Faith leaders say local youths were radicalised by extremist preacher Mohammed Zahran Hashim
It was crude stuff: young men armed with hammers, arriving on motorbikes in the middle of the night. At four sites in Mawanella, a central Sri Lankan town, they hacked at Buddhist statues, lopping off parts of their faces and hands.
In the aftermath of the desecration on 26 December 2018, police and local politicians were more concerned with defusing the anger of the Buddhist community and preventing religious riots of the kind that had rocked the nearby city of Digana eight months before.
Now residents of Mawanella are asking if the vandalism of the statues was linked to the same extremist preacher who, four months later, has been identified as a leader of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever claimed by Islamic State.
For all this trouble, says the Buddhist cleric B Piyarathena, referring to the string of suicide bombings that killed 253 people on Sunday, Mawanella was the start.
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