- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2019

Sri Lankan authorities said Monday that a “wider international network” of terrorists helped a little-known local Islamist group carry out the grisly wave of coordinated bombings that ripped through churches, luxury hotels and other sites in Colombo on Easter Sunday, as the death toll from attacks continued to rise.

U.S. officials said at least four Americans were among those killed, including a 40-year-old Denver man who was in Colombo on a work trip. A fifth-grader who attended the Sidwell Friends School, an elite private academy in D.C. was also killed, though it was unclear whether the student held U.S. citizenship.

While officials have not named a specific international extremist organization, private analysts have quickly fingered al Qaeda or the Islamic State on Monday, saying planning and possible equipment used for the bombs that killed at least 290 people and injured more than 500 appeared to have been pulled from the global jihadist playbook.

But U.S. intelligence sources urged caution, with one high-level source urging The Washington Times against jumping to conclusions about the attacks while an investigation involving resources and participation from the FBI and other U.S. agencies was still widening as of Monday night.

Sri Lankan officials said other foreigners killed were from the U.K., Bangladesh, China, India, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and Australia. While the violence was by far the worst to hit the tiny South Asian nation since a devastating civil war there ended a decade ago, the Trump administration put a global perspective on Sunday’s bombings, calling them “one of the deadliest terrorist events since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.”

Fallout from the carnage spawned intense finger-pointing in Colombo on Monday, as reports emerged that international intelligence agencies had warned Sri Lankan security officials as far back as three weeks ago that an attack involving operatives of a local Islamist group known as National Thowfeek Jamaath may be imminent.

It was not clear whether U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of or promoted the warning, although reports said Indian officials known to be intelligence sharing relationships with both Washington and Colombo have tracked possible al Qaeda and Islamic state activity across South Asia in recent months.

The high-level U.S. intelligence source who spoke with The Times said American officials were closely examining all intelligence reporting on extremist activity it South Asia and beyond Monday. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would neither confirm nor deny whether U.S. agencies had issued any previous warning to Colombo.

The Associated Press reported that international agencies had warned Sri Lankan security officials that National Thowfeek Jamaath was planning some form of attacks, but that word of the warning apparently did not reach the Sri Lankan prime minister’s office until after the massacre.

Religious tensions have simmered in Sri Lanka following the 1983 to 2009 civil war, in which a Hindu militant group known as the Tamil Tigers fought - violently and unsuccessfully - to carve out an independent state from the country’s majority Buddhist government.

About 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 23 million people are Buddhists, with Hindus making up about 17 percent, Muslims roughly 10 percent, and Christians a bit more than 7 percent of the population, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book, an unclassified global information resource online.

The possible lack of internal Sri Lankan government communication about foreign intelligence warnings, meanwhile, underscored what regional analysts describe as commonplace political turmoil gripping the highest levels of power in Colombo since the civil war there.

Recent political infighting saw President Maithripala Sirisena, who was out of the country on Sunday, oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October and dissolved the Cabinet. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court later reversed the actions, but the prime minister has still not been allowed into meetings of the government’s Security Council since October, which meant he and his government may have been in the dark about any recent international intelligence warnings.

With that as a backdrop Monday, Sri Lankan officials said any local operatives involved in the bombings must have been helped from abroad. “We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” top government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

President Sirisena’s office said he is actively seeking foreign assistance in tracking any international links and is expected to hold a meeting with foreign diplomats on Tuesday in Colombo. FBI officials confirmed Monday that they’re already involved, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that he’d spoken with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to offer assistance.

“This is America’s fight, too,” said Mr. Pompeo. “We also stand with millions of Sri Lankans who support the freedom of their fellow citizens to worship as they please. We take confidence in knowing that not even atrocities like this one will deter them from respecting religious freedom.”

President Trump also called the prime minister to express condolences and pledge U.S. support “in bringing the perpetrators to justice,” the White House said in a statement.

Sri Lankan officials said at least 24 suspected terrorists had been taken into custody as of Monday night, with authorities claiming to have discovered and raided a safe house used by attackers.

President Sirisena issued sweeping emergency powers to the nation’s military. The government has also blocked local access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, claiming the moves were necessary to prevent false information from spreading.

Authorities say at least some of Sunday’s blasts were suicide bombings.

The explosions ripped through Colombo’s historic St. Anthony’s Shrine, as well as the famed Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels — collapsing ceilings and blowing out windows at the four popular tourist destinations.

Other blasts took place in St. Sebastian’s Church in the Christian-majority Colombo suburb of Negombo, as well as at a guesthouse and near a roadway overpass outside the capital city. Three police officers were killed while searching a suspected safe house, whose occupants apparently also detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.

A separate pipe bomb with more than 100 pounds of explosives was found and defused late Sunday on a road to Sri Lanka’s international airport.

The Associated Press cited a morgue worker in Negombo as saying many bodies were hard to identify because of the blasts. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The State Department confirmed that at least four Americans were killed in the attacks. A 40-year-old Denver man was identified as one of them.

Dieter Kowalski, who was traveling to the country on a work trip, was killed hours after he checked into the Cinnamon Grand Colombo when suicide bombers targeted it in the terror attack.

“It is with great sadness and deep regret that as Dieter’s brother that I confirm that Dieter was among the victim’s that passed away in Sri Lanka as we know that Dieter saw his friends as family, we would like to share our grief over this tragic incident. We have all lost a brother today…RIP Dieter,” Mr. Kowalsk’s brother Derrick wrote on Facebook.

Dieter Kowalski originally posted about his trip on Facebook Friday, writing: “And the fun begins. Love these work trips. 24 hours of flying. See you soon Sri Lanka!”

The fifth-grade student at the Sidwell Friends school was identified as Kieran Shafritz de Zoysa, according to an email reportedly sent by the school to friends and family.

Kieran, who is believed to be around 10 years old, was reported to be living in Sri Lana on leave from Sidwell with plans to return to attend middle school there next fall.

“This is obviously an unexpected tragedy for his family and for his greater community, including Sidwell Friends and the class of 2026,” school principal Mamadou Gueye wrote in the email, according to several reports. “Kieran was passionate about learning, he adored his friends, and he was incredibly excited about returning to Sidwell Friends this coming school year. We are beyond sorry not to get the opportunity to welcome Kieran to the Middle School.”

Reuters reported that the boy’s citizenship was unknown and that staff at the school did not respond to requests for confirmation.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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