Financial Times: "Sri Lanka attacks spark fears of Isis resurgence"
Even as Isis fighters in Syria surrendered their final stronghold last month, terrorism experts lined up to warn that the defeat of the so-called caliphate would not spell the end for the Islamist terror group. On Tuesday those fears appeared to have been realised, when official media channels for Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings on churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka that killed at least 359 people and injured 500. Using its official news agency, Amaq, Isis published two statements declaring that the attackers were Isis fighters. It then released a photograph purporting to show the bombers standing in front of an Isis flag. A short video was released which showed the same men pledging allegiance to the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “There are suspicions that there were links with Isis,” said the Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday evening.
“All that we knew earlier on was that there were foreign links and that this could not have been done locally.” The Isis claim and Mr Wickremesinghe’s comments appeared to confirm suspicions that National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), the local Muslim extremist group initially blamed along with the group identified by Sri Lanka’s defence minister only as JMI, could not have pulled off such a devastating and sophisticated attack without international help. While the precise connection between Isis and the local attackers in Sri Lanka is unclear, the scale of the bombings has raised the alarming prospect that Isis has embarked on a new wave of bigger and more deadly strikes just one month after it was defeated in Syria and Iraq.
“Jihad and Islamist situations in south Asia are going to worsen further, as governments here are lacking the will to handle the problem strongly,” said Animesh Roul, a south Asia counter-terrorism expert based in New Delhi.
Despite the two-day delay before claiming responsibility for the attack, terrorism experts said the claims from Isis were credible. “This is standard practice for Isis where they claim a bombing,” said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. “The delay is not particularly significant,” he added, drawing a comparison with the Nice truck attack in 2016 when Isis took a week to claim it was responsible. “At times like this, Isis is under a lot of pressure to release something that isn’t later proved to be wrong.” The social media blackout imposed by the Sri Lankan authorities may also have contributed to the delay, analysts said. Despite the credibility of the claims, questions remain over whether the attacks in Sri Lanka were directly organised and funded by Isis or whether the local fighters were inspired by the group, seeking to frame their murderous actions as part of the global Islamist terror movement.
The NTJ was formed after breaking from the larger Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’ath, in 2016, said Mr Roul. “Mohammed Zaharan became more vocal and led the splinter group NTJ and pronounced sectarian ideals in tandem with Isis through YouTube and other message sharing platforms,” he added.
Until now the NTJ’s actions have been relatively low key, focused mainly on Sri Lanka’s Buddhist community. In December, the group was linked to a series of attacks on Buddhist temples. There were other signs it was becoming more militant. Government officials said that security agencies were informed by US and Indian authorities that the NTJ leader Mohammed Zaharan was plotting suicide bombings as early as April 4. The last tip-off came 10 minutes before the first bombing on Sunday, a diplomatic source told the Financial Times. Yet the message never reached the executive.
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