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Identity Of Attackers In Sri Lanka Could Lead To Understanding Of Their Group

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to look at what's known about the people who carried out those attacks last Sunday. Here's how Sri Lanka's defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene described them earlier this week.

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RUWAN WIJEWARDENE: They are financially quite independent, and so that is a worrying fact in this. Because some of them have studied in various other countries, quite well-educated people.

SHAPIRO: Financially independent and well-educated. Well, Pamela Constable is covering this story for The Washington Post, and she joins us from Colombo. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Very glad to join you.

SHAPIRO: Before we get into the individual stories of these attackers, give us an overview of what this group looks like collectively.

CONSTABLE: Well, we don't know about all of them. We know about some of them. And yes, they seem to be - some of them are middle class. Some of them are well-educated. Several of them are, or were, in the case of the suicide bombers, remarkably the children - the sons of a very wealthy and prominent Sri Lankan businessman.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. These attackers seem to have gotten the lion's share of the attention, partially because they were connected to this well-known spice trader in Sri Lanka. Tell us about them.

CONSTABLE: Yes. I mean, obviously, we don't know him. But we've read a lot about him from the authorities here, and there have been interviews with his neighbors and others. You know, he's described as a prominent, well-connected, wealthy, generous, philanthropic gentleman, well-respected by all. It's not entirely clear whether he knew what his sons were up to, although it would seem difficult to imagine that he didn't. But we don't know that. He has been arrested. Obviously, he's being interrogated. But it's just - there is such an incongruity there.

SHAPIRO: And in addition to the two sons of this wealthy spice merchant, there was also the wife of one of those sons, who I understand blew herself up and killed two of her children in the process?

CONSTABLE: Well, as well as several police officers, yes. So obviously, we're talking about extremely dedicated and ideologically convinced people who were involved in something that we know about from other situations in other countries. We had no indication that there was any such movement built ideologically here that would have, you know, brainwashed or influenced or persuaded, you know, successful young Sri Lankans from the privileged classes to forsake everything and become, you know, suicidal, ideological warriors.

SHAPIRO: Is there any understanding of how connected these people may have been to ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks?

CONSTABLE: That's quite mysterious still. What the authorities are saying is, obviously, as we know, ISIS claimed to be connected to it but. There's been no - as far as I know, no sort of hard evidence or proof or further explanation of what that means. So it could simply have been a source of inspiration. It could have been more. It could have been financial. They could have had people sent there or gone to their world to train.

But we don't really have - we have not been shown or heard any evidence of that. And maybe there is speculation that ISIS is sort of trying to claim a connection that may not really be there, but that's really speculative. We don't really know. But certainly, the ideology fits.

SHAPIRO: This is such an escalation of violence against Christians. Do you have a sense of why, and why now?

CONSTABLE: No. We really don't. It seemed to come out of the blue. The whole nation was shocked and surprised, and there seems no particular reason why it would have happened now or against those targets.

SHAPIRO: Pam Constable of The Washington Post, thank you for joining us.

CONSTABLE: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.