Abu Ubaida appears to be National Thowheeth Jama’ath preacher Zahran Hashim. Picture: SITE Intel Group
Abu Ubaida appears to be National Thowheeth Jama’ath preacher Zahran Hashim. Picture: SITE Intel Group

IS claims responsibility for Sri Lanka

ISLAMIC State has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka that killed at least 321 people and wounded more than 500.

The terror group's official al-Amaq news agency made the claim on its channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram late Tuesday, according to multiple reports.

"The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the crusader alliance (anti-IS US-led coalition) and Christians in Sri Lanka the day before yesterday were Islamic State fighters," the brief message said, according to a translation by BBC journalist Faisal Irshaid.

It came after an unconfirmed video posted to social media earlier that day by an affiliated group strongly suggested IS was behind the attacks.

The video, purportedly from Al Ghuraba Media, which is not an official IS channel but is believed to be run by supporters of IS, featured the chilling message, "This bloody day is our reward to you."

It also showed photos of three of the alleged suicide bombers.

The men are named as Abul Barra, Abul Mukhtar and Abu Ubaida and appear in front of a black IS flag giving the one-finger salute.

It came as Sri Lanka's defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene said the attacks were a "retaliation" for last month's Christchurch mosque shooting.

"The preliminary investigations have revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch," Mr Wijewardene told parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, Sri Lankan authorities pinned the blame on homegrown extremist group National Thowheeth Jama'ath, but said it suspected the group had "international support".

"There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded," government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told a news conference.

"We are now investigating the international support for them, and their other links, how they produced the suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this."

Mr Wijewardene said on Tuesday the investigations showed NTJ was linked to a little-known radical Islamist group in India called Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen India, or JMI.

"This National Thowheeth Jama'ath group which carried out the attacks had close links with JMI, it has now been revealed," he told parliament.

News agency AFP reports little is known about JMI other than it was established last year and is affiliated to a similarly named group in Bangladesh.

A senior Indian security official earlier told the Asia Times the video seemed to confirm IS was the international partner in the attack.

"We believe that the NTJ were only the foot soldiers and the controllers were some one else," they said. "These are preliminary findings, but there could be several layers of control on such a complex terror operation, involving many people."

Abu Ubaida's real name is Zahran Hashim, a Sri Lankan NTJ preacher who was named in an intelligence memo warning of the attack.

Hashim was a prolific online preacher known for his fiery sermons calling for death to infidels. Shortly after his name began circulating online on Monday, YouTube removed his account "for violating YouTube's Terms of Service".

The video was purportedly distributed by an ISIS-linked group. Picture: Asia Times
The video was purportedly distributed by an ISIS-linked group. Picture: Asia Times

 

"It was basically a hate campaign against all non-Muslims," Muslim Council of Sri Lanka vice president Hilmy Ahamed told the Associated Press. "Basically, he was saying non-Muslims have to be eliminated."

The Times of India quoted an Indian intelligence officer giving credence to the video.

"The given names are typical of how IS identifies its fighters after they pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi," the intelligence officer said.

"But Ubaida figuring in these pictures, which have the same background, does indicate that NTJ had direct affiliation with IS. The trio is also seen giving the one-finger salute, a sign popular with IS operatives."

 

It features images of three of the alleged ‘commandos’. Picture: SITE Intel Group
It features images of three of the alleged ‘commandos’. Picture: SITE Intel Group

 

They are referred to as ‘assailants’ rather than the more common ‘martyrs’. Picture: SITE Intel Group
They are referred to as ‘assailants’ rather than the more common ‘martyrs’. Picture: SITE Intel Group

 

Abu Ubaida appears to be National Thowheeth Jama’ath preacher Zahran Hashim. Picture: SITE Intel Group
Abu Ubaida appears to be National Thowheeth Jama’ath preacher Zahran Hashim. Picture: SITE Intel Group

 

Hashim was known for his fiery online sermons.
Hashim was known for his fiery online sermons.

 

An anti-terror officer told the paper NTJ, which "had barely managed to deface Buddhist statues in the past, could not have carried out these blasts on their own".

"The entire country, it seems, was wired," they said. "The explosives, detonators and other material needed to carry out bombings on such a scale could have been managed only with support from an international terror outfit."

Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremist chatter, said while the images had not yet been verified, it was looking increasingly likely IS was involved.

"If these are actually pictures of the attackers (though I stress again that these images are not verified as being from ISIS), the use of the ISIS-associated black banner, instead of any local organisation's, would make further indication of its role in the attacks," she wrote on Twitter.

Ms Katz had earlier noted IS channels were "posting rampantly, praying 'may Allah accept' the attackers, celebrating casualties", which she said was "clearly paving way for IS to claim responsibility".

"Furthermore, recruiting from existing extremist groups/movements - be it National Thowheeth Jama'ath or another - in a given region is exactly how IS established a global network," she noted, pointing to Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Boko Haram in West Africa.

 

Earlier on Tuesday, Reuters reported a Syrian national had been detained for questioning by Sri Lankan police in connection with the attacks. "He was arrested after interrogation of local suspects," a source told the news service.

Forty people have now been arrested. Sri Lanka's government declared a state of emergency from midnight on Monday, giving military and police special powers to detain suspects without a court order.

Seven suicide bombers struck six locations near simultaneously on Sunday - two at the Shangri-La Hotel, one each at Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels, St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, St. Sebastian's church in Negombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa.

Two more bombs exploded hours later, one near an overpass on the outskirts of Colombo and another at a safe house near that blast, killing three police officers.

On Monday night, a van parked near St. Anthony's Shrine exploded, but no injuries were reported. Police went to inspect the van Monday after people reported it had been parked near the shrine since Sunday.

They discovered three bombs that they tried to defuse. Instead, the bombs detonated, sending pedestrians fleeing in panic.

Two Australians, Manik Suriyaaratchi and her 10-year-old daughter Alexendria, were killed in the attacks. Sudesh Kolonne, the victims' husband and father, was waiting outside the Negombo church when the blast killed them.

A tearful Mr Kolonne described those behind the bombing as "sick". "I'm angry, don't know what to do. These people are really sick. How would they do that? Killing innocent people in their church," he told Nine.

frank.chung@news.com.au



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