Explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed over 300 people and injured more than 500 on Easter Sunday. These are the latest developments:
● The death toll was revised to 311 on Tuesday morning, up from 290, according to Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense.
● The government says the attack was carried out by National Thowheed Jamaath, a local Islamist militant group, with suspected international assistance.
● Sri Lanka’s president has asked for international help in tracking down the group’s foreign connections.
● Anger is brewing among residents who are questioning why the government did not warn people of the attacks even though some authorities appeared to have prior knowledge.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The death toll in a string of Easter bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka was increased to 311, according to the state minister for defense, as the country marked a national day of mourning Tuesday.
Serious questions now have arisen on why the government and security forces were unable to foil the coordinated bombings despite apparently having prior knowledge, including of the group — the National Thowheed Jamaath — that has been identified as responsible.
The United States pledged support for the investigation, dispatching FBI agents to help. At least four U.S. citizens are among the dead, and “several” Americans were seriously injured, the State Department said Monday. Sri Lankan Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said 39 foreigners were killed and 28 wounded.
Investigators will be looking into how the local Islamist group, whose name roughly translates to National Monotheism Organization, was able to carry out such a planned, coordinated and deadly attack, and whether they had overseas help.
Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the group used suicide bombers at three churches and three hotels. He added that a foreign network was probably involved.
“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”
He called for the police inspector general, Pujith Jayasundara, to resign because security agencies had received a report warning of attacks by this group on churches and hotels weeks earlier.
President Maithripala Sirisena said he would seek “international assistance” with the investigation. Intelligence agencies have reported that “international organizations” were behind these “acts of local terrorists,” his office said in a statement.
The statement also said the government would implement anti-terrorism measures that give police additional powers, effective at midnight. Such powers were used extensively during Sri Lanka’s civil war but have not been used since 2011. The emergency powers allow police to detain and question suspects without a court order.
FBI agents are being sent to assist Sri Lankan police in their investigation, according to a U.S. law enforcement official. The FBI has also offered laboratory expertise in testing some of the bomb evidence, and analysts have been scouring FBI databases for any pieces of information that could shed additional light on the plotters, officials said.
Two officials provided The Washington Post with the three-page intelligence report that the health minister alluded to, in which a senior police official warned of potential suicide attacks by the same Islamist extremist group.
The authenticity of those documents were verified by Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense, Ruwan Wijewardene. The report also identified several members by name, including the group’s alleged leader. Mujibur Rahman, a member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament who was briefed on the report, said it was based on information from Indian intelligence agencies.
Officials said 26 suspects have been taken into custody for questioning, news agencies reported.
Authorities said the main attacks — on churches and hotels — were carried out by seven suicide bombers.
A Sri Lankan security official characterized Thowheed Jamaath as a shell for the Islamic State and said it has been active in Kattankudy, an area in the eastern part of the country and home to one of its largest Muslim populations. The group’s leadership is believed to be based there, the official said.
The official said there could be additional explosives or potential suicide bombers.
“Right now, they are searching everywhere for possible bombs and people involved,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
In Washington, President Trump called Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday morning to express condolences and received an update on the investigation. Trump pledged U.S. support in bringing the perpetrators to justice, and the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the fight against global terrorism, a pool report said.
Earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed “Islamic radical terror” for the attacks. He also spoke Monday morning with Wickremesinghe and pledged “all possible assistance” to Sri Lanka.
“This is America’s fight, too,” Pompeo said at a news conference. Although the Islamic State’s “caliphate” has been destroyed with the collapse of the group’s last strongholds in Syria, “radical Islamist terror remains a threat,” he said. “We have to remain active and vigilant, and it’s going to require attention.”
Thowheed Jamaath “wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” said Michael Leiter, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He said the attack probably had an international nexus, given that not only Sri Lankans were targeted.
“It wouldn’t surprise me either if there were at least a couple of people who had traveled to Syria,” Leiter said. “There was never a large Sri Lankan population there, but it only takes one or two to return and inspire a local group to align itself ideologically and tactically with a global violent jihadist organization.”
But the absence of any clear claim of responsibility from an established international terrorist organization suggests it might be too soon to say whether the Sri Lankan bombers had outside assistance, said Nicholas Rasmussen, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council who also ran the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama and Trump administrations.
“But it wouldn’t take much — a connection between Sri Lankan foreign fighters in Syria with like-minded people back home — in order to create such a connection,” Rasmussen said. He added that the high death toll and simultaneous attacks suggested a degree of sophistication in bombmaking and organization, which are “characteristic of an established group.”
The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist activity online, said Monday that an unidentified Islamic State supporter distributed photos of three alleged “commandos” involved in the Sri Lanka attacks. The photos were posted in pro-Islamic State chat rooms, and the men, pictured holding weapons in front of Islamic State banners, were described as “among the commando brothers in Sri Lanka,” SITE said.
The group reported Sunday that Islamic State supporters were portraying the attacks as revenge for strikes on mosques and Muslims.
The highly coordinated attacks left the island nation reeling, a crushing blow after almost a decade of peace since the end of its civil war.
In that time, tourism in Sri Lanka had been steadily growing, the country transformed by the apparent end of instability, bloodshed and frequent suicide bombings over the 26-year war.
A three-minute silence was observed countrywide at 8: 30 a.m. Tuesday.
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Rukshana Rizwie and Devana Senanayake in Colombo, Niha Masih in New Delhi, Chico Harlan in Rome and Shane Harris, Souad Mekhennet, Devlin Barrett and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.