Sri Lankan president shakes up defense forces, says attack warnings went unheeded

Doug Stanglin

In a major shake-up of the country's defenses, Sri Lanka’s president has demanded that the defense secretary and national police chief resign after security forces failed to heed warnings of threats against churches before the Easter suicide bombings that killed more than 350 people.

In a televised speech, President Maithripala Sirisena said Wednesday that he planned to replace the head of the defense forces within 24 hours.

Six suicide bombers struck Christians worshipping Sunday in three churches and people at three luxury hotels In carefully coordinated assaults. The overall death toll rose overnight to 359.

Sri Lanka’s government has acknowledged it received warnings of a local extremist group threatening churches.

At least three bombers died hours after the initial attack. The wife of one bomber was killed, along with two children and three police officers, in an explosion as authorities closed in on her. Two more bombers died in an explosion on the outskirts of Colombo, the capital.

Sri Lankan authorities say they believe a little-known local militant Islamist group known as National Thowheed Jamath was to blame.

Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, has blamed breakaway members of two obscure local extremist Muslim groups and said many of the suicide bombers were highly educated and came from well-off families.

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

This handout photo taken and released by the Sri Lankan President's Office on April 23, 2019 shows President Maithripala Sirisena (second from the right), visiting St. Sebastian's church in Negombo, two days after a series of bomb attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said 60 people have been arrested so far.  A failed attack on a fourth hotel helped lead police to the group, according to the BBC.

Security services had been monitoring the NTJ, but the prime minister and the Cabinet were not warned, ministers said, the BBC reports. 

More: Sri Lanka bombings: ISIS and local terrorists at work, but much still murky about attack

Wijewardene conceded that there had been feuds at the highest levels of government and reports of warnings of strikes were not followed up and acted on. 

“It is a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information,” he said, according to Reuters. “We have to take responsibility.”

The Islamic State group has also claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement, via Amaq, the self-styled ISIS news outlet, the militants said "members of the U.S.-led coalition and Christians in Sri Lanka" had been targeted.

The group released a photo and video of the men ISIS claims carried out the attacks, including Mohamed Zahran, a Sri Lankan preacher known for militant views, Reuters reports.

Sri Lankan authorities say they are investigating whether it had had "international help."

ISIS, which has been driven out of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria, has frequently made unsupported claims of involvement in similar attack worldwide.

Alaina Teplitz, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, said "it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” given the level and sophistication of the attacks, but she said the U.S. had no prior knowledge of a threat before the attacks.

She said the FBI and U.S. military would assist Sri Lanka in its investigation.

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.

Contributing: Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sri Lankan president shakes up defense forces, says attack warnings went unheeded