Sri Lanka’s Minister of Defense, Ruwan Wijewardene, confirmed on April 24 that one of two Muslim brothers responsible for two of the hotel blasts on Easter Sunday received his higher education from western institutions, including a university in Australia.
Wijewardene told local media in a press conference on April 24 that one of the brothers is understood to have studied in the UK and then continued on with postgraduate studies in Australia.
“We believe one of the suicide bombers studied in the UK and later on did his postgraduate in Australia before coming back to settle in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison said on April 25, “I can confirm that the suicide bomber had been in Australia. They departed in early 2013. That individual had been here on a student and a graduate skilled visa.”
The brothers have been identified in Indian news reports as Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim, 31, and Imsath (or Inshaf) Ahmed Ibrahim, 33. Between them, they targeted the Shangri-La Hotel and the Cinnamon Grand Colombo hotel in two suicide bombings.
The brothers are thought to be the sons of wealthy, politically-connected spice merchant Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim.
“What we can say is some of the suspected bombers, most of them are well-educated and come from maybe middle or upper middle class so are financially independent and their families are quite stable. So that is a worrying fact,” Wijewardene said.
Both were members of the extremist Islamic group National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) that has been named by Sri Lankan officials as being behind the bombings that left 359 people dead and 500-plus others injured.
A total of nine bombers have been identified by the authorities.
VIDEO: Chilling CCTV footage of what Sri Lankan police sources say is a suspected bomber carrying a rucksack and entering St Sebastian’s Church moments before the massive, deadly Easter Sunday blast pic.twitter.com/lzLvqSp0v7
— AFP news agency (@AFP) April 24, 2019
The father is now being interrogated over the coordinated attacks. He had previously been recognized by Sri Lanka’s former president for “outstanding service provided to the nation,” according to the New York Times. He was also supported by one political party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which planned to nominate him to Parliament. However, it did not win enough votes.
Extremist Group Wanted to Kill Non-Muslims
NTJ is said to be headed by Zahran Hashim, who was also known under the name Mohammed Zahran. According to Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka, he became known to them about three years ago.
“It was basically a hate campaign against all non-Muslims,” said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “Basically, he was saying non-Muslims have to be eliminated.”
According to local outlet Leaders Online, Hashim was identified as a second bomber at the Shangri-la Hotel alongside one of the Ibrahim brothers. The outlet said he and other colleagues started the NTJ group due to their extreme views, breaking away from established groups such as Sri Lanka Tawhid Jamath and Indian Tawhid Jamath.
According to a police report from 2016, Hasim and his followers held a meeting outside another mosque, bringing swords and clubs that they used in a clash with people in the area. Police wanted to apprehend him but he fled the area and was believed to have left the country, possibly relocating to the Maldives.
No one knew where he was until he showed back up to set off one of the bombs, according to the outlet.
Intelligence officials in the country said late Easter Sunday that they had received multiple intelligence reports about a planned attack on churches by NTJ. Local Islamic leaders said they also made efforts to warn the authorities of extremist groups, but the government had not taken any action.
One report from Indian intelligence officers came just two hours before the first attack in addition to similar messages on April 4 and April 20.
Anne Speckhard, the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said that a Sri Lankan intelligence official approached her at a conference in February and described a violent, homegrown jihadi group that “would just disappear” when the government tried to crack down on them.
“The intel person kind of came up to me and said, ‘You know, we’re kind of worried about this new group and there’s some activity going. What do you think?'” Speckhard said. “It just kind of blows my mind that’s who it was.”
While NTJ was blamed for the attack, Sri Lankan officials said it was a “small organisation” that had “an international network” for support. Investigators said the bombings were apparently in retaliation for the March 15 shootings of 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand.
“This is not the work of an ordinary group, nor can it be pulled off by criminal gangs,” Jayanath Colombage, a former Sri Lankan navy commander who had handled Colombo’s security for a period during the civil war, told Nikkei.
“There was a lot of expertise involved to assemble the bombs, transport them to the targets, and select the time of the attacks.”
Phill Hynes, the lead terrorism expert at ISS Risk, a Hong Kong-based security consultancy, said that the attacks were focused on killing as many people as possible.
“With this scale of attacks, I don’t think this was only carried out by locals. There is most likely involvement of foreign groups or people, including people moving in and out of India or Pakistan,” said anti-terrorism expert Alto Labetubun told Reuters.
On April 23, Wijewardene said that another local jihadi group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, was also believed to be involved.
Later the same day, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings through its Amaq propaganda agency. Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based security expert, said that NJT was the ISIS branch in Sri Lanka.
U.S. intelligence sources said earlier that the attacks carried some of the hallmarks of ISIS extremists, although Reuters reported the sources were cautious about declaring who was behind the attacks because there were no initial claims of responsibility.
According to One India, the Sri Lankan parliament was told as early as 2016 that 32 Muslims from elite families had joined ISIS, with some travelling to Syria.
ISIS seeks to impose Shariah law and an interpretation of the Quran and Muslim teachings held parts of Syria, Iraq, and other countries in recent years before it was beaten back by the United States and its allies.
The group has inspired or carried out terror attacks around the world, including a mass shooting in Paris in November 2015, which left 137 dead, including seven terrorists, and an attack with a vehicle in New York City in October 2017 that left eight people dead.
Some 60 people were being questioned about the attacks, including a Syrian, officials said on April 24.
Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans, although government officials said 38 foreigners were killed.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.