What We Know About the Easter Terrorist Attacks in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan soldiers standing inside St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

At least 290 people have been killed and around 500 injured in Sri Lanka after suicide bombers from a religious extremist group struck churches and hotels in multiple cities on Sunday morning. Three Catholic churches were targeted while their Easter services were under way, and three five-star hotels were attacked in and around the country’s capital, Colombo. It is the worst violence the country since the end of a brutal 26-year civil war a decade ago, and the largest targeted attack on Christians in South Asia in memory — let alone on the faith’s holiest day. Below is a running account of what we know so far.

Sri Lankan security personnel walk past dead bodies covered with blankets amid blast debris at St. Anthony’s Shrine, following an explosion in the church, in Kochchikade in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

What Happened, Where

Suicide bombers struck three Roman Catholic churches in three separate cities and three five-star hotels in and around the capital city of Colombo. The attacks started just before 9 A.M. local time when Easter Sunday services were underway at the churches: St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the capital’s largest Catholic congregation, as well as one of the country’s oldest and best-known Christian houses of worship; St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo; and Zion Church in Batticaloa on the country’s East Coast. The hotels targeted in the attacks were the Shangri-La Hotel, Cinnamon Grand Colombo, and Kingsbury Colombo Hotel.

It’s not yet clear precisely how the attacks were carried out, but images from inside the bombed churches — which show smashed pews and scarred walls and ceilings — seem to indicate that the bombers were able to enter the cathedrals before detonating. A man who arrived at St. Anthony’s Shrine immediately after the attack told the New York Times that he saw “a river of blood” inside the church, and that “Ash was falling like snow.”

Restaurants appear to have been the targets in at least two of the hotels. At the Shangri-La Hotel, the bomber reportedly targeted a third-floor restaurant where brunch was underway, according to a witness. Two blasts were heard there. A ground-floor restaurant was attacked at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

Sri Lankan police stand at the site of an explosion in a restaurant area of the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

There were six explosions in the initial attacks, followed by another two afterward, amid law enforcement authorities’ search for suspects. One of those explosions was at a housing complex in the Dematagoda suburb of Colombo, where police engaged in a firefight with suspected terrorists and found explosives in at least one apartment, which may have been where the attacks were planned. Three police officers were reportedly killed in that blast, which was apparently detonated by a suspect while he was being questioned. Another explosion happened at a guest house near the Dehiwala zoo.

St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. Photo: Stringer/Getty Images

The Attackers

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but 13 people have been arrested, according to Sri Lankan authorities, and the government says it has identified the attackers — who are being described as religious extremists. The country’s defense minister has said that they “believe these were coordinated attacks, and one group was behind them.”

“So far the names that have come up are local,” Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced at a press conference, adding that they are looking to see if any foreign elements were involved.

Sri Lankan authorities have asked media organizations to not publish the names of the attackers or give extremists “a voice” — noting that groups may seek to inflame tensions and spark violence in the aftermath of the attack.

The Apparently Missed Warning

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also said that there had been advance warning of a possible attack, but that it was not acted upon, and it’s not yet clear why. The New York Times reports that:

A top police official alerted security officials in an advisory 10 days ago about a threat to prominent churches from a radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath. But it was unclear what safeguards, if any, were taken, or if in the end the group played any role in Sunday’s violence. And on Sunday, reflecting frictions within the government, the prime minister pointedly said he had not been informed.

Sri Lankan security personnel and police investigators look through debris outside Zion Church following an explosion in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

The Dead and Injured

So far, authorities have confirmed that at least 207 people have been killed in the attacks, and another 450 injured. Almost all of the victims were Sri Lankans, but dozens of foreigners, including several U.S. citizens — according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were among the dead as well.

Sri Lankan security personnel keep watch outside St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The Response and Social Media Blackout

Sri Lankan authorities set a nationwide curfew following the attack, and blocked access to social media and messaging sites in order to prevent the spread of viral misinformation — and the ethnic violence it is now well known to cause in Sri Lanka and other countries. Facebook, Instagram, Viber, and WhatsApp were all reportedly blocked after the attacks. Though there is no known social media component to Sunday’s terrorism as of yet, there have been multiple reports of misinformation being shared about the identities of the attackers in what may be attempts to sow additional strife.

As the Guardian points out, the practice of blocking social media sites following these types of events is becoming more and more normal:

The social media blackout is becoming a common occurrence in the region in the aftermath of violence. In March last year, the Sri Lankan government banned Facebook and other social media sites after reports of an attack on a Buddhist temple in Abathanna triggered deadly anti-Muslim riots across Kandy, in which hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed by hardline Buddhist groups. In neighbouring India, WhatsApp has been blamed for fuelling a spate of murders and violence linked to rumours spread on the messaging app relating to alleged child kidnappers.

Facebook has released a statement insisting it is doing everything it can to assist authorities.

Schools and universities in the country were also closed until further notice.

Sri Lanka’s History

Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year civil war, fought between the government and the Tamil Tigers — a violent separatist group comprised of members of the country’s Tamil ethnic minority — ended a decade ago. It was a bloody period for the country in which as many as 80,000 people were killed. Bombings were a regular feature of the war, though nothing near Sunday’s scale.

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist nation, but large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Christians live in the country as well, and in relative harmony. Most of the country’s 1.5 million Christians are Roman Catholic. Speaking with the Washington Post, Amnesty International’s Biraj Patnaik explained that there has been an increase in hostility between religious groups in the country — mostly directed at Christians and Muslims — but Sunday’s violence was “unprecedented.”

Hundreds of people of all faiths reportedly rushed to donate blood following news of the attacks.

This post has been updated throughout to reflect new details in a developing news story.

What We Know About the Easter Terrorist Attacks in Sri Lanka