KETR

Sri Lanka Blames Islamist Militant Group For Easter Attacks

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 10:27 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Government officials in Sri Lanka are saying that a little-known Islamist extremist group is responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka yesterday. Almost 300 people were killed in bombings at churches and hotels in that small South Asian country. No group has come forward to claim responsibility, which is adding to a lot of confusion. Let's turn to NPR's Lauren Frayer, who is following this story from Mumbai. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Let's start off with this group that the government is saying is responsible. Who are they?

FRAYER: We know very little about them, actually. I mean, the world is Googling them right now. It's called the National Thowfeek Jamaath; it's a local Muslim group local to Sri Lanka - not a household name there. It was Sri Lanka's health minister who announced this. So it wasn't the president, nor the prime minister. The health minister said all seven suicide bombers were Sri Lankan nationals. He didn't explain how they know that. It's pretty fast timing if they have done DNA testing on remains, unless they knew exactly who these people were beforehand.

And in fact, that's what many politicians coming out of this emergency meeting today said; that there were warnings about this group possibly weeks and weeks in advance, and that they weren't raised to the highest level of government, that the prime minister was not made aware. And the prime minister himself seemed pretty angry. He called the security footing here inadequate.

And so while everyone's concentrating on this local group, a cabinet spokesman also came out with seemingly contradictory information, saying that this was the work of an international network, not confined to Sri Lanka. And so that left everyone really scratching their heads. I mean, both could be true - this could be locals with international help. And of course, as you mentioned, there's been no claim of responsibility to clarify that.

GREENE: So the government - not at all on the same page right now, at a moment when a lot of people are looking for soothing and answers. I guess we should say the authorities have taken, like, two dozen people in to custody at this point. So they are - they probably are learning something about what happened.

FRAYER: Yeah, so most likely they're interrogating those people. They haven't come out with any information and shared that with the public. We don't know who those people are - whether they're accomplices, even if they're local Sri Lankan nationals or outsiders. There was an explosion last night at a house on the outskirts of the capital, Colombo. Police were doing searches as part of their investigation, and suspects inside that house detonated a blast, killing themselves, rather than being taken into custody alive. Three officers were killed there.

So security operations are very much underway. Police found three more bombs in a van parked in a city on Sri Lanka's west coast today, near one of the churches that was hit yesterday. Those bombs exploded while police were diffusing them. They also found 87 detonators at a bus depot. So there's a feeling that this is, you know, very much still a kinetic operation.

GREENE: So this country, I mean, went through a civil war that ended, like, a decade ago. Now we have this small Islamist extremist group being accused of doing this, at least now. Would that make sense? I mean, did groups like this play a role in the war?

FRAYER: It's really unprecedented. The civil war was started with a separatist insurgency by ethnic minority Tamils, but secular ethnic minority - the Tamil Tigers was one of - the name of one of their groups, and they were fighting for independence from a Buddhist majority. But if this turns out to be a local Muslim group responsible, possibly with help from international militants, it would really be unprecedented.

GREENE: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai, telling us the latest from Sri Lanka. Lauren, thanks a lot.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.