Police in Sri Lanka conducted a series of raids Friday on suspected jihadists, finding in one mosque in Colombo’s suburb of Slave Island a stockpile of 47 swords alongside counterfeit military uniforms, a suicide bomber jacket, and machetes.
In a nationwide address, President Maithripala Sirisena revealed that police had arrested around 70 individuals in connection with jihadist activity since the Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people and have identified 140 people who may have been involved in the attacks.
The Sri Lankan outlet Lankadeepa published images from the Slave Island mosque where police found the weapons, revealing that police found the swords in question under the bed of the head imam.
Along with the swords, police told reporters they found 15 machetes and 25 outfits that appeared to be army uniforms. Police said they arrested one suspect in connection to the raid, but did not specify whether the individual is believed to have been involved in the Easter jihadist attacks. They also did not identify the ideology of the mosque in question.
Local media reported several instances of potentially related police activity on Friday. In Balangoda, about 90 miles from Colombo, police arrested an unnamed “youth” a tipster warned may have been planning an attack on the nation’s parliament. Police told reporters they found live ammunition as well as passes into parliament and a map of the legislative complex. Police noted they did not find explosives in the young man’s home.
The Daily Mirror reported on yet another controlled explosion Friday, this time behind a courthouse where police found a “bag stuffed with gunpowder” in a garbage dump. Controlled explosions occurred in several locations throughout Colombo following the attack as police encountered suspicious packages and vehicles. As the Islamic State, nor any other terrorist group, claimed the attacks for some time, police suspected that the six suicide bombings were not the last of the planned attacks.
Terrorists targeted three churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday, detonating explosives near children to maximize the number of young Christians dying, according to eyewitnesses. At press time, the death count stands at 253 people. While several foreigners were killed in the attacks, Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community was the primary target and suffered tremendously given how crowded the churches were for Easter Mass and the hotels for holiday brunches.
Police initially identified the jihadist group National Thawheed Jama’ath (NTJ) as the responsible party, a Muslim fundamentalist group previously known for local vandalism of Buddhist statues. The Islamic State claimed the attack some days later, publishing photos that appeared to show the head of NTJ, Zahran Hashim, pledging allegiance to the jihadist outfit. A man claiming to be the head of NTJ told Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror that they group had expelled Hashim for extremist views and notified police, but that Sri Lankan authorities did not act on the warning.
Locals near the mosque where Hashim preached refuted the claim that the NTJ’s mosque did not allow him to preach there; the newspaper noted that 11 mosques in Hashim’s neighborhood are known as fundamentalist or Wahhabist, the latter being a specific Saudi fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam. Hashim also amassed thousands of followers on Facebook and Youtube by posting belligerent sermons calling for jihad.
Sri Lankan officials have repeatedly stated they believe such a large attack would have been impossible to execute without help from abroad.
Sirisena also defended himself once again from accusations of negligence, stating that a recent trip to India did not get in the way of him receiving information that could have prevented the attack. Sirisena, along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and several high-ranking officials, immediately denied knowledge of a threat after the attack, accusing intelligence officials of hiding a letter from the Indian government specifically warning of a jihadist plot on Easter Sunday. Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have been embroiled in a political crisis since October, when Sirisena attempted to unconstitutionally remove Wickremesinghe from power. Sirisena has excluded the prime minister and his cabinet from intelligence briefings since December.
Sri Lankan officials urged both Muslims and Christians to pray at home rather than congregate in public as the weekend began; Muslims typically go to mosque on Fridays. Hashim reportedly clashed with Sufi Muslims, considered too moderate by Sunni jihadis, before his pivot to targeting Christians. While Christians have reportedly heeded the warning and most Catholic churches have canceled Sunday Mass, many Muslims took to prayer on Friday, according to CNN.
Most of Sri Lanka’s Christians, seven percent of the population, are Catholic. The country boasts a similar percentage of Muslims, while the majority of citizens are Buddhist.