CHURCHES across Sri Lanka are quiet today. In the country’s capital, Colombo, the clock on the bell tower of the one at St Anthony’s Shrine remains stuck at 8:45am. That was the moment last Easter Sunday when a young man slipped into the packed holiday service there and detonated the bomb hidden inside his backpack.

He was not alone in his act of violence, but part of a group of suicide bombers who in a wave of synchronised attacks on churches and luxury hotels killed more than 250 people.

This is the latest death toll figure, one drastically revised from the previous high of 359 after the Sri Lankan authorities admitted that counting the exact number of those killed was “challenging” because of the body parts strewn across the targeted bomb sites.

The revised figure was just the latest in a series of blunders and errors that have raised serious questions about the ability of the Sri Lankan Government to respond to the attack by Islamist extremists and deter future ones.

These failings have only added to the fear that still stalks the country, prompting the Catholic Church on Friday to cancel Sunday masses until further notice.

“We don’t want repetitions,” insisted Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, who confirmed that he had seen a leaked security document warning of further attacks on Christian places of worship.

On Friday, the extent of this ongoing danger became clear after three cornered suicide bombers blew themselves up and others were shot dead, during a Sri Lankan security forces operation against what was believed to be a jihadist hideout near the town of Kalmunai 230 miles east of the capital.

In all, 15 people, including six children, died when police commandos backed by troops exchanged fire with those inside the house for over an hour.

“We have searched the place and found 15 bodies of which 12 of them were inside the house and three outside,” confirmed police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara.

The clashes came as the security forces also raided a nearby location where they believe the Islamist-inspired terrorists recorded a video pledge to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the Easter bombings.

Police said they found an IS flag and uniforms similar to those worn by the nine fighters for the video before they launched the attacks.

Acting on information from intelligence officials, police also discovered suicide vests, a drone, 150 sticks of blasting gelatin and 100,000 metal ball bearings used to increase shrapnel in explosions.

Sri Lankan officials now point to Zahran Hashim, a radical Muslim preacher and ringleader of obscure Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), as being the chief orchestrator of the Easter attack, for which IS has now claimed responsibility. As Sri Lanka remains on edge and security forces fan out across the country in search of other terror suspects, pressing questions now present themselves both inside the country and beyond.

Not least among these is just what, precisely, lies behind the obvious failings on behalf of the Sri Lankan authorities to act on intelligence warnings that an Islamist-inspired terrorist attack was imminent.

For there is simply no escaping the fact that this was an extraordinary and perhaps even willful negligence on the part of the government.

Outside of Sri Lanka itself there is the obvious question too of what this highly organised and co-ordinated attack perhaps tells us about the future direction of IS, now that its former self-declared caliphate that once spanned large swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq has all but been neutralised.

Is the Sri Lankan operation an ominous sign of things to come as the jihadist group recalibrates its tactics and strategy globally?

The National: Sri Lankan security forces have a huge challenge ahead of themSri Lankan security forces have a huge challenge ahead of them

To address the Sri Lankan end of these questions first, however, it’s increasingly clear that the authorities there have botched both efforts to head off and to investigate the Easter Sunday attack.

Failure to act on multiple intelligence warnings has exposed the deep dysfunction of the government, which has been paralysed by bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena, who blame each other for the security breakdown.

The men are from rival political parties and for the past year have been locked in a power struggle. This bitter contest is a significant factor in the latest security failings, say observers.

Government officials have now confirmed that Sri Lanka’s security agencies were informed by US and Indian intelligence of reports that Zahran Hashim of the extremist NTJ was plotting suicide bombings as early as April 4.

The content of these reports was not simply vague warnings, but included mobile phone numbers and information about Hashim and his cadres, and talked specifically about plans for suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian embassy in Sri Lanka.

Speaking to local media at his residence, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said the national police chief and defence secretary had both been warned about the attacks but did not inform him. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and police chief Pujith Jayasundara resigned last week at Sirisena’s request.

“They did not say a word about this warning letter. It was a serious lapse on their part and shirk of responsibility,” Sirisena insisted.

In his remarks on Friday, Sirisena took a swipe at the prime minister, whom he attempted unsuccessfully to oust last year, claiming that one factor behind the bombings was that Wickremesinghe’s government had weakened the intelligence system by prosecuting its members for alleged war crimes linked to Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.

Wickremesinghe and his aides, in turn, have complained that the security services refused to pass on the warnings about the impending attacks. The spat between the two leaders has left many Sri Lanka watchers frustrated and prompted some to highlight what they see as a deepening political crisis for the country.

“When you have hard intelligence reporting, when you have hard evidence from foreign intelligence and you are incapable of implementing security measures, that is a government crisis,” Dr Harinda Vidanage, the director of the Colombo-based Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, told the New York Times.

“What is happening is a meltdown of governance,” the political scientist added, summing up the feeling of many Sri Lankans.

And so the blame game goes on even as other failings continue to be thrown into the spotlight. Many within the country remain baffled, for example, as to how the authorities could fail to accurately count and identify the bombing victims.

In the days after the attack, security officials raised the body count each day until it reached 359 last Thursday. Later that day, the Health Ministry suddenly revised the total down to 253. While multiple explosions at six sites in three cities do pose problems for those examiners counting bodies, a 30% drop in one day was a bizarre change to the figure.

IN a two-page explanation statement on Friday, the Sri Lankan Health Ministry insisted it had never given the figure of 359 deaths, opting instead to blame those security officials who were giving out the numbers. But just as the buck passing continues in the country’s top tier, the security operation also continues, as Sri Lanka faces the unpalatable fact of having had a major Islamist-inspired terrorist atrocity committed on its soil for which IS has claimed responsibility.

Inevitably, the attacks have focused attention on what some observers believe could be a shift in IS’s tactics, raising questions as to what might be expected of the jihadist group’s actions in the future.

As far back as 2016, as IS came under increasing military pressure on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, the group’s founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was telling foreign fighters not to come to the rapidly eroding caliphate but instead to migrate to one of the organisation’s other overseas branches.

As the US National Strategy for Counterterrorism report released in October of last year itself cautioned: “The group’s global reach remains robust, with eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.”

In other words, as noted in the US counterterrorism strategy, IS’s focus has thus shifted from the fallen caliphate to its far-flung franchise and global networks with the intention of spreading the IS brand further.

Its recent appearance in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it claimed to have killed soldiers in a shoot-out and created a “Central Africa Province” of its “caliphate”, is a point in case.

To repeat such actions globally IS still has fighters and operatives at its disposal, despite its setbacks recently in Syria and Iraq.

Some estimates say that as many as 30,000 of the 40,000 foreign fighters from 120-plus countries who came to fight with IS in its caliphate between 2014-2016 may have survived the international coalition’s sustained military operations against the group. Out of this, there is now a continuing hardcore of seasoned combatants, being deployed to other theatres of operation, such as “soft” targets like Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka’s case, this international network is composed of those many Sri Lankan jihadists who returned home after the physical disruption of IS beginning in 2016. As Sri Lankan journalist Shwe Kalaung put it: “By 2017, scores of known Sri Lankan IS fighters had returned from Syria.”

Some point also to Sri Lanka’s growing illegal drug and arms trade as being another contributing factor in the country’s terrorism problem.

So is what was witnessed in Sri Lanka recently an ominous portent of things to come further afield?

“IS suffered grievous setbacks in western Iraq and Syria. But severely damaging a terrorist group is not the same as undermining its ideology or destroying its raison d’etre. Revenge and retaliation for the lost caliphate has now infused IS with new-found purpose and energy,” says insurgency expert Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University.

Many other observers, too, see this “purpose and energy” as manifesting itself on a wider international area of operations as IS morphs again into a terrorist organisation, as it was originally, rather than the “army” it had on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.

“IS has moved from the local to the global. As it lost its geographic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, IS is now focusing on spreading its virtual caliphate in other parts of the world,” explains Emile Nakhleh, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service.

“It has also moved from a unitary over-arching caliphate into a series of local provinces, or ‘Welayat’. In doing so, IS is using existing Islamist and terrorist groups, whether in Central Africa, in the Sahel countries, in Afghanistan and South Asia,” Nakhleh added.

As recent events have horrifically confirmed, IS has been working hard to create a presence in Sri Lanka. Their Islamist threat grew quickly and has spread rapidly, beginning in 2016 when IS propaganda videos claimed that Sri Lankan medical doctors were treating jihad fighters in Raqqa.

That same year, Sri Lanka’s justice minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe revealed to the country’s parliament that 32 “well-educated and elite” Muslims from Sri Lanka had joined IS to fight in Syria.

Since then, the jihadist group’s pernicious influence has widened within Sri Lanka itself, with the discovery and disruption in January of a training camp in the country before the plot to destroy numerous Buddhist monuments in the city of Anuradhapura could be carried out. This weekend, Sri Lankan security forces imposed an extended curfew as they continued searching for suspects linked to the Easter Sunday bombings.

“Every household in the country will be checked,” promised President Sirisena, saying that lists of permanent residents of every house will be established to “ensure no unknown persons could live anywhere”.

But getting rid of Islamist-inspired terror from its soil will not be that easy, whatever Sri Lanka’s leaders say. The island had not been considered a high-level target before last Sunday, but IS, via what turned out to be a local Islamist network, was still able to carry out one of its most lethal operations there. For the moment, the country continues to reel from the brutal events. The big question now, however, is after Sri Lanka, where next for IS?