Officers of Special Task Force search for explosives ahead of mass burials at a burial ground for Easter Sunday bomb blast victims in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Officers of Special Task Force search for explosives ahead of mass burials at a burial ground for Easter Sunday bomb blast victims in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Most Sri Lanka bombers were highly educated, officials say

At least one had a law degree and some may have studied in the UK and Australia

Many of the suicide bombers who killed more than 350 people in a series of co-ordinated Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were highly educated and came from well-off families, the junior defence minister said Wednesday.

The bombers were breakaway members of a pair of obscure extremist Muslim groups, he said. Officials had earlier blamed one extremist group for the bombings, though they say the attackers may have had support from foreign militants.

“Their thinking is that Islam can be the only religion in this country,” Ruwan Wijewardene told reporters. “They are quite well-educated people,” he said, adding that at least one had a law degree and some may have studied in the UK and Australia.

The news came as leaders vowed to overhaul the country’s security apparatus after acknowledging that some intelligence units were aware of possible attacks before the Easter bombings.

U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz told reporters that “clearly there was some failure in the system,” but said the U.S. had no prior knowledge of a threat before the attacks, the worst violence in the South Asian island nation since its civil war ended a decade ago.

Teplitz called that breakdown in communication “incredibly tragic.”

Government statements about the attacks have been confused and sometimes contradictory, with police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara telling reporters Wednesday that there were nine suicide bombers — two more than officials said one day earlier.

One of the additional suicide bombers was the wife of another bomber, Gunasekara said. The woman, two children and three policemen died in an explosion as authorities closed in on her late Sunday, hours after attacks were launched against three churches and three hotels. The ninth suicide bomber has not been identified, though two more suspects were killed in a later explosion on the outskirts of Colombo.

Gunasekara said 60 people have been arrested so far. A team of FBI agents and U.S. military officials were helping in the investigation, Teplitz said.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks but authorities remain unsure of their involvement, though many suspect experienced foreign militants were advising, funding or guiding the attackers. Officials say all of the seven main bombers were Sri Lankan.

“We are conducting investigations at the moment to see if there is any direct link to any international organizations,” Wijewardene said.

READ MORE: Easter bombings a response to New Zealand attacks, says Sri Lanka minister

READ MORE: Sri Lanka invokes war-time military powers after nearly 300 killed in Easter bombings

The Islamic State group’s Aamaq news agency released an image it said showed the attackers’ leader standing amid seven others with covered faces. It provided no other evidence for its claim.

The group, which has lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility for various attacks around the world.

Sri Lankan authorities had earlier blamed a local extremist group, National Towheed Jamaar, whose leader, alternately named Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary online speeches. On Wednesday, Wijewardene said the attackers had broken away from National Towheed Jamaar and another group, which he identified only as “JMI.”

Teplitz declined to discuss whether U.S. officials knew about National Towheed Jamaar or its leader before the attack. “If we had heard something, we would have tried to do something about this,” Teplitz said.

The country has been on heightened alert since the attacks, with police setting off a series of controlled explosions of suspicious objects. No more bombs were found Wednesday.

On Tuesday, in an address to Parliament, Wijewardene said “weakness” within Sri Lanka’s security system had led to the failure to prevent the bombings.

“By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending attack,” Wijewardene said. “However, this information has been circulated among only a few officials.”

In a live address to the nation late Tuesday, President Maithripala Sirisena said he also was kept in the dark on the intelligence about the planned attacks and vowed to “take stern action” against officials who failed to share the information. He also pledged “a complete restructuring” of the security forces.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Wijewardene also edged away from Tuesday comments that the bombings were retaliation for the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people. He told reporters Wednesday that the mosque attack may have been a motivation for the bombings, but that there was no direct evidence of that.

An Australian white supremacist was arrested in the Christchurch shootings.

While Sri Lanka’s recent history has been rife with ethnic and sectarian conflict, the Easter Sunday attacks came as a shock.

Sri Lanka is dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists, but the country of 21 million also has a significant Tamil minority, most of whom are Hindu, Muslim or Christian.

Tamil Tiger rebels were known for staging suicide bombings during their 26-year civil war for independence, but religion had little role in that fighting. The Tigers were crushed by the government in 2009. Anti-Muslim bigotry fed by Buddhist nationalists has swept the country since the war ended but Sri Lanka has no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment.

READ MORE: Canadians in Sri Lanka told to use extreme caution after bombings

___

Associated Press journalists Bharatha Mallawarachi and Jon Gambrell contributed to this report.

Krishan Francis, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Hazardous materials response unit setting up on scene. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
UPDATE: Hazmat teams called to UBCO for envelope filled with ‘suspicious substance’

Crews are securing and isolating the area in which the envelope was opened in the lobby of an apartment building

The Allan Brooks Nature Centre is kicking off a Light The Night fundraising campaign online to help with Christmas shopping for the public and fundraising for the popular Vernon attraction. (ABNC Photo)
Light the Night campaign boosts Vernon nature centre

Allan Brooks Society hosting online auction of 12 items; donations can also be made to help centre

Repairs to the Duteau Creek UV Disinfection Facility are complete, and the facility will begin treating water from the Duteau Creek source with UV disinfection today. The Kalamalka Lake water source for the Greater Vernon Water system has also been turned back on after algae levels dropped. (Morning Star - file photo)
Greater Vernon water disinfection back on tap

Kalamalka Lake algae levels drop; UV disinfection repairs at Duteau Creek plant fixed

A semi-truck blocks a single lane of traffic on Highway 6 near Kalamalka Lake Road in Vernon Thursday, Nov. 26. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Semi-truck blocking single lane near Vernon

Incident near Kalamalka Lake Road delays westbound traffic

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The corporate headquarters of Pfizer Canada are seen in Montreal, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. The chief medical adviser at Health Canada says Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine could be approved in Canada next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Health Canada expects first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved next month

Canada has a purchase deal to buy at least 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine,

Darrell RIchards and his Harley Davidson Streetglide in front of Discovery House in Penticton on Nov. 5. (Brennan Phillips - Western News)
Okanagan biker still in running for custom chopper competition

Darrell Richards is sitting in first in the final round of the group stage

FILE – A paramedic holds a test tube containing a blood sample during an antibody testing program at the Hollymore Ambulance Hub, in Birmingham, England, on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Simon Dawson/Pool via AP)
Want to know if you’ve had COVID-19? LifeLabs is offering an antibody test

Test costs $75 and is available in B.C. and Ontario

The grey region of this chart shows the growth of untraced infection, due to lack of information on potential sources. With added staff and reorganization, the gap is stabilized, Dr. Bonnie Henry says. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 tracing to keep up with surging cases

People now notified of test results by text message

REN Energy will source waste wood from ATCO Wood Products and other forest companies, as well as brush piles, to create Renewable Natural Gas in a new facility planned for Park Siding just outside of Fruitvale. Townsman file photo.
Kelowna, Calgary energy companies design renewable gas plant near Trail

The new project is in Fruitvale, B.C. and builds on Canada’s green energy economy

Penticton's Courthouse. (File)
Six months jail for robbing Okanagan cannabis dispensary

After time served, the 29-year-old has another month in prison

Most Read