COLOMBO — Eight of the nine Islamic suicide bombers responsible for the deadly blasts that killed more than 300 people in Sri Lanki on Sunday, including at two Roman Catholic assemblies and an evangelical charismatic church, have now been identified by officials.
According to reports, most were middle to upper class citizens, with some holding degrees from foreign universities.
“They’re quite well-educated people,” Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said during a press conference on Wednesday, according to ABC News. “We believe one of the suicide bombers studied in the U.K. and then later on did his postgraduate in Australia before coming back to settle in Sri Lanka.”
Names of the bombers include Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed and brothers Inshaf Ibrahim and Ilham Ibrahim.
Wijewardene outlined that the assailants were those that had affiliations with the local Muslim group National Towheed Jamaar. The philosophy of the attackers, he said, is that “Islam can be the only religion in this country.”
The barbaric Islamic group ISIS had also claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings, releasing a photograph of eight of the individuals — most of whom had their face covered — as well as a video of the men pledging allegiance to ISIS.
Sri Lanka is largely a Buddhist nation — an estimated 70 percent of residents identify as Buddhist, followed by 12 percent Hindu. Less than 10 percent identify as Catholic or evangelical, and likewise fewer than 10 percent identify as Muslim.
According to reports, the attackers at the three houses of worship targeted all Catholic facilities: St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya; St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo; and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Batticaloa.
The Daily Mirror reports that a suspicious male went to St. Mary’s Cathedral at approximately 8:30 a.m. and began to inquire about mass. However, as the service had begun early that morning, most of the attendees had left the premises.
The attacker consequently left and went down the road to Zion Church, a charismatic congregation, where he similarly began to make inquiries about the meeting.
Contrary to reports from The Times of India and other outlets, which characterized the service as a “mass” and the leaders as “father” or “priests,” Zion Church is evangelical and not Catholic. It identifies itself on social media as “A Charismatic church, situated in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. A branch church of Lighthouse Church, Kandy, Sri Lanka. A member of the Fellowship Of Free Churches of Sri Lanka.”
Ganeshamoorthy Thirukumaran, one of the pastors of the church, says that he spoke to the man and invited him inside.
“I noticed a person standing near the pastor’s office with a bag on his shoulder and clutching another bag to his chest. I asked him who he was and why he was standing there,” he recalled to the Daily Mirror. “He replied that he had just come to observe what was happening at the church and asked me details about the church.”
Thirukumaran asked another church member to tend to the inquirer, and the member became uncomfortable with the visitor’s suspicious demeanor and questions. He began to lead him off the premises. While standing just outside the building, the man detonated a bomb, killing a number of children who were playing and/or eating a snack nearby.
Caroline Mahendran, one of the Sunday School teachers at Zion Church, said that the children had just been asked during class if they were willing to die for Christ, and minutes later, a dozen of them lost their lives.
“Today was an Easter Sunday School at the church and we asked the children, ‘How many of you [are] willing to die for Christ?’ Everyone raised their hands,” Israeli reporter Hananya Naftali posted to social media in sharing Mehendran’s recollection. “Minutes later, they came down to the main service and the blast happened. Half of the children died on the spot.”
Thirukumaran’s 14-year-old son was among those who died in the blast.
Roshan Mahesan, the senior pastor of Zion Church, posted the times and locations of the funeral services to social media on Monday. He also shared a message about the terror attack on Sunday, writing in English above the video, “May the dear Lord continue to comfort us all in this difficult time.”
Messages of condolence have poured in from around the world.
“Our deepest condolences with sympathy for church members who lost their loved ones. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected,” one commenter wrote.
“Terribly sorry to hear of your tragic and violent loss. May God’s Holy Spirit comfort you all in the years ahead and grant you the grace necessary to lead in these dangerous times, in Jesus’ name,” another posted.
“We are with you pastor and congregation of Zion Church. May the Lord comfort you all and give you strength to face this pain. We uphold you in our prayers,” a third stated.
In addition to the three houses of worship, suicide bombers also targeted three luxury hotels — the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels — and an explosion additionally occurred at the mansion of attacker Ilham Ibrahim, as his pregnant wife blew herself up when police arrived on the scene, killing the officers and her three additional children.
Surveillance footage from the hotels has been located, showing men with backpacks walking the premises.
A pipe bomb was also found on a road near the Colombo airport. It was safely detonated by authorities.
359 people were killed in the various blasts at the seven locations, and an estimated 500 injured. Four Americans died in the attacks and nearly 50 Sri Lankan children.
Some residents are further upset now that it has emerged that the government reportedly had been warned about potential violence from Islamists.
“We were told that ten minutes before the blast, Indian intelligence had said that this is going to happen,” Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of Sri Lanka’s Muslim Association, told CBS News. “The churches could have been evacuated and at least the number of casualties could have been reduced.”
He noted that one of the men shown in the video released by ISIS, Moulavi Zahran Hashem, had been reported to intelligence officials three years ago.
“I don’t think they took this threat seriously enough, to put enough manpower [into it] to track him down,” Ahmed said.
The Daily Mail reports that dozens have either been arrested or questioned in the aftermath of the coordinated terror attacks.