COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - The forces of the Islamic State may no longer control a swath of territory across Iraq and Syria, but the coordinated attacks in Sri Lanka demonstrated that the resilient group can still sow carnage beyond the borders of its former caliphate.
Even a landless Islamic State is influential, as a facilitator of attacks and an inspiration for its followers, including the ones who blew themselves up in churches and hotels Easter morning, killing at least 359 people, terrorism experts said.
On Tuesday, video emerged of the suspected ringleader of the attacks and seven followers, their faces obscured by scarves, swearing allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Islamic State also issued a formal communique claiming responsibility for the attacks, which it said targeted Christians and "coalition countries."
The statement embraced the suicide bombers as "brothers," identifying them by their presumed aliases and naming the churches and hotels each of them struck.
Sri Lankan officials are attributing the attacks to National Thowheed Jamaath, a local Islamist organization, but the group has no history of significant terrorist attacks and was effectively unknown to U.S. intelligence agencies, current and former U.S. officials said.
Its most notable activity before Sunday was vandalizing Buddhist temples, said Rita Katz, co-founder of SITE, a terrorism analysis organization.
"However, ISIS generally has built its global network by recruiting from existing extremist groups around the world," she said.
President Donald Trump has, on different occasions, declared the caliphate defeated and destroyed. U.S.-backed forces took the last territory controlled by the Islamic State - the Syrian village of Baghouz - in March. But even as the militants eyed the impending doom of the caliphate, they regrouped in the form of an insurgency and have maintained an active presence on social media, which has long been the Islamic State's most productive recruitment ground.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been tracking its recruitment efforts and how they might encompass Sri Lanka, current and former officials said. Of particular concern are the Sri Lankan men, about 40, who left their country to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where they may have been exposed to the group's methods for bombmaking and coordinating attacks.
A Sri Lankan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said that as early as 2017, the United States had warned Sri Lankan officials that the Islamic State was recruiting across Southeast Asia and that Sri Lanka could become a "hub" for the group's activities.
There was no indication that the United States had advance warning about the Easter attacks, U.S. officials said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. Had the United States obtained information about an imminent strike, it would have been immediately shared with the Sri Lankans, current and former officials said.
Speaking to CNN, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Alaina Teplitz, confirmed that the United States "had no prior knowledge of these attacks."
The ambassador noted that "the Sri Lankan government has admitted lapses in their intelligence gathering and information sharing."
Investigators are still trying to determine how the Sri Lankan attackers may have connected with the Islamic State and what role the group could have played.
When local groups pledge fealty to the Islamic State, it usually opens the door to an array of new resources and capabilities, Katz said. This would explain how individuals from a relatively amateur group like Thowheed Jamaath could contribute to an attack as devastating as that in Sri Lanka, she said.
Katz said she believes the Islamic State was involved in planning the attack, but that its exact role is unclear.
"The Sri Lanka blasts were both sophisticated and well-coordinated, making it very likely that the attackers received some sort of training and assistance from ISIS - possibly from one of the group's bases in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region," she said.
"It is too early to tell the degree of involvement from ISIS - beyond inspiration and even embedding the jihadi DNA in local extremist groups," said Juan Zarate, the chairman of Financial Integrity Network, a consulting firm, and a former deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in the George W. Bush administration.
"That said, we should not be too dismissive of ISIS claims or capabilities," he added. "I do think it is possible that ISIS has communicated directly or embedded with these local groups and found a way of helping plot, amplify and supercharge their capabilities and operational effectiveness on the ground. The ISIS diaspora and expertise is real, and ISIS has global designs - in South Asia and elsewhere."
What the Islamic State lost in territory it did not lose in ideological influence. "I don't think it's too soon to say that defeat of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria was never going to be the end of the ISIS challenge," said Nicholas Rasmussen, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council who also ran the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama and Trump administrations. "That is why many terrorism experts urged care and restraint on the administration in making claims about defeat of ISIS. The ideology underpinning the caliphate has reach far beyond Iraq and Syria."
Javed Ali, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, noted the absence of the word "caliphate" from the Islamic State's claim of responsibility in the Sri Lankan attacks. That suggests that "even they will accede to the notion that the physical caliphate, at least in Iraq and Syria, is gone," said Ali, now a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. "But the notion of the Islamic State still exists. You don't need a physical caliphate to be beholden to the group."
Its influence has also spread to places where it hasn't traditionally held sway. Last week, through its Amaq News Agency, the group asserted responsibility for an attack in Congo for the first time.
For decades, parts of eastern Congo have been submerged in conflict, and a number of armed groups seeking to undermine the government have taken advantage of the chaos, launching attacks on civilian and military targets.
In a statement, John Manley, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, said it now considers one of those groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), to have "meaningful ties to the Islamic State." The group claimed allegiance to the Islamic State in 2017, Manley said.
A U.S. official who works on the region said that the ties should be taken seriously, and that relationships between senior ADF leaders and foreign extremist groups go back decades.
"Not all of the ADF can be said to be part of ISIS, or even be jihadists," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity. But "some have had contact [with foreign extremists] dating back years that included training and fighting abroad."
As Sri Lankans continued to mourn, government officials scrambled to determine how they had failed to detect cooperation between a local group, which was known to at least some Sri Lankan authorities, and outsiders.
Officials said 18 more arrests were made overnight Tuesday, taking the total to 58.
Sri Lanka's president, Maithripala Sirisena, said in a televised address that police and security forces "would be restructured within a week" and that he expected to change the heads of all the security forces. The president acknowledged that the government had information about the local group since 2017 but said there was insufficient evidence to take legal action against its members.
India provided the Sri Lankans with specific warnings about threats, even naming the group and its ringleader, in the days before the attack, Sri Lankan officials said.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, an opposition leader and Sri Lanka's former strongman president, ascribed the security failure to rivalries between the president and the prime minister.
"Don't take this as a joke," he said. "As long as the division between the president and the prime minister exists, you can't solve this problem. My security division knew about the advance notice [of the attack]; I did not."
While officials examined their own failures, some looked outside the country to help explain the bloody attacks.
State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene told Parliament that the bombings were carried out in retaliation for shootings that claimed 50 lives at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by an avowed white supremacist.
But others were skeptical of that connection.
"It is possible [that Sunday's attacks] could have been because of the Christchurch attacks," Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said at a news conference. "We cannot say yet."
"There seems to have been foreign involvement," he added. "Some may have traveled abroad and come back. . . . So far, it is only Sri Lankan citizens that have been taken in for questioning."
Plots of such complexity take many months to organize, and the Christchurch shootings occurred less than six weeks ago, Rasmussen noted. "It's also true that terrorist organizations are often opportunistic in the way that they claim justification or rationalization for their attacks, so it's possible that the minister's comments reflect something that is emerging in the investigation from talking to suspects linked to the perpetrators," he said.
The office of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released a statement Tuesday: "We understand the Sri Lankan investigation into the attack is in its early stages. New Zealand has not yet seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based."
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Slater reported from Colombo. The Washington Post's Amantha Perera, Rukshana Rizwie, Harshana Thushara Silva and Devana Senanayake, also in Colombo, and Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong, Niha Masih in New Delhi and Siobhan O'Grady in Washington contributed to this report.
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Video: Coordinated explosions targeting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed at least 311 people and injured more than 500 on April 21.(Joyce Lee,Drea Cornejo,JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - The most horrific of days in recent Sri Lankan memory began with a prayer.
It was Easter morning, and St. Anthony's Shrine - the largest Catholic congregation in a city where Christianity is a small but vibrant minority faith - was bursting with congregants, nearly 1,000 people in all. Men crowded in the back. Women and children squeezed into the pews. Father Joy Mariyaratnam, 52, asked everyone to stand to recite the Prayer of the Faithful, an entreaty to God to care for the community gathered there, the country and larger world.
Then the clock hit 8:45.
An explosion ripped through the church.
And a newly retramautized country came into being - rattled by one of the worst terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, mournful of the deaths of 321 people and afraid of not only more possible strikes but also the potential for religious violence in a nation still haunted by a decades-long civil war and a history of suicide bombs.
In all, there would be eight blasts, stretching the width of the country, but largely executed within a short time frame, striking three luxury hotels, three churches and two other locations. Several of the attacks took place in the capital city of Colombo.
This is a glimpse into this thriving tropical city's first 72 hours after the violence, when people searched frantically for relatives, hospitals were deluged with the injured, and the grim accounting of the dead climbed ever higher.
"How could such a thing happen in a place of worship?" asked Mariyaratnam. "You're just standing there, that's all, totally broken."
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Delicia Fernando had a pretty good idea of how Sunday would go. The 52-year-old mother of three would attend Easter service at St. Anthony's Shrine, one of the nation's best-known churches and the spiritual center of the neighborhood. Then would come a small gathering at her parents' house for lunch and visiting.
Fernando's family arrived at the church for the 8 a.m. service, going through the arched entrances of the stately building, which has a history that traces to the 18th century and a large clock embedded in its whitewashed facade. She and her three children - two 20-something daughters and an 18-year-old son - found seats in the pews toward the front. Her husband, Ravi, a baker of 61 years who was always willing to help anyone in need, stood in the back of the sanctuary with the men who'd given up seats to women and children.
The mass was well underway when everyone stood to pray.
An explosion - described by witnesses as a fireball - then ripped offmuch of the roof, and all around on the ground were debris, people screaming in pain or shock, and the dead.
"God, please save us," was the first thing Fernando thought. Then she was pushing her children toward the front, telling them to run, go now.
Her son turned to her: "Where is my dad?"
They headed into the chaos of the sanctuary. That's where Fernando's son found her husband. He was buried under wooden beams, his body pierced with shrapnel. The family cleared off the debris, picked him up and carried him out to the ambulances that were already outside. But it was already too late. His body had gone cold.
Fernando returned to her parents' house, where the family wasn't sharing a meal like she'd once expected - but instead expressing grief with a line of mourners. Throughout the narrow, brightly colored lanes behind St. Anthony's, similar scenes were playing out.
Inside the Fernando home, the husband's younger sister, Jeyarani Fernando, 55, tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. "I don't know why God has taken him."
Nearby, Fernando sat in a plastic chair. Her eyes were filling with tears. She didn't know what to do.
"My husband is gone," she said. "Now there is no one to help me and the children."
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Nearly three miles away, toward the heart of the city, a nurse named Mangala Gunesekara was working the morning shift when she recognized something dreadful had happened. In Colombo, victims were pouring into the emergency room of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in all states of physical and psychological trauma. Fractured limbs. Penetrating wounds. Extensive burns. Faraway stares.
Gunesekara, 29, had only been a nurse for two years and had never seen anything like this. But she immediately got to work, trying to stop the bleeding and rushing people into surgery. Sometimes the doctors were successful. Other times, they weren't.
Two days later, Gunesekara was shaking her head. She couldn't stop thinking about what she'd seen. She recalled the two pregnant women who'd arrived from St. Anthony's church, unharmed but emotionally shattered. What will become of them? "We push on," she said. "But our heads are in a different place. I keep returning to those scenes."
One of her patients was a 39-year-old woman, named Dananjali Weerasekera, lying on a narrow wrought-iron bed with a piece of shrapnel still lodged in her chest. The music of the ward was the whir of electric fans, medical monitors beeping and striped curtains opening and closing.
She'd worked most of her adult life at the Cinnamon Grand hotel, one of the three luxury hotels bombed on Sunday. She started out small 18 years ago but had since risen to become a supervisor of the posh Taprobane restaurant, which served a sweeping breakfast spread every morning.
The morning of the attacks - a comparatively quiet one, with only about 20 diners - it had been her job to make sure that everything in the buffet was well-stocked and make guests feel welcome. Some had requested coconut water with their breakfast, so Weerasekera was walking to grab a few straws when she heard the blast and was knocked to the ground. The restaurant that she'd worked years to supervise was now a "total disaster."
Rising from the floor, she soon realized she couldn't breathe. Pressure was rising in her chest. Colleagues asked her if she was OK. Then she was in a taxi heading to the hospital, where doctors discovered a small, jagged shrapnel wound above her left breast, and where she still was still being treated Tuesday.
Her boss had only been a few yards from her - "very close," she recalled - but he had died, while she had not. Three other staff members, too, had died, but not her.
She leaned back in her bed while the nurses worked and the electric fans hummed.
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As the bodies continued to stream into Colombo's central morgue, Ajith Tennakoon faced a difficult decision: Where to put them all? As the city's chief judicial medical officer, Tennakoon was the one who identified the bodies of those killed by the blasts, determined their cause of death, and released the victims to their families for burial.
The bodies believed to be foreigners he put in the coldest part of the morgue - the deep freezer - because it could take longer for families to arrive. He arranged for a large refrigerated container to be delivered to the internal driveway of the mortuary for extra storage.
But for other bodies, he had no choice. He had to store them outside, in the scorching Colombo heat.
Some remains were even tougher to handle because they were no longer bodies at all, but fragments in bags awaiting DNA testing.
Even for Tennakoon - a 30-year veteran of the profession, who worked the mortuary as terrorist attacks during the civil war devastated the country - the last days have been a shock. One couple came to Sri Lanka for their honeymoon, where the wife was killed in the bombing, he said. In another family, the husband survived the blasts but had lost his wife and two children.
"When you hear those stories, you will cry," said Tennakoon, a lanky forensic pathologist whose words spill out in a rush. "I am also shocked to see these things."
On Tuesday, the corridors of Colombo's central morgue were hushed but crowded, a miasma lingering in the air. Police officers wearing face masks lined the hallways. The forensic pathologists were recognizable in their rubber boots, hairnets and disposable white jumpsuits. Family members of the victims from India, Sri Lanka and the Middle East sat silently in plastic chairs lining a hallway, awkwardly holding the water bottles they had been offered.
Tennakoon's team had an established procedure: First, family members identify a photo, which is linked to a tag. The staff cleans the victim's face, hoping to save families from seeing the worst of what the explosions had wrought. Then, family members are taken to identify the body.
One family member was Thiruchelvam, 44, who goes by one name. He came Tuesday to collect the death certificate for his wife's brother. The funeral had taken place a day earlier, but there was still paperwork to complete. His wife's brother, Dayanandan Sivagnanan, had been a photographer with two children, ages 3 and 5. He attended mass every Tuesday at St. Anthony's.
It was Thiruchelvam's first time at the morgue. He stood anxiously to one side.
Behind him was a Buddhist shrine, a spot for contemplation and prayer. Several words were painted in Latin above a nearby doorway:
Mortui Vivos Docent. The dead teach the living.
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McCoy reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Devana Senanayake in Colombo contributed to this report.