The Sri Lankan government has admitted it failed to act on multiple warnings before a coordinated series of attacks ripped through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, and said it feared an international terror group might have been behind the atrocities.
A government spokesman, Rajitha Senaratne, revealed that warnings were received in the days before the attacks, which killed 290 people and injured at least 500 more, including from foreign intelligence services.
He said one of the warnings referred to Nations Thawahid Jaman (NTJ), a little-known local Islamist group which has previously defaced Buddhist statues. But Senaratne, who is also health minister, said he did not believe a local group could have acted alone. “There must be a wider international network behind it,” he said.
A US official directly familiar with the US initial intelligence assessment said the group responsible for the attacks was likely to have been inspired by ISIS. No group has yet claimed responsibility.
The security situation remained fluid on Monday. Police found 87 detonators in a private terminal of the main bus station in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, and a controlled explosion was carried out on a van near St. Anthony’s church, one of three churches targeted in the attack. On Sunday evening, an improvised explosive device (IED) was defused near the capital’s Bandaranaike International Airport.
A dusk-til-dawn curfew was imposed for the second night in a row. Sri Lankan authorities declared a state of emergency from midnight local time Monday, and said Tuesday would be a national day of mourning.
Intelligence failures would be investigated, Senaratne said. “We saw the warnings and we saw the details given,” he told reporters at a press conference. “We are very very sorry, as a government we have to say — we have to apologize to the families and the institutions about this incident.” Families would be compensated and churches rebuilt, he said.
Police have arrested 24 people in connection with Sunday’s attacks, the worst violence the South Asian island has seen since its bloody civil war ended 10 years ago. A total of six suicide bombers were involved, Sri Lanka military spokesman Sumith Atapattu told CNN.
Most of the dead and injured were Sri Lankan. At least 39 tourists were killed and 28 injured, the country’s tourism minister said.
Of the foreign nationals who died, four were US citizens, eight were British, two of whom held dual US-UK nationality; as well as three Indians, two Australians, two Chinese cousins, one person from the Netherlands, two Turkish citizens and one Portuguese national. The blasts appears to have targeted tourism hotspots, as well as churches, in an effort to gain maximum global attention.
The attacks occurred in a period of political instability in Sri Lanka. In October, the Sri Lankan President attempted to depose the Prime Minister and replace him with a favored successor. That move backfired and the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was reinstated in December.
The President, Maithripala Sirisena, was out of the country at the time of Sunday’s attacks.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said warnings about a potential attack had not been shared with him or other government ministers. Sajith Premadasa, minister of housing construction and cultural affairs, said security officers were guilty of “negligence and incompetence.”
It is unclear whether the details contained in the warning matched the atrocity that eventually took place on Sunday.