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Sri Lanka Attacks May Have Been In Retaliation For New Zealand Massacre


Sri Lankan officials may have discovered a motive for the Easter Sunday bombings - retribution. The Sri Lankan state defense minister told Parliament that the bombings were carried out in retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. He says that two domestic Islamist groups are believed to be responsible. The bombings targeted several hotels and churches. More than 300 people have now died, and the country is currently in a state of emergency.

The Islamic State has claimed credit for the attacks, though they've done the same for attacks around the world with little proof. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan prime minister says his government is monitoring its citizens who may have connections to the Islamic State. The New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman has been reporting on this and is on the line with us from Colombo.

Jeffrey, thanks for being here. What more can you tell us about this revelation that the Easter bombings were in retaliation for the attacks in Christchurch?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, everybody here is struggling to figure out how this happened because the small, home-grown Islamist group that has been held responsible has never done anything on this scale. And there's a real mystery of how they've had the capacity to pull off six extremely large and devastating simultaneous suicide attacks across this island. And the government's foreign intelligence agencies, people who study Islamic movements around the world, just are shrugging their shoulders because this came totally out of the blue. And the country remains deep in shock about what happened on Sunday.

MARTIN: I mean, the main group, the first group, that they held accountable was this Islamist militant group - little-known group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath. They have since not named but said that there was a second group involved. Can you just talk about the public perception of this particular group? I mean, I say it's little-known. But was it on the radar of government officials?

GETTLEMAN: Not really. Indian intelligence agents had been following a couple of these groups but just in the last month or so. And they've sent a very alarming and detailed memo that explained to the Sri Lankans that there was a possibility of massive suicide attacks at churches. Nothing was done about that. And people are very frustrated and furious that the government got this detailed intelligence information and didn't act on it. And it included names, addresses, phone numbers, lots of information about the people who supposedly did these attacks.

MARTIN: The death toll in these attacks is enormous. As we said, at least 320 people killed. I imagine you've talked with the families of those victims. Are the memorial services taking place yet?

GETTLEMAN: Yeah, it was really sad today because this one neighborhood outside of Colombo is like a giant mourning ground. There are dozens of houses, one after the other, with these white flags fluttering out front. And there's posters of people who were killed from old man to couples who died together to little children. And all throughout the day, there's been these processions to the graveyard, one after another, of people crying after these coffins. And there's holes being dug in the ground. And there's so many that bulldozers are moving back and forth, clearing more space. And it's just this sense of shock and confusion and grief that something like this could happen.

MARTIN: Right.

GETTLEMAN: And it's striking people who were celebrating the holiday when this was the last thing on their mind. It's been very haunting for anybody connected to it.

MARTIN: Right. Jeffrey Gettleman with The New York Times in Colombo, reporting; thank you so much.


MARTIN: We turn now to Alaina Teplitz. She's U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives. She joins us from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo.

Ambassador, thank you so much for being with us.

ALAINA TEPLITZ: Yeah. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: We just heard from Jeffrey Gettleman that two Islamist groups have now been identified as being responsible for these attacks. What more can you tell us about the revelations by the Sri Lankan government?

TEPLITZ: Yeah. I can't speculate on who was really responsible for the attacks. I think we can just look at how devastating they were and the need to focus on the investigation, making sure that we positively identify the perpetrators if possible, bring collaborators and others to justice and look at the healing that this nation and many others are going to need to undertake in the wake of these tragic events.

MARTIN: Have you seen or been shown any evidence that would suggest that these attacks were retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand?

TEPLITZ: We're looking, you know, at all sorts of information. And the investigation is really ongoing. I don't want to speculate where that's going to lead us. And I think, you know, we're in early days now. There's a lot of information coming at everybody from all sides.

MARTIN: I understand it is early days. But there are reports the FBI is now assisting with the investigation in Sri Lanka. Can you confirm that?

TEPLITZ: That's right. We're working to support the government of Sri Lanka's investigation. We've brought all the resources we can to bear on it, including the FBI.

MARTIN: And that's because Americans were killed in these attacks. I understand you visited a hospital and talked with victims and their families. What can you tell us about those conversations?

TEPLITZ: Yes. We have talked with some of the victims, some of the family members. And, of course, it's just heartbreaking that people were worshipping peacefully at Sunday services, that they were having an early Sunday morning breakfast. And this is the fate that befell them. These people are innocent. And I think, at this point, the government of Sri Lanka has declared a national day of mourning. And that's part of what we do need to focus on at this point - is making sure that we recognize the victims and support those who were injured, support the families that survived.

MARTIN: This comes after a decade of peace in Sri Lanka after a long and violent civil war. What do these attacks portend for the country, do you think?

TEPLITZ: That's right. This is a country that's engaged in reconciliation. I hope, as a result of everybody's efforts, that people can be resilient and look at the fact that these acts were not the acts of a whole community but of certain individuals. And we're certainly encouraging the government's efforts to pursue and continue to pursue reconciliation.

MARTIN: U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz, thank you so much for your time.

TEPLITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 22, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous Web introduction to this story, Alaina Teplitz's first name was misspelled as Aliana.