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What we know about the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka so far…

Five days after the series of coordinated bombings across Sri Lanka the death toll has been revised to 253, with more than 500 injured.

The toll was revised to 253 down from 359. This was said to be due to difficulties estimating the death toll from the body parts as well as inaccurate estimates at the morgues.

At least 45 children are reported to be among the dead, as are 38 foreign nationals. 14 bodies remain unaccounted for.

It was reported that Sri Lankan authorities had been warned of the bombings at least ten days in advance but the information was not shared with the Prime Minister. Sri Lankan intelligence officials were tipped off about an imminent attack by Islamist militants hours before the bombings as well as on April 4th and 20th.

In response, Sri Lankan defence secretary, Hemasiri Fernando, the top non-elected official at the department, announced his resignation on Thursday.

The US envoy to Sri Lanka has also warned of ‘ongoing terrorist plots’.

The bombers

Police are said to have now identified eight of the nine attackers, including one female bomber. None were foreign.

Two of the bombers targeting hotels in Colombo have been reported to be from a wealthy and well-educated background. Another has been reported to have studied in the UK and Australia.

Others had been held in police custody due to ‘small skirmishes’ previously.

The main ringleader was identified as radical preacher, Zahran Hashim. He had in the past called for violence against non-Muslims and gained notoriety after defacing Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka.

ISIS claimed the bombings through their Amaq news agency. Local Islamist groups, National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, were reported by Sri Lankan Deputy Defence Minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, to be behind the attacks and it is thought to be likely that they received outside help.

Hashim, the ringleader behind the attacks, appears in the video released by ISIS where men, said to be the bombers, pledge allegiance to ISIS.

However, while Sri Lanka has a history of suicide attacks during the civil war, these have not been carried out by Islamist groups.

It has been claimed that the bombings were in response to the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand last month. While ISIS claimed to have been targeting ‘nationals of the crusader alliance [the US-led coalition] and Christians in Sri Lanka’.

ISIS’s involvement is continuing to be investigated by the Sri Lankan authorities. There have been returnees from Syria but these families and individuals have been under surveillance.

Situation since the attacks

Further explosives have detonated since Sunday. On Monday, a van parked near St Anthony’s shrine exploded as police attempted to defuse it, while a controlled explosion was carried out on Wednesday when a ‘suspicious’ motorbike was found in Colombo.

On Thursday, offices in central Colombo shut early, workers were told to go home and there was a brief lockdown in part of the capital because of bomb scares. There have also been reports of rumours and false alarms that have been causing insecurity in the days following the attack.

Since the bombings a curfew has been in place and raids have been carried out in communities around the locations targeted. Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency from midnight on Monday, granting police and military expanded power. Over 70 people have been detained in connection with the attacks.

The country’s Catholic Church has announced the suspension of all church services.

Since the blasts local Muslims have also come under threat. Hundreds of Pakistani Muslims have fled Negombo, with community leaders and police organising buses out of the town. Locals had threatened Muslims in the area with revenge attacks and homes had already been targeted. It was reported that those boarding the buses did not know where they would be going.

Many of those fleeing Negombo belong to the Ahmadi community, who fled Pakistan after the sect was declared un-Islamic, as they are seen as heretics by some orthodox Muslims.

Some reported being thrown out of their homes by landlords in Negombo. Many had gathered at the local mosque waiting to be taken to a safe location – 600 were said to be staying in one mosque.

Police reported that many calls had been received from locals suspicious of Pakistanis in Negombo. When someone is reported as a suspect the police will carry out a raid on their home.

Prior to the bombing, Negombo had a reputation for sheltering refugees and was known as an area where Muslims and Catholics, both minorities in Sri Lanka, lived peacefully side-by-side.

Though the Western Province was where the 2014 anti-Muslim riots took place. The 2014 riots resulted in four deaths, 80 injuries and 10,000 (8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese) displaced. Many homes, vehicles and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the riots.

More recently, in 2018, the Eastern Province was also impacted by anti-Muslim riots. The riots, which started in the town of Ampara and spread to Kandy district in the Central Province, left two dead and 15 injured. Many Muslim and Sinhalese homes and business were damaged.

Christians however, have largely avoided such tensions and the worst of the conflict in the country in the past.

Suicide bombings

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) records casualties (i.e. people killed and injured) from explosive violence around the world as reported in English-language news sources.

In 2019, prior to the attacks in Sri Lanka, AOAV recorded 1,227 deaths and injuries from 42 suicide bombings globally across 16 countries. Of the casualties recorded, 59% (721) were civilians.

In 2018, AOAV recorded 218 attacks which involved suicide bombings across 21 countries. The attacks left 7,000 casualties, including 5,644 civilians.

Iain Overton, Action on Armed Violence’s Executive Director and author of ‘The Price of Paradise: how the suicide bomber shaped the modern world’, travelled to Sri Lanka in 2018 to interview former LTTE fighters who had volunteered to be suicide bombers during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war (1983 – 2009).

“We know that the LTTE was influenced directly by Hezbollah’s use of suicide bombings in Lebanon”, Overton said. “The LTTE sent fighters to meet the Shi’a militant group to learn how to use suicide bombings in their own attacks on Sri Lanka’s incumbent government, where 92% of such attacks were political or against members of the security forces.”

“What these recent bombings show, though, is how ISIS has influenced suicidal terror. Unlike the LTTE’s tactics, these strikes were explicitly at civilian targets – illustrating how toxic Salafist-jihadist justifications for attacking civilians have changed the focus of terror attacks worldwide. This targeting of civilians was first seen when Palestinian Sunni groups attacked buses in Israel. Now it is ISIS inspired fighters attacking churches in Sri Lanka.”

“What is clear is that the defeat of ISIS in the field of battle in Iraq and Syria has not ended suicide bombings. In 2016, over 26 countries worldwide saw suicide attacks, as the globalised terror group struck again and again. Sri Lanka is a new field of atrocity for them; a country that – sadly – saw at least 115 suicide bombings during its terrible civil war.”

“It is likely that more attacks of this terrible nature will happen again and again, as ISIS’s claim that they ‘love death more than we love life’ finds meaning in the hearts of its followers.”

AOAV calls on all states to urgently address the threat of IED attacks. There is an urgent need for preventative measures to be implemented by States and the international community.