Sri Lankans look for understanding, healing a week after attacks

After any terrorist outrage, the first question that is always asked is, could the carnage have been prevented? In Sri Lanka, still reeling from a devastating series of bombings on Easter Sunday that left more than 250 people dead and at least 500 wounded, the answer is surely a resounding yes.

In the week since the attacks, there have been multiple revelations of staggering intelligence and security failures, largely due to political infighting and a dysfunctional government that even now is failing to show a united front or provide sufficient reassurance and guidance to a shaken public.

Raids are continuing on suspected bomb-making factories and safe houses in the east of the island. A large quantity of explosives was seized Friday after a deadly shootout between police and alleged terrorists in Sainthamaruthu, Kalmunai.

That’s not far from near Kattankudy, the home town in eastern Sri Lanka of the alleged mentor and ringleader of the Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran Hashim. A radical Islamist preacher, Zahran was known to the authorities and local Muslim community for years as a dangerous and violent figure. Weeks before the bombings, India’s intelligence service warned its Sri Lankan counterpart that Zahran was planning an attack on churches and hotels.

Before those unusually specific intelligence reports, there were other signals that something big was coming — small signs that in retrospect appear to be blaring-red alarms. Last December, a set of Buddhist statues was vandalized by radical Muslim youths in Mawanella, central Sri Lanka. Local Muslim leaders linked Zahran to those attacks.

In January, four men were arrested after police found 100 kilograms of explosives at a coconut farm in Wanathawilluwa, in western Sri Lanka. Local media reports say police at the time suspected the discovery was linked to the earlier attacks on Buddhist shrines.

Then, earlier this month in Kattankudy, Zahran’s home town, a motorbike was blown up in what police now think was a test run of the Sunday attacks.

Throughout, moderate Muslims and some Buddhists were becoming worried about Zahran’s sermons, shared on YouTube and Facebook, which were taking an increasingly violent and extreme turn.

Easter massacre

On Sunday morning at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, Sanjeewa Appuhamy, an assistant priest, was helping to officiate at mass. It was Easter Day, the most important feast in the Christian calendar, and the pews were packed.

Dozens more worshipers stood outside under a large glass awning, watching the service through doors that were open across the front of the pink-and-cream concrete church. Many of those outside were carrying small children unwilling or unable to sit through the long service.

CCTV shows a young, bespectacled man entering the courtyard. Dressed in a light blue polo shirt, dark trousers and flip flops, he carries with him a large, blue backpack, its weight supported by tightly-drawn chest and waist straps. He walks casually up to the doors of the church, pausing for a second before stepping inside, about five pews back from where Appuhamy was standing.

The next thing the priest saw was a swirling cloud of dust, debris and glass, pierced by screams and cries. When the dust cleared, the church resembled a disaster zone. Many pews had disintegrated into piles of splintered wood, covered in bodies and spattered with blood. “Broken glass, dust, all of a sudden covered all the church. People were shouting, weeping, we didn’t know what was happening,” he recounted later.

More than 100 people were killed here, and many more injured.

At around the same time, six other bombers detonated devices at two other churches, one in Colombo and another in eastern Sri Lanka, and at three hotels in Colombo’s upscale Galle Face area. It was there that Zahran, the alleged ringleader, blew himself up — at the Shangri-La hotel, according to authorities, killing dozens of tourists as they ate breakfast in a cafe overlooking the waterfront.

There were two more explosions soon after. One was an apparent accident, when a perpetrator ended up killing himself at the guesthouse where he was staying after failing in his attempt to attack another hotel. Another took place when police raided a large home believed to be owned by one of the bombers in central Colombo.

Elite bombers

The bombings themselves were not the only shock. Then came the revelation that the perpetrators came from the top levels of Sri Lankan society. Several were educated overseas, and at least two had links to one of the richest families in Colombo, with multiple expensive properties and successful businesses. The partiarch of that family, spice trader Mohamed Yusuf Ibrahim, is currently being questioned by police on suspicion of aiding and abetting two of his sons, Imsath and Ilham, who blew themselves up in the attacks.

Police think the group that carried out the bombings had its origins in a local extremist organization, National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ). It was planned, authorities believe, in a series of safe houses across Sri Lanka, the subject of raids in recent days. The group has also been linked to an alleged training camp on the coconut farm in in Wanathawilluwa, where the explosives were found in January, as well as bomb-making facilities near Colombo and on the east coast.

Sri Lankan and Indian intelligence sources say the bombers also received assistance from overseas. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and released a photo of Zahran and the other purported attackers swearing allegiance to the terror group. But the extent of any outside influence is unclear.

Zahran appears to have been the spiritual leader of the bombers, and may have radicalized several of them. In videos he posted online, he preached a hateful, violent form of Islam and called for attacks on other Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.

In his hometown of Kattankudy, locals told CNN they were terrified of Zahran, even after police had confirmed his death in the attacks. They painted a portrait of a community that was growing increasingly radical, in part due to an influx of foreign money for mosques and schools, as moderate Muslims were the subject of harassment and even violence from Zahran and his supporters.

While many in the Muslim community both in Kattankudy and Colombo attempted repeatedly to warn the authorities about Zahran, the other bombers appear to have operated largely under the radar. As revelations about their backgrounds emerged, many who knew them or their families spoke of their shock. If such highly educated, well-off men could start down such a deadly path, what was to stop their own children being led astray?

“We are totally embarrassed as a community, we have failed as a community to monitor what was happening in our backyard,” said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “That is what worries me as a parent of two young boys. We are always worried that they might be radicalized through the internet.”

At least one bomber appears to have been radicalized overseas. Friends of Abdul Lathif Jameel Mohamed, the bomber who blew himself up at the guesthouse after failing to attack a hotel, described him as an outgoing, friendly youth who became an increasingly withdrawn, highly religious man during postgraduate study in Australia.

“My memory of him was he was always a very cheerful guy,” said Jezeem Jameel, who knew Lathif as a teenager. “This is not a guy who is not educated, he would question you back, not someone who would be easily 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 guys in our class, we had loners, (but) he was a friendly guy,” Jameel said. “Along the way something has happened, something has gone wrong.”

Lathif’s failure as a suicide bomber was not his only setback as a wannabe ISIS militant. According to a presentation prepared by the Sri Lankan army and shared with CNN, at some point between 2013 and 2019, Lathif traveled to Turkey “with the hope of entering Syria.” It’s unclear why he failed to make it to Syria — parts of which, at that time, were under the control of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, but the presentation notes he returned to Sri Lanka.

Lathif’s sister has said she believed he was radicalized in Australia, a view supported by another friend who spoke to CNN. That friend said he met the bomber in Australia and found him a very different, withdrawn person to the boy he knew in Sri Lanka.

Leadership failure

Hours after the attacks, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued a call for unity. “I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today,” he wrote in a post on Twitter. “I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”

But in the days that followed, the government was anything but united. Wickremesinghe has blamed President Maithripala Sirisena for keeping him out of the loop and not passing on specific warnings from Indian intelligence about Zahran’s plans. The two have been bickering for months — after an uneasy period of coalition, President Sirisena attempted to remove the Prime Minister from office late last year, setting off a constitutional crisis that was resolved only with the intervention of the Supreme Court.

While both men claimed they were attempting to pull together in the wake of the bombings, the country is essentially operating parallel governments. Offices of the Prime Minister and the President hold separate security meetings, brief against each other, and issue competing narratives as both attempt to lay blame the other for the repeated failures to prevent the Easter Sunday tragedy.

Before this month, Sri Lanka could claim considerable success in creating a stable and thriving country in the wake of a 25-year civil war against Tamil separatists, who entrenched the use of suicide attacks as a weapon of guerrilla terror. Now, that stability is in jeopardy.

“We couldn’t maintain the peace we had won,” said Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who led the forces that eventually defeated the Tamil Tigers. “We are losing it again.”

Fonseka, now a member of parliament and government minister, said Friday that little progress had been made since the attacks. “Up to now I don’t think we have done anything constructive,” he said.

“We can’t waste time,” said Fonseka, a member of the President’s political party but widely regarded as an independent-minded figure. “We will end up facing more and more disastrous events… I am 100% sure that there will be more attacks, we cannot stop everything overnight.”

Adding to the sense of chaos has been a growing concern among many Sri Lankans — and the large contingent of international media in the country to cover the attacks — that statements by the government and police cannot be trusted.

When police released photos of fugitives they wanted to trace, they were forced to issue an almost immediate and embarrassing retraction as it emerged one turned out to be that of an author living in Boston. Four days into the investigation, the death toll for the attacks was lowered by around 100 — a move Fonseka thinks was premature and believes may rise again later. Both the President and Prime Minister’s camps have denied supposedly definitive statements made by the other.

It has taken Sri Lankan security services a week to identify all the suicide bombers, and they still don’t know how many accomplices remain at large. Raids carried out on Friday and continuing through the weekend have turned up more bomb-making supplies, and one involved a shootout with police which left 10 civilians, including six children, dead along with six suspected terrorists.

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

All the while, a country that was on the verge of becoming a major South Asian tourism hotspot has seen its international reputation ruined, not only by a devastating terrorism attack, but by the sheer incompetence of its own government in failing to prevent it and then in failing — even refusing — to pull together in the aftermath. Speaking in Parliament this week, Fonseka channeled a nation’s frustration.

“In any other country, the entire government would have had to resign if something like this happens,” he said. “But it is not the way how things are done here, so you all get to stay.”

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