Grief, Anger, Recriminations in Sri Lanka as ISIS Claims It Staged Bomb Attacks

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The Islamic State claimed responsibility on Tuesday for the Easter Sunday bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, as the government there raised the number of people killed to 321.

The group’s Amaq news agency called the bombers “Islamic State fighters.”

• The government said the bombings might have been in retaliation for the killing of 50 people last month at mosques in New Zealand, and that two Islamist extremist groups might have been involved, not one.

• Recriminations continued over the Sri Lanka government’s failure to act on warnings that terrorists were planning to attack churches. The country’s highest Roman Catholic prelate joined those chastising the government.

• In his first national address since the attacks, President Maithripala Sirisena announced major changes to the country’s security apparatus. “I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defense officials,” Mr. Sirisena said.

• As the first mass funerals were held, grief, for some, was hardening into anger. In a country that is no stranger to religious tensions, some spoke of revenge. Muslim-owned shops were vandalized, and hundreds of Muslim families fled religiously mixed areas.

Islamic State says it was behind the bombings
More than two days after the Sri Lanka bombings, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks.

The group’s news agency, Amaq, released a bulletin on Tuesday claiming they had been carried out by “Islamic State fighters.”

 The statement, which was disseminated on the group’s chat rooms on the app Telegram, said that the bombings had been intended to target Christians, as well as citizens of countries belonging to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

In a later statement, the group identified the seven suicide bombers by their noms de guerre, and specified which of them had gone to which target on what it called “the infidel holiday.”

Still later on Tuesday, Amaq published a video showing eight men — apparently the Sri Lanka attackers — pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, whom they called “emir of the believers.” They held their hands up, index fingers pointed skyward, in a gesture that the Islamic State has adopted to refer to belief in one God.

The men are masked, except one who appears to be Mohammed Zaharan, who has been identified by Sri Lankan officials as the leader of the group that carried out the bombings.

A day earlier, an ISIS-linked chat room on the app Telegram had posted photos of masked men it identified as “commandos” involved in the bombings. It used three noms de guerre that match three of the names used in the militants’ statement.

If it is authentic, the video indicates that the cell in Sri Lanka took steps to ensure that its violence would seen as being committed on behalf of ISIS, which has repeatedly called for assaults on churches, particularly since the New Zealand mosque attacks.

It does not necessarily mean there was direct communication or guidance from the terrorist group, but it indicates that the assailants were steeped in its ideology, and familiar with the terminology and rituals of carrying out an attack in ISIS’ name.

If true, the claim of Islamic State responsibility also demonstrates that the group still poses a threat, despite the loss of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq.

The attackers got help while overseas, and some were in Syria
“There seems to have been foreign involvement” in the bombings, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said at a news conference.

 Investigators believe, he said, that some of the attackers “have traveled abroad and have come back.”

Some of the attackers, including one or two of the suicide bombers, had been in Syria, Mr. Wickremesinghe said. But he stopped short of saying that they had fought for the Islamic State, and he said their time in Syria was not necessarily tied to the bombing plot.

“You can meet people in any part,” he said. “You can meet them in London. You needn’t go to the region.”

“We can’t tell you immediately, definitively, to whom they had links,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

But from the start, he said, “there was suspicion that there were links with ISIS.” And now, he said, “some of the evidence points to that.”

The prime minister said several countries were aiding in the investigation, and the United States ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina B. Teplitz, said that the F.B.I. had joined it.

Of the half-dozen sites simultaneously attacked, the church in Negombo was the hardest hit. As many as 100 people were killed there.

On Tuesday, priests wearing crisp white robes trimmed with black sashes held funerals in a large tent just outside the church. The funerals were scheduled to go on all day.

The neighborhood around the church had been turned into an enormous, fortified mourning ground, with hundreds of soldiers deployed in every direction and little white flags fluttering in the wind.

Religious tensions are rising

It was a national day of mourning in Sri Lanka — but there was growing anger, too.

“I feel like going and killing those Muslims in a suicide attack,” said one 35-year-old businessman. “My friends and relatives died at the church.”

In parts of Sri Lanka, Muslim-owned shops have been vandalized, and hundreds of Muslim families have begun to flee religiously mixed areas, fearing for their lives.

Members of Sri Lanka’s community have reached out to their neighbors, offering to donate food and blood.

“We would do anything to help,” the chairman of one mosque said. “We are so pained.”

But with the attacks still so fresh and tensions so high, some Muslims were warned to hold back for now.

President Maithripala Sirisena in December. Mr. Sirisena’s government has given additional powers to the police and security forces to detain and interrogate

Security officials facing dismissal

President Maithripala Sirisena said Tuesday that officials would lose their jobs over the failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings, despite warnings that attacks against churches were being planned.

Addressing Sri Lankans for the first time since the attacks, Mr. Sirisena pledged “major changes” in high-level positions in the security establishment within 24 hours. He said officials had been “negligent.”

“I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defense officials,” Mr. Sirisena said in the televised address. “There was an intelligence report about the attack, but I was not kept informed.”

A senior presidential adviser, Shiral Lakthilaka, said that the secretary to the Ministry of Defense and the inspector general of the police were “earmarked for dismissal.” No replacements had been made so far, Mr. Lakthilaka said.

Mr. Sirisena said the military and the police would be restructured within a week. “In the next 24 hours, changes will be made to persons heading these institutions,” he said.
(The New York Times)

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