Prayers at mosques called off, Muslim taxi drivers logging off work early and shops turning away Muslim women with their faces covered. That was Friday in Colombo, barely a week after terror swept across Sri Lanka, killing 253 people in churches and luxury hotels on April 21. The government has urged calm and solidarity, but the fear is plain to see.
The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the country’s apex religious body of Islamic scholars in Colombo, even issued a statement requesting Muslims not to hinder security agencies by wearing the Niqab, and several mosques and Muslim organisations appealed to people asking them to pray at home and avoid large gatherings considering the unfolding crisis.
Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Defence Minister, spoke of at least 140 Islamic State suspects. “Information is that around 130-140 ISIS suspects are in the country. Around 70 are arrested, we will arrest them all very soon ending this (terror),” he said. He also appealed to the island nation to not view its minority Muslim community as terrorists in the wake of the attacks.
Sirisena said despite the attacks, the island’s nine per cent Muslim minority must not be regarded terrorists.
Catholic churches, too, cancelled all Sunday Masses until further notice over concerns that they remain a top target of Islamic State-linked extremists. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said: “Due to the ongoing security situation and continuing threats… we have stopped all Sunday masses until further notice.” He also said that people should “stay indoors and do their prayers” and that only once the security situation had returned to normal would small services resume before gradually growing in size.
On Friday, security agencies continued searches and arrests in Colombo seizing explosives, weapons and suspicious vehicles as investigators struggled to find evidence on the emergence of local IS sympathisers in the country, the nature of their organisation and the origin of explosives used in the execution of one of the largest ever terror attacks in the recent past.
Showing signs of taking tough decisions, the government Friday also questioned the brother of Cabinet minister in connection with the blasts. However, a top government source said the brother of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen was not arrested but only questioned along with several people who were known to the family of rich spice exporter M Y Ibrahim, whose two sons and daughter-in-law were among the suicide bombers.
While the bearded suicide bombers, who were spotted and identified on surveillance cameras were seen walking with heavy backpacks, sources believe they may have carried 15 to 20 kg of explosives – mostly C4, and TNT too in a few cases. A top military intelligence official told The Indian Express that it has been ascertained that the bomb technology and accessories such as vests and jackets used in the recent attacks were not that of the LTTE’s.
“Had they been using advanced technology, the impact of the explosion from 15 to 20 kg of C4 explosives would have been bigger. They may or may not have taken help from former LTTE bomb experts. But we strongly suspect that explosives may have come from the Afghanistan region via the sea route,” said the official.
Opinion | Anatomy of an attack
According to the official, extremists likely planned the terror attack only about a year ago. “We are verifying reports that locally organised extremists received directions from Islamic State a year ago to organise on their own in a decentralised manner. The communication sent out by IS to different country factions with potential radical characters was to carry out their own actions,” said the official.
“Sri Lanka may have been a soft target for them. Remains of the LTTE, war, tonnes of explosives and weapons part of the three-decade-long war and some former cadres or individual help from former military men, too, may have helped them hatch this plan.”
General R M Daya Ratnayake, former commander of Sri Lankan Army and an officer who played a key role in defeating the LTTE, said the LTTE had talent spotters to recruit people into their force and religious extremists, too, have their own innovative ways to attract people.
“Even the best intelligence in the world won’t work without a commander. What has happened now in Sri Lanka is a total command failure. When various social reasons and religious trends aggravate into a terrorist phenomenon, we could have prevented it easily for the simple fact that we defeated the worst terror organisation in the world, LTTE, a decade ago,” he said.