Sri Lankan authorities are investigating what role international terrorist networks may have played in a string of suicide bombings Easter Sunday after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack.
Publicly, Sri Lankan government officials have blamed the local Islamist group National Thaweed Jamaath (NTJ) for the attacks.
State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said the bombers were characterized as a “splinter group” of the organization with connections abroad without going into detail. Wijewardene said the link between the NTJ and ISIS is being investigated. He described the suspects involved as mostly well-educated from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds.
Police have identified eight out of nine attackers – one of whom was a woman – with no foreigners among them.
At least one of the bombers had studied in the United Kingdom and completed a post-graduate degree in Australia before resettling in Sri Lanka, Wijewardene said.
An attack on a fourth hotel on Sunday was foiled, Ranil Wickremesinghes, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, said. He also warned that further militants and explosives could still be “out there” following the attack.
The announcement came after the death toll rose again to 359 on Wednesday, with more than 500 people wounded. At least 45 of those killed in the Easter Sunday blasts are children.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on Tuesday and released a video of men pledging allegiance to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The video claimed to identify Zahran Hashim, a Sri Lankan extremist cleric and preacher for NTJ, as the alleged leader behind the attacks.
Given the complexity of the near-simultaneous bombings at multiple locations, terrorism and security experts believe the local assailants had support from external, more experienced operatives.
Britain has sent a team of counter-terrorism police to Sri Lanka after the deadly bombing attacks that killed at least 359 people, including eight Britons, on Easter Sunday and there are indications that the FBI will be helping in the investigations too.