As the death toll following Sunday’s terror attacks targeting Sri Lanka’s churches and luxury hotels rose to almost 300 on Monday, government officials pointed the finger at an unknown radical Muslim group – the National Thowheed Jamath.
The government is yet to release a statement regarding who carried out the terror attacks, but ministers and officials believe that an extremist group is behind the bombings.
On Sunday, telecommunication minister Harin Fernando released an intelligence report on social media, and blamed the government for not taking action sooner.
The three-page document outlines details of “alleged planned attacks” by a group called the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and was sent by the Ministry of Defence to the inspector general of police 10 days ago.
The report chronicles the names of four suspects – one of whom is believed to have died in the eighth and final explosion on Sunday as police raided a residence in the Dematagoda suburb of Colombo.
“According to international intelligence, members of the National Thowheed Jamath have planned to attack prominent churches and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka,” reads the document.
Very little is known about NTJ, although the intelligence report states that a member named Rilwan was involved in the desecration of a number of Buddhist statues in Mawanella, central Sri Lanka last December. The incident led to a flare-up in tension between Buddhist and Muslim communities.
In the police document, it is said that Rilwan went into hiding following that incident. He is also identified as the brother of a man named Zahran Hashim, identified as the suspected leader of NTJ.
Such is the obscurity of NTJ that many government officials said they were unaware of its existence. ABM Ashraf, director of the Muslim Affairs ministry, told The Independent: “We had never heard of this terrorist organisation until yesterday.”
Their social media presence is sparse, too. Although they appear to have a Facebook page, it has only been updated once every few weeks or so. Their Twitter page hasn’t been updated since March 2018.
Several government ministers said that Sunday’s terror attacks – the worst since the country’s 30-year ethnic war – could have been avoided if the government had been more responsible.
“We regret the fact the knowledge regarding the impending attacks on churches which was made available through intelligence agencies was not relayed to the archbishop. Which if done in time, could have prevented this mayhem,” said Rauff Hakeem, urban development minister, referring to the warning about the alleged National Thowheed Jamath report.
“As a community we are outraged,” said Hakeem, who belongs to the Muslim minority that makes up just 10 per cent of the island’s population. “The strongest punishment possible should be given to these perpetrators,” he said.
Hakeem also stated that the perpetrators “couldn’t have been home grown” as the attacks “were done in such sophisticated coordination”.
Fernando also believes the hitherto unknown radical group is responsible for the attacks and says the government “should have taken the allegations more seriously”.
“This is a minority extremist group which obviously doesn’t believe in the Islamic faith, which is peaceful and practised by our wider community of Muslims,” said Fernando.
“It is a very, very small faction of the Muslim community who are in no way representative of the Muslims of our country,” he added.
Officials of the Jamiyyathul Ulama, the umbrella organisation of Muslim bodies in Sri Lanka, say they have been monitoring a rise in radical movements among the Muslim community, and reporting the issue to the government and security services.
According to the organisation, Sri Lanka was the first country to make a statement condemning Isis in 2014, saying that the extremist group’s doctrines do not belong to Islam.
“Unfortunately after Isis some youngsters became attracted to the idea ... And in the past two years we have noticed some [radical] behaviours on social media,” Sheikh Akram Noor Ramith, secretary for youth affairs of Jamiyyathul, told The Independent.
“We strongly believe that there is an international hand behind Sunday’s attacks,” he said.
Officials say 24 suspects are in custody and the operation to crack down on the cell behind the suicide bombings continues.
A police cordon remained at the three-storey house of a well-respected Muslim spice dealer in Dematagoda, a suburb of Colombo, where the eighth bombing took place on Sunday, and police were seen carrying firearms out of the building on Monday afternoon.
Two explosions, both from the same house, rocked the quiet and affluent residential area as police entered the home on the back of a tip-off from the public. The roof of the house caved in as the two bombs exploded on the top floor, killing three policemen and several members of the family.
Sources at the scene told The Independent that the bodies of two children were carried out on Sunday. “We believe there was a third child in the house, and are certain there are more bodies under the debris,” said an official.
A little way up the street, a young woman living in a two storey house climbed into a police jeep as she was taken into custody on Monday. The police taking the woman into custody refused to comment.
“We are shocked,” says Aravindi Kaushalya, a neighbour who lives three houses away from the scene of crime. “We have lived here for over 40 years, and that family has lived just across us for the past 20 years. Who would have thought they had guns and bombs in their house?” she asked.
However neighbours also said the family kept to themselves. “We know some of our Muslim neighbours well, but this particular family kept away from all of us.”
“We never even saw their children,” said another neighbour.