Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons 

On Easter Sunday, families around the world gathered to celebrate the Christian holiday that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. In Sri Lanka, churches were filled with prayer and hymns. Then, the bombs went off.

A coordinated series of attacks occurred in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital city, on Sunday. Three churches and four hotels were devastated by bombs simultaneously triggered by suicide bombers. More than 300 casualties were reported and over 500 were wounded. Christians at Easter Sunday church services were targeted, along with tourists staying in hotels. Besides Sri Lankans, victims also included Japanese, Dutch, Chinese, British, Portuguese and American tourists.

In the aftermath, a nation mourns with few answers to alleviate the grief.

Who is responsible?

Government officials in Sri Lanka originally blamed the attacks on the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), an Islamist group based in eastern Sri Lanka. The group, essentially unknown and with little history of terrorism, is believed to have links to the Islamic State (IS).

On Tuesday, IS publicly took responsibility for the attack.

“The executors of the attack that targeted citizens of coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka two days ago were Islamic State fighters,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday. They also released an online video featuring the individual suspected of leading the attacks, Mohammed Zaharan.  

Although the group responsible for the bombings has yet to be officially determined, domestic and international investigators suspect the attacks were part of an international plot.

“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” said Sri Lanka health minister Rajitha Senaratne. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

The Sri Lankan government has arrested 40 suspects in connection with the bombings and confirmed that seven suicide bombers were killed in the explosions. President Maithripala Sirisena declared a state of emergency shortly after the attacks, giving the military more leeway to detain and arrest suspects.

Was there any warning?

In the weeks leading up to the attacks, India’s intelligence service warned Sri Lankan officials about a potential plot to launch suicide attacks at Christian churches and tourist spots. At least some of the information from Delhi was acquired from interrogation of an ISIS suspect arrested in India. The suspect disclosed the name of Zahran Hashim, one of the suicide bombers from Sunday who was  associated with NTJ. On April 11, a memo declaring Hashim the leader of NTJ circulated through the government and secret services. It was signed by Sri Lanka’s Deputy Inspector General of Police.

In the wake of the attacks, President Maithripala Sirisena announced intentions to improve Sri Lanka’s security. It’s not immediately clear whether any actions were taken after the warnings.  According to Rajitha Senaratne, Sri Lanka cabinet minister, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and his cabinet were not aware of the warnings until after the bombings.

“I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defense officials,” Sirisena said.

Why Catholic churches?

Christians and Muslims have long been targeted by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists and marginalized by the state in Sri Lanka. Although many in the West immediately interpreted the attacks as an example of Muslim-Christian clashes experienced internationally, Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka have never before come into significant conflict.

Northwestern political science Professor Daniel Krcmaric voiced the peculiarity of the Sri Lanka bombings from the viewpoint of international conflict.

“One of the puzzles would be why were Christian sites targeted and not Buddhist sites… it’s basically one minority group attacking another minority group if we use a religious lens to see this,” Krcmaric said. “Until we know who did this attack with certainty and what their objective was, it’s hard to fully understand this.”

What does this mean for the future?

Presidential elections in Sri Lanka are expected to take place within the next seven months. The bombings sparked the return of a common sentiment among Sri Lankans that the government was better run under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although he is constitutionally barred from running for president again, Rajapaksa led a failed attempt at a soft coup against the current government in fall of 2018.

“It’s not entirely clear who’s in control in Sri Lanka,” said Krcmaric. “One thing to look for in the future is who’s actually formulating government policy in this case.”