Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka: Essential Chronology

On 21 April 2019, the world’s most dangerous threat movement, the Islamic State, mounted one of its deadliest attacks in Sri Lanka.

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Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. [Photo Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha ]

Following chronology is adapted from the author’s most recent book, published by Penguin.

Year 2019

3 January—Western province governor Azath Salley reportedly met with pertinent government officials, presumably after realizing the danger of a communal conflagration following the religious vandalism case in Mawanella. It was said that Sufi Muslim leaders who realized the looming threat pledged support to find the perpetrators. In addition to the Public Development Minister, accounts also stated that Governor Salley called the IGP and Defence Secretary to hand over evidence. Previously, Governor Salley was said to have contacted the president of All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), Rizwi Mufthi, and head of the Muslim Council, N.M. Ameen, immediately after the Mawanella incident to discuss the matter. Rizwi reportedly assigned Mohamed Salley Mohamed Thassim, also known as Thassim Moulavi, the ACJU assistant secretary and Seylan Muslim Youth Organization director, to assist.

6 January—According to accounts, President Sirisena was informed by the SIS director about the suspects behind the Mawanella incident, their extremist ideologies, and their close connections with Zahran.

14 January—Reportedly, Sadiq and Shahid were properly identified as suspects in the Mawanella incident, and their connection with Zahran was presented at the NSC meeting. However, once again, it seemed that no swift action was taken to dismantle the IS network, nor were there said to have been specialist resources diverted to arrest the perpetrators.

16 January—Following their investigations, law enforcement officers reportedly discovered land at Wanathawilluwa in the Puttalam district where large amounts of weapons and explosives were stored. After the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) received information that Sadiq and Shahid were in Puttalam, it was said that those who managed the facility were questioned. After this, it was revealed that Zahran and his followers allegedly conducted training sessions there. Officers attached to the SIS, the DMI, and other intelligence services visited the site.

22–25 January—Jamaat-e-Islami Central Committee member Rasheed Mohamed Ibrahim, the father of Sadiq and Shahid, was reportedly arrested and produced in court on 25 January. He was said to be an ideologue of the IS and served as an instructor during Zahran’s training camps. A search of his home led to the discovery of over 390 CDs, an air rifle, documents, and a recording studio, which was used to produce propaganda videos.

23 January—Zahran’s name was revealed in connection with the discovery of the explosives and weapons in Wanathawilluwa. To avoid the risk of capture or kill, Zahran expedited his plans for mounting a suicide attack.

29 January—It was said that the CID Director SPP Shani Abeysekara turned down ASP Kamal Perera’s 28 December request to enlist INTERPOL assistance to investigate the international dimension of the Mawanella incident. He was said to have claimed there was no information to back such a possibility. On the other hand, the monthly threat forecast prepared by the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka recommended that the group involved in the Wanathawilluwa discovery should be investigated for international connections.

31 January–6 March—Presumably, to sustain his online propaganda campaign, Zahran continued to use his Facebook account to propagate hatred towards non-Muslims, with content demonstrating that Zahran was planning to kill and die in the name of jihad.

2 February—At the NSC meeting, the SIS director reportedly discussed the Wanathawilluwa recovery and its connection with Zahran.

8 February—The investigative plan on the Mawanella incident was said to have been sent to the CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekara. It recommended that the investigation explore the possibility of international assistance behind the group.

19 February—In the penultimate NSC meeting held before the Easter attack, accounts said that the Wanathawilluwa incident was mentioned but not discussed at length. Early to mid-March 2019—CID officers failed to arrest Army Mohideen and Rilwan despite reportedly being notified of their hiding place by the SIS operatives.

6 March—Youth in Batticaloa, Ampara, and Trincomalee were said to have been motivated by Rilwan to launch the IS style attacks in Sri Lanka.

8 March—Milhan allegedly shot Taslim, coordinating secretary to minister Kabir Hashim, in the early morning while he was at home asleep. Taslim miraculously survived the attack but would remain bedridden and partially paralysed. Taslim was the interpreter attached to the CID team that raided the IS’ Wanathawilluwa facility.

15 March—Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian and far-right terrorist, killed fifty-one and injured forty Muslim worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. This attack, along with the losses in Baghouz and the continued government hunt for Zahran, was believed to have prompted the IS Sri Lanka branch to accelerate their attack plans, with Zahran deciding to strike on Easter Sunday.

18 March—With the discord between Zahran and his deputy leader Naufer growing, the IS Sri Lanka branch split, which disrupted their plans.

19 March—In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, and after six months of silence, the IS spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Muhajir released an audio recording calling for retaliatory attacks.

23 March—IS lost its base in the eastern village of Baghouz in Syria, which was considered the IS’ final stronghold.

24 March—Zahran’s brother Zaini did not respond to his summons at the CID headquarters in Colombo.

25 March—Following the split in the IS Sri Lanka branch, the rivalry between Naufer and Zahran reportedly prompted the factions to co-opt followers of the NTJ, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the JMI.

26 March—The deputy director of the SIS’ Q division, which overlooked Muslim extremism, reportedly sent an internal memo stating that Sadiq, Shahid, and Zahran led the Mawanella attacks. It was said that the first two had been hiding in Wanathawilluwa between late December to early January, manufacturing explosives and launching an IS-style attack in Sri Lanka. The SIS reportedly determined it imperative to arrest them.

27 March—It was said that, during a meeting with his group, Zahran announced he would participate in the attack plans as a suicide bomber. According to accounts, Zahran, Hashtoon, Jameel, and Muaath also invited Sameer to join them.

31 March—At the NSC, the SIS director reportedly shared information on the Christchurch incident in New Zealand.

April 2019—Riyas Abu Bakr and Abu Dujana were arrested during a raid conducted by the NIA in multiple districts within Kerala state and were alleged of maintaining links with Zahran. Abu Bakr reportedly travelled to Afghanistan in 2016 to meet the IS militants and had planned an attack in India. A strong network between Indians from south Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and Islamic extremists in Sri Lanka was also identified.

1 April—Presumably in preparation for their suicide attack, Ilham and Inshaf transferred their shares in Ishan Spice Company to their younger brother, Mohamed Ibrahim Ismail Ahamed, through a deed of gift. The would-be suicide bombers were also said to have approached their wives to convince them to commit suicide (along with their children). While Ilham reportedly managed to convince his wife, Inshaf failed to do so.

4 April—SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardena was said to have been informed by an Indian intelligence officer about an impending attack by Zahran and his group. This included information on targets, methods of attack, and group members. The message was reportedly forwarded to pertinent officers in the Q division; then, the SIS director sent a team to the eastern province to investigate the matter.

5 April—According to accounts, India’s Research and Analysis Wing representative confirmed the information received by the SIS director from the Indian Intelligence Bureau on 4 April. It was said that the Q division’s deputy director sent a report to the SIS director that Zahran, Rilwan, and Shahid had been identified to be hiding in Oluvil, Akkaraipattu. Rilwan was said to have continued visiting his family in Arayampathy while in hiding.

7 April—A letter was reportedly sent by the SIS director to the CNI, which included a copy of the intelligence received by the Indian Intelligence Bureau representative. The subject of the letter was said to have been ‘information of an alleged plan of attack’. Meanwhile, an Indian delegation led by the then Indian Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra visited Sri Lanka to attend the Indo-Sri Lanka defence dialogue. He stayed at Taj Samudra, a five-star hotel that had been selected for attack by the IS Sri Lanka branch.

8 April—Then CNI Director Sisira Mendis reportedly discussed the contents of the SIS’ letter with then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando before moving to discuss the matter at the intelligence coordinating meeting scheduled on 9 April. According to accounts, during this time, the investigation team returned from the eastern province and reported to the SIS director.

9 April—Two out of the four suspects found in Wanathawilluwa in January were reportedly released by order of President Sirisena in his capacity as Defence Minister. When questioned during the investigations after the Easter attack, accounts said that President Sirisena maintained that the officers who submitted the document for his signature must take responsibility for it.

9–10 April—Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardena, and CNI Director Sisira Mendis reportedly agreed that the Indian intelligence received was not discussed in the intelligence coordinating meeting. The report by the investigation team identified several IS members and the planned suicide terrorist attack in Sri Lanka targeting important churches. This information was said to have been shared by the SIS director with IGP and other pertinent officials and was noted by the CTID director for action. However, it was said that this was not forwarded to the Presidential Security Division (PSD).

10 April—The threat assessment report sent to the DIG by the SIS director was said to have mentioned there were no threats—in the form of terrorists, extremists, or other groups—to President Sirisena’s Batticaloa tour on 12 April. Although he reportedly failed to mention the information from the Indian Intelligence Bureau received on 4 April, the SIS director did refer to Zahran’s Facebook uploads, which talked about the destruction of non-Islamic followers or kafirs for the protection of Islam.

During this time, Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) M.R. Latheef, commandant of the Special Task Force (STF), reportedly spoke over the phone with two officials of the Indian High Commission. These were said to have been Intelligence Bureau DIG Santhosh Varma and Security OIC Col Ravindran. According to accounts, they discussed security arrangements for the Indian High Commission and India House in response to the 9 April letter by Indian authorities warning of an attack.

12–16 April—President Sirisena toured Batticaloa before proceeding to India, and thereafter to Singapore with the intention of returning to Sri Lanka on 21 April.

16 April—In preparation for the Easter Sunday attack, the IS Sri Lanka branch conducted a dry run where master bomb maker, Hashtoon, was said to have tested an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on a scooter in Kattankudy.

17 April—The SIS director was reportedly notified of the 16 April motorcycle blast. Meanwhile, Inshaf, who was assigned to strike Cinnamon Grand, booked rooms at the Kingsbury and Shangri-La hotels in Colombo for the bombers to stay the night before the attack. According to accounts, he also obtained Rs. 34 million from his company, Colossus (Pvt.) Ltd, through his firm’s accountant, to pay their families. All assigned bombers were said to have cased their targeted hotels too.

18 April—The PSD DIG reportedly discussed security matters related to President Sirisena with the SIS. It was said that no mention was made of the 4 April threat information, but the delegation was informed of the NTJ’s recent extremist statements and murderous intent. Meanwhile, the SIS director was said to have informed pertinent officials and government agencies about the progress of investigations on the 16 April motorcycle blast. This included the involvement of Zahran and his associates as well as the danger posed by the NTJ and its members. However, according to accounts, local police at the location where the blast occurred were unaware of the intelligence report’s content, which noted that the IS was preparing to mount an attack.

19 April—Zahran and his chief financier Ilham visited and mounted surveillance on the Shangri-La Hotel.

20 April—While the IS Sri Lanka branch was preparing its attack, both Indian and Sri Lankan security and intelligence services reportedly tried to get law enforcement authorities to pre-empt the attack or neutralize the threat. However, it was said that neither the military nor the STF was deployed. Instructions to strengthen the security around churches, increase road barriers, conduct raids, and alert necessary teams were believed to have neither been executed nor followed up on too.

According to accounts, all suicide bombers—except for the sole female, Fathima Jiffry—gathered at Span Tower in Mount Lavinia, which the IS operator Reporter Niyaz rented. While Zahran delivered the farewell pledge, the bombers renewed their pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Hashtoon recorded the proceedings.

After this, these suicide bombers began checking into the hotels: Mohamed Assam Mohamed Mubarak alias Mubarak at Kingsbury Hotel, Zahran and Ilham at Shangri-La Hotel, Inshaf, under the name Mohamed Assam Mohamed Mubarak, at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, and Jameel at the Taj Samudra Hotel. It was said that Hashtoon travelled to Negombo and occupied the IS safehouse at Katuwapitiya while Azath travelled to Batticaloa through the night.

21 April—The SIS director reportedly received information from the Indian Intelligence Bureau representative that attacks would be carried out between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. that day. A Methodist Church in Colombo was mentioned as a target of the operation. It was said that these details were passed on to the western province’s SDIG, the Defence Secretary, and the IGP.

Mubarak detonated his bomb at the Kingsbury Hotel’s Harbor Court restaurant at 8.47 a.m. where reportedly nine died (including eight foreigners) and twenty-three were maimed and injured (including seven foreigners).

Zahran detonated his bomb at the Shangri-La Hotel’s Table One restaurant on the third floor at 8.54 a.m. Ilham detonated his bomb by the lift lobby of the third floor—killing, maiming, and injuring those fleeing the restaurant. According to accounts, the blast resulted in the death of thirty-three persons (including twenty-two foreigners) and injured thirty-four persons (including twelve foreigners).

Inshaf detonated his bomb at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel’s Taprobane restaurant at 8.50 a.m. Twenty-one died (including twelve foreigners) and twenty were maimed and injured (including nine foreigners).

Hashtoon detonated his bomb at St Sebastian’s Church at 8.47 a.m., resulting in 115 deaths and 302 casualties.

Alawdeen Ahamed Muaath detonated his bomb at St Anthony’s Church at 8.45 a.m. where fifty-seven died and 145 were maimed and injured.

Mohamed Nazar Mohamed Azath detonated the bomb at Zion Church at 9.02 a.m. This resulted in thirty-one deaths (the majority being children) and sixty-seven casualties.

Jameel attempted to set off a bomb at Taj Samudra Hotel at 8.51 a.m. but failed and checked into the New Tropical Inn, where the blast occurred at 1.20 p.m., resulting in two deaths and one injured. He left the hotel when he was not successful.

Multiple explosions occurred at Mahawila Gardens, which was Inshf and Ilham’s parental residence. Two explosions occurred at 2.25 p.m. and 2.27 p.m. in Ilham’s bedroom, resulting in one injury and the deaths of three officers, Ilham’s wife Fathima Jiffry, who was pregnant, and their children.

22 April—Then President Sirisena appointed a Presidential Committee, which was reportedly headed by Justice Vijith Malalgoda, to investigate the bombings. At the same time, the booby-trapped van at St Anthony’s Church, which Muaath had arrived in, was said to have been brought to SDIG Latheef’s attention. After evacuating the surrounding areas, the STF conducted a controlled detonation.

23 April—IS claimed responsibility for the attacks through three written statements and a fifty-nine-second video.

24 April—While investigations on the bombings were underway, police reportedly discovered a paint-firm-turned-safehouse in the Panadura suburb south of Colombo, where 240 empty packets of quarter-inch steel balls, mobile phones, and different vehicle license plates were recovered. It was said that Riyaz Mohammad, distribution manager at the paint firm, confirmed that Hashtoon stayed at the safehouse and regularly drove the rest of the group around.

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Rohan Gunaratna

Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore. He was founder of Singapore’s International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. The author of 20 books including Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (University of Columbia Press), Gunaratna edited the Insurgency and Terrorism Series of the Imperial College Press, London.

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