By Agence France-Presse
Muslim brothers from a wealthy Sri Lankan family plotted and carried out two of the Easter suicide blasts in Colombo that killed more than 320 people, police sources told AFP Tuesday amid growing questions on whether the attackers received foreign help.
The two sons of a Colombo spice trader were among suicide bombers who hit three churches and three luxury hotels, investigators said.
An attack on a fourth hotel failed and helped lead police to the Islamist group now blamed for the assault, they added in comments later confirmed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The brothers, whose names have not been revealed, were in their late twenties and operated their own “family cell”, an investigation officer said.
The pair were members of the Islamist National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) group which the government has blamed for the attacks.
The Islamic State group also claimed responsibility in an official statement for the attacks on the “infidel holiday”.
A Sri Lankan minister said the bombers may have struck in revenge for the killing of 50 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques last month.
“Some of them might have traveled abroad and come back,” Wickremesinghe told a press conference.
One brother checked into the Cinnamon Grand hotel and the other the Shangri-La on Saturday.
The next morning, at virtually the same time, they went to the hotels’ Easter Sunday breakfast buffets and blew up explosives-laden backpacks, the officer said.
Another bomb tore through a restaurant at the nearby Kingsbury hotel. Similar explosions devastated three churches.
Another would-be suicide bomber was in the fourth hotel in Colombo, an official source told AFP.
“This man had also checked into the hotel the previous day,” the source said.
It was not known if his explosives failed or he had a change of heart.
But after the Shangri-la blast, staff became suspicious and the man was tracked to a residence near the capital. He blew himself up when confronted by police, the source said. Two bystanders were also killed.
“What we have seen from the CCTV footage is that all the suicide bombers were carrying very heavy backpacks. These appear to be crude devices made locally,” the source said.
With 321 people dead, including at least 39 foreign nationals, and over 500 wounded, Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency and launched a desperate hunt to head off more attacks.
At least 40 people were under arrest Tuesday over one of the worst militant strikes ever staged in Asia.
The whereabouts of the brothers’ parents were unknown. But the blasts had a further impact on the family.
One brother gave false identity details when he checked into the hotel, the investigator said. The other gave a real address which led police commandos to their family home in a commercial area of Colombo.
“When the Special Task Force went there to investigate, one brother’s wife set off explosives killing herself and her two children,” the officer said.
“It was a single terror cell operated by one family,” the investigator said.
“They had the cash and the motivation. They operated the cell and it is believed they influenced their extended family.”
Three police commandos were also killed in the blast, and several extended family members are among those in detention.
The brothers had been involved in their father’s lucrative spice export business, investigators said.
It was not known if they were in contact with the other bombers, however.
A focus of the inquiry will be any foreign influence in their radicalization and how the children of such a wealthy family had become involved, an official source said.
“What we have gathered so far is that they had indicated to their close family what they were going to do,” another senior police officer said.
“It looks like they were inspired by foreign terrorist groups, but to what extent they had direct links is still unclear.”
– Police alert –
Sri Lanka police chief Pujith Jayasundara issued an alert on April 11 that the NTJ could launch suicide attacks against churches and other targets.
NTJ leader Zahran Hashmi was linked to the vandalizing of Buddha statues on December 26 at the central town of Mawanella. His whereabouts now are unknown.
The local Muslim community had been complaining to authorities about Hashmi since 2017.
Residents of an eastern village where he lived had demanded police action over his radical comments and acts, community leaders told AFP.
“He was a threat to moderate Muslims in the east and we had made several complaints,” one Muslim leader told AFP.
The police chief’s warnings about the NTJ were not passed to top ministers. A separate investigation is underway into why more was not done to stop the bombers.