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Five things to know a week after the Sri Lanka bombings

Blasts a wake-up call to India and China, competing for influence on the island

A woman lights a candle during a vigil to show solidarity with the victims of Sri Lanka's serial bomb blasts, inside a college in Kolkata, India on April 26.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- A week after Islamist suicide bombers attacked three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, the South Asian island nation is still struggling to deal with the aftermath.

The 20-minute series of bombings shattered a decade of peace in Sri Lanka following the end of a long war with separatist Tamil guerrillas. The Health Ministry revised the death toll from the bombings down to 253 from an earlier reported 359, but that offered little comfort to a country still in shock.

Colombo is gripped by fear after the Easter Sunday carnage on April 21, with scenes reminiscent of the nearly 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009. Armed troops are on the streets of the capital, checking vehicles for bombs. They stand guard outside hotels, government buildings, churches and mosques. Residents who lived through the earlier conflict shake their heads and ponder the country's fate.

Here are five things you need to know about the new terrorist threat to Sri Lanka.

Have all the members of the group that carried out the attacks been arrested?

Not yet. The police are on the hunt for 140 Sri Lankan Muslims connected to the extremist National Thowheeth Jama'ath, which the international terror network Islamic State claimed through its media outlet was an affiliate. On Friday night, police commandos were caught in a firefight with suspected NTJ militants in a town on Sri Lanka's eastern coast. NTJ militants exploded a bomb as the commandos raided their hideout, killing 15, including six children. That followed an earlier discovery by government troops of a cache of explosives, steel pellets, a drone and an IS uniform.

The government has deployed more than 10,000 troops in an effort to uproot NTJ's network across the country. Sources familiar with the operation say moderate Muslims are helping with the counterterrorism effort. Sri Lanka's main Islamic religious body, which represents nearly 10% of the population in this predominantly Buddhist country, is working to isolate the NTJ.

How much do we know about the attackers?

The initial picture of the eight NTJ suicide bombers is mixed. Their leader, the portly, bearded Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zaharan, came from a poor family. His father was a street vendor in Kattandkudy. Zaharan developed a reputation as a troublemaker, clashing with teachers at religious schools and with religious authorities in his youth. But he attracted a following as a skilled orator in Tamil and Arabic, first targeting Muslims in his hometown, most of whom follow a moderate form of Islam. He later embraced the ideology of IS.

At least three of the suicide bombers came from privileged backgrounds. Two were brothers who attended a respected all-boys school in Colombo and were sons of a leading Muslim spice merchant with close ties to a Muslim political leader, Rishard Bathiudeen, the commerce and industries minister. The other also hailed from a wealthy family and was schooled in the U.K. and Australia, where, family members say, he changed from an outgoing youth to a pious recluse.

As a result of the attacks, Islamic religious schools in Sri Lanka that propagate the Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies, which are blamed for promoting a form of Islam that helped spawn Islamist terror networks like IS and al-Qaida, are in the crosshairs. Leading Sri Lankan politicians are calling for new religious schools that promote Wahabi doctrines, which have mushroomed in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, to be shut or monitored.

Why target Sri Lanka?

The answer to that question remains unclear. The government and local and international terrorism experts are split. Some government officials say it was a reaction to the terrorist attack by an Australian white supremacist on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in mid-March. But a leading Sri Lankan terrorism investigator says the planning and training needed to carry out the attacks would have taken months, if not years.

Experts on IS believe that Sri Lanka became a target because the island was not on anyone's terrorist radar, and that the group was looking for a new front in its global struggle after heavy defeats in the Middle East.

The question of why Christians were targeted is also a puzzle. Relations between the Christian and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka, both of which are minority groups, had been seen as a model of peaceful coexistence. In fact, both Christians and Muslims in some parts of the island have been targeted by extremist Buddhist mobs since the war against the Tamil separatists ended. But looking abroad may help explain the NTJ plot: IS suicide bombers have frequently targeted non-Muslims elsewhere.

Why wasn't the government able to prevent the attacks, given that they had warning?

Since the carnage, public outrage has grown against Sri Lanka's deeply divided coalition government. Even after the massacre, the country's two feuding leaders, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, have been unable to put their differences aside and present a united front against terrorism. Appeals from diplomats in Colombo for the two leaders to close ranks have gone unheeded.

The political acrimony has played into the hands of NTJ, as have the security lapses by the country's intelligence apparatus and military, which are controlled by the president. Both the president and the prime minister concede the government failed to protect the churches and the hotels that were struck, despite multiple warnings from foreign intelligence that an attack was imminent. But the admission does little to change perceptions that the government "has become a national embarrassment," as one analyst put it.

What impact will the attacks have on India and China?

The attacks are a wake-up call to the two Asian powers competing for influence in a strategic stretch of the Indian Ocean. The IS links to the NTJ amount to a flag planted by the Islamic terror group on the island. It adds to emerging links between IS operatives in parts of south India, which have ties to IS outposts in Afghanistan.

IS also has a foothold farther south. The Maldives, which draw many well-heeled tourists, should give New Delhi and Beijing pause for thought. Between 250 to 450 Maldivians have reportedly left the country to join IS. That makes South Asia's smallest Muslim-majority country the largest supplier of foreign IS recruits per capita.

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