Apreviously obscure Islamist extremist group known only for vandalising Buddhist statues has emerged as the prime suspect behind suicide bomb attacks that killed close to 300 in Sri Lanka.
All seven bombers were Sri Lankan but the the scale and coordination of the attacks has led investigators to decide the homegrown group acted with the help of a more sophisticated international terrorist network, such as Islamic State.
Sri Lankan officials admitted they had been tipped off earlier this month that the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group was due to attack churches, but the warning failed to stop carnage.
Three churches and three hotels were devastated in nearly simultaneous blasts across the island that killed at least 290 and wounded around 500.
“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” said Rajitha Senaratne, the health minister and cabinet spokesman said on Monday. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”
As Sri Lanka remained on edge and subject to curfew, the US warned that terrorists were plotting more attacks against the country which hoped it had put decades of violence behind it. Tourist sites, hotels, airports, and night life venues were all potential targets, the US State Department warned.
More bombs were destroyed in a controlled explosion on Monday after they were found in a van close to St Anthony's Shrine which was attacked on Sunday. Detonators were also found in the capital by police.
One of the two bombers to strike the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo was identified as Insan Setiawan. A copper factory he owned was raided and nine suspects arrested.
While 36 hours after the Easter Sunday blasts there had still been no claim of responsibility, Sri Lankan government sources told The Telegraph the NTJ was now considered the prime suspect.
The country's president, Maithripala Sirisena, awarded the military sweeping wartime powers to arrest and detain suspects.
Sri Lanka is thought to have been tipped off about the possibility of attacks on churches by intelligence from India which named the NTJ.
The newly formed radical Islamist group supporting global jihad had sparked little attention among the crowded field of international terrorist groups, although it had been flagged as violently anti-Buddhist, the majority religion on the Indian Ocean island.
The sophisticated nature of the multi-pronged assault and the targeting of Christians and Westerners have now raised the possibility the group could have joined forces with global terrorist networks like Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) or Al Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
The Indians had reportedly become aware of the NTJ as a fertile recruitment ground for the Islamic State terrorist group, said sources in Delhi, although only a few dozen radicalised Sri Lankans are believed to have joined Isil in the Middle East, compared to hundreds from the nearby Maldives.
One working hypothesis in Delhi is that the NTJ may have hooked up with returning insurgents from Iraq and Syria. The prospect of attempts by former Asian Isil fighters coming home to set up a regional terror hub has long been a fear among security experts. A well-placed security source said the NTJ were believed to have been inspired by Isil jihadist attacks.
Analysts have predicted that the “localisation” of terrorism where seemingly insignificant groups are inspired by or merge with more powerful global networks could be the future of jihad in Asia.
“The reality is that inevitably this group has links outside,” said Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at India’s Manipal University. “My assessment is that the motivation, the masterminds are outside the country.”
“I think their aim is global, it’s not in Sri Lanka. Wherever they can get a soft spot they hit because they need recruits all the time and the only way that they can get recruits is by doing these kinds of spectacular activities. This is essentially a recruiting tool for them.”
Islamic State group made no claim of responsibility for Sunday's blasts, but its supporters praised the attacks online. The US-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors online jihadi activities, said Isil media channels were “posting rampantly” about the explosions and praying “may Allah accept” them. An Isil-supporting Indonesian Instagram account had issued a further chilling warning alongside videos of the Sri Lankan bombings, reported SITE, with a message stating “the Bloody days in your church has begun.”