Sri Lankan authorities Monday blamed a little-known Islamist group called National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) for a series of coordinated attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels across the country that killed 290 and injured about 500 others.
NTJ has not claimed responsibility for the eight bombings, but Sri Lankan officials say the main blasts Sunday were carried out by seven suicide bombers of the group, with possible outside help of which authorities have not released details pending an ongoing investigation.
Who is NTJ?
NTJ is believed to have started at least three years ago in eastern Sri Lanka as an offshoot of Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ), another Islamist group known for its extremist ideology and the indoctrination of children.
SLTJ has attempted to attract conservative Muslims in Sri Lanka for years by speaking out about Buddhist hard-liners and opposing the country’s reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act.
SLTJ’s leader, Abdul Razik, was arrested in November 2016 on charges of inciting religious extremism and hate speech during a protest in the majority-Muslim suburb of Maligawatte.
Very little is known about NTJ’s membership, but its size is likely modest compared to SLTJ, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.
Kugelman said the group’s main activities in the past months have consisted of targeting Buddhist statues as the country’s Buddhists feuded with Muslims. If NTJ was behind Sunday's attacks on Christians and foreigners, it would seem to indicate the group wants to expand further, experts say.
"A broader goal of this shadowy group may be to instill terror — just like al-Qaida and ISIS — the groups that NJT appears to model itself on," Kugelman told VOA.
In March 2017, local media reported NTJ was involved in a clash in the predominantly Muslim Karrankudt region, which resulted in three injuries.
During anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka last year, the NTJ used social media to highlight discrimination against Muslims in the country, such as setting up Buddhist symbols in the northeast where no Buddhists lived.
Kugelman said the coordinated attacks Sunday, with their success in inflicting heavy casualties, show likely connections to a larger terrorist organization.
"These connections are likely international, not domestic. I don’t know of any internal group in Sri Lanka that would have the capacity to pull off an attack like the one we saw on Sunday. So, there must have been help from elsewhere in South Asia or beyond," he said.
Seven suicide attacks
Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at a press conference Monday that all seven bombers wore explosive suicide vests. He said they were Sri Lankan citizens with memberships in NTJ, and likely received outside support.
"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," Senaratne told reporters. "There must be a wider international network behind it."
Experts say NTJ was likely inspired by Islamic State, which has unleashed deadly attacks in the past against churches and popular tourist destinations in different countries.
Experts warn that many Sri Lankans who left to fight in Syria will likely return home and join groups like NTJ.
It is unclear how many Sri Lankans have joined the Syrian war over the years, but officials in 2016 said at least 32 citizens were known to have joined IS.
In 2015, IS news agency Amaq released a video — confirmed by Sri Lankan local news — that claimed a Sri Lankan NTJ member called Abu Shuraih Sailani was killed during an airstrike in Syria.
Al-Qaida or Islamic State?
Bruce Hoffman, senior counterterrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA the Easter attacks resemble IS actions more than attacks conducted by al-Qaida.
"I think there is less reason to say that it's al-Qaida than ISIS," Hoffman said, using an acronym for the militant group. "Al-Qaida, to my knowledge, has not attacked churches — at least not recently — whereas ISIS has engaged in attacks against Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and many other places."
Hoffman said NTJ and other Islamists are likely able to recruit members by exploiting the anger of the Muslim minority, which has found itself isolated by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
"They have generally been the subject of complete exclusion, and their grievances have never really been addressed for at least two decades," Hoffman said. "The seeds of discontent, disenfranchisement and alienation run very deep, and may have made certain extremist members of the Muslim community suitable to malign outside influences."
Sri Lanka has a population of about 21 million, with Tamil-speaking Muslims making up about 9.7%. From 1983 to 2009, the country's Tamil and Sinhalese communities were engaged in civil war.