Sri Lanka suicide bombers included two sons of local spice tycoon

This image taken from closed-circuit TV on April 21, 2019, shows a suspected bomber with backpack (left, framed by door) before he enters St Sebastian's Church in Negombo.
This image taken from closed-circuit TV on April 21, 2019, shows a suspected bomber with backpack (left, framed by door) before he enters St Sebastian's Church in Negombo.PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (NYTIMES) - He built his fortune on black pepper, white pepper, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla. His family lived in a beautiful white villa and travelled in a chauffeured BMW. He was feted by Sri Lanka's former president for "outstanding service provided to the nation".

But on Wednesday (April 24), the narrative of Mr Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders, was ripped apart. Officials revealed he was in custody in connection with the devastating suicide attacks on Easter Sunday that killed more than 350 people.

An Indian official said that two of Mr Ibrahim's sons, who have been identified in Indian media reports as Inshaf and Ilham, were among the eight suicide bombers who struck at hotels and churches across the island. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, and investigators said Mr Ibrahim was being extensively interrogated.

During a raid on Sunday at his family's villa near Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, a female suspect blew herself up in front of two of her children, killing them all, along with several police officers who were closing in, investigators said. The Indian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of a major terrorism investigation, said the woman who killed herself and her children was most likely the wife of one of Mr Ibrahim's sons.

Sri Lankan officials have been reluctant to identify the suicide bombers, saying that could hamper their investigation.

But at a news conference on Wednesday, Mr Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka's state minister of defence, said most of the bombers had been well educated and had come from middle-class or upper-class families.

"Financially, they are quite independent and their families are stable financially. So that is a worrying fact," he said. "Some of them have studied in various other countries. They hold degrees, LLMs. They are quite well-educated people."

 
 
 
 

Sri Lankan investigators are being assisted by a team of United States Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who flew to Colombo amid a sense of urgency. The US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Ms Alaina Teplitz, said there were "ongoing terrorist plots" and Mr Wijewardene said "there could be still a few people out there". He urged Sri Lankans to remain vigilant.

Officials said they were trying to determine what exactly were the bombers' links to ISIS. The extremist group, also known as ISIL, released a video showing Mohammed Zaharan, who has been identified as one of the suicide bombers, leading masked, black-clad disciples as they pledged allegiance to the organisation.

Before this attack, Zaharan was a not-so-successful Islamist preacher whose own village in eastern Sri Lanka ran him out because they did not appreciate his divisive views. He spread militant Islamist ideology on YouTube and, according to Indian investigators, helped inspire at least one Indian to draw closer to ISIS.

Some Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka had been watching him closely and said he had developed a small but loyal band of followers.

As of Wednesday, ISIS had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility of the attacks, and Mr Wijewardene said investigators were eager to know if the group had provided training or financing. He said they had found no evidence to suggest that the bombers had travelled to the Middle East to fight for ISIS. Several dozen Sri Lankans recently returned home after having served the ISIS in various capacities, including as soldiers, a Western security official said.

The bombings on Sunday struck nearly simultaneously at three churches and three upscale hotels. One was so powerful that it blew off the church's roof, raining heavy clay tiles on people's heads. It has been a puzzle trying to figure out how a little-known local group could carry out one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent years.

Still in recovery from a bitter civil war that ended a decade ago, Sri Lanka remains uneasy. In the last couple of days, security near the bomb sites has tightened. Schools have been shut until next Monday, and the postal department is requiring that items sent by mail be wrapped in front of workers at post offices.

The flow of funerals continued, and many mourners on Wednesday focused their anger on the government and the security forces. In some areas, mobs of Christian men began to attack Muslims, driving hundreds from their homes.

All morning long, people gathered near one of the targeted churches, St Sebastian's in Negombo, to mourn the dead at a mass burial.

One distraught woman could not stop crying and shouting at the police. She blamed them for not having acted on intelligence warnings of the attacks.

It was the Indian intelligence services that warned Sri Lanka about the possibility of these attacks. Indian agents had interrogated a man last year who was linked to ISIS, and who said he had been inspired by Zaharan's videos on social media. That intelligence led to an investigation into Zaharan, and it was part of the basis for a detailed warning that the Indians provided to the Sri Lankan authorities about the possibility of suicide attacks on churches.

The warning was never relayed to church officials or shared broadly among Sri Lanka's security services. The country's own prime minister did not even know about it. Sri Lankan security agencies apparently took no action against members of Zaharan's group, despite specific information provided by the Indians that included names, addresses and phone numbers. Nor did they beef up security at churches. The warning of impending attack was repeated by the Indians just hours before the bombings, according to an Indian official.

During a national address on Tuesday, President Maithripala Sirisena tried to deflect criticism that he was at least partly responsible for the security failure. He acknowledged that "there was an intelligence report about the attack" but said he was "not kept informed" about it by subordinates.

On Wednesday, Mr Sirisena asked Mr Hemasiri Fernando, the permanent defence secretary, and Mr Pujith Jayasundara, the inspector general of the police, to resign, according to a senior official at the president's office. A lawmaker, Mr Wijedasa Rajapakse, called for the two security officials to be arrested and prosecuted.

Many lawmakers dismissed assertions that the president would not have known about the threat memo, saying that blame for the security lapse should go all the way to the top.

Mr Sarath Fonseka, a member of Parliament who was an army chief in the last stage of Sri Lanka's civil war, told Parliament on Wednesday that he had known about the memo, as had the national intelligence chief. He said it was "obvious that the letter would have gone to the president". Mr Sirisena, as president, also serves as minister for defence.

The authorities were saying little about their investigation into Mr Ibrahim, the wealthy spice trader, and his family. He was a celebrated figure in Colombo's business circles and politically connected.

One of Sri Lanka's political parties, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, wanted to nominate him for a seat in Parliament, though that party failed to win enough votes to get him the actual seat.

Mr Vijitha Herath, a leader within that party, said he did not know anything about Mr Ibrahim's possible role, or his sons', in the terror attacks.

"He is a multi-billionaire and a recognised businessman," Mr Herath said. "He wouldn't have known what his sons did. There are things sons do, and fathers don't know."

Others seemed eager to distance themselves from the appearance of any prior associations with Mr Ibrahim. Reached by phone, State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe, who was photographed presenting the Presidential Export Award to Ibrahim in 2016, angrily denied any knowledge and hung up.

"I don't know anything about it," he said. "We give so many awards."