat despite the recapture of territory once held by it in Syria and Iraq. The claim has also once more raised serious concerns about the group’s growing clout in South Asia, reflected in the FBI, Interpol and other foreign intelligence services joining the investigation.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. NTJ is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus the main contender for co-option by Daesh.

A government official who declined to be named said the Jama’ath had split into three groups in 2016 because many of its followers did not approve of Zahran Hashim’s “extremist ideology.”

His increasingly hardliner and militant views, the official said, came from his growing “international connections and links with Islamic groups in Southern India.”

It is believed that Hashim received his early schooling in Kattankudy, his hometown in eastern Sri Lanka. Unconfirmed media reports say he traveled to India for a course on Islamic theology but dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly travelled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Indian intelligence

Sri Lankan intelligence officials were tipped off about an imminent attack by Islamist militants hours before a series of suicide bombings killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Three churches and four hotels were hit by suicide bombers on Sunday morning, killing 321 people and wounding 500, sending shockwaves through an island state that has been relatively peaceful since a civil war ended a decade ago.Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defence source and an Indian government source said.

Another Sri Lankan defence source said a warning came “hours before” the first strike. One of the Sri Lankan sources said a warning was also sent by the Indians on Saturday night. The Indian government source said similar messages had been given to Sri Lankan intelligence agents on April 4 and April 20.