Canadian woman missing in west Africa believed to be alive: PM

In this handout photo released on January 17, 2019 from the Facebook page dedicated to their disappearance, Luca Tacchetto (L) and Edith Blais (R) pose for a selfie picture. (AFP)
Updated 19 January 2019
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Canadian woman missing in west Africa believed to be alive: PM

  • Smaller groups are also active, with the overall number of fighters estimated to be in the hundreds, according to security sources

MONTREAL: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that a Canadian woman reported missing along with her Italian partner in Burkina Faso is believed to be alive.
“To the best of my knowledge, yes,” Trudeau said in response to a reporter’s question.
“With all that I know so far, I have not been told anything else other than that she is believed to be alive.”
The Canadian government said earlier it was leaving no stone unturned as it tries to determine what exactly happened to Edith Blais, 34, and her companion Luca Tacchetto, 30.
The pair were last seen on December 15 traveling by car in Burkina Faso between the town of Bobo-Dioulasso and the capital Ouagadougou, for a four- or five-day stay.
Kidnappings have increased in the impoverished Sahel state, which has been battling a rising wave of jihadist attacks over the last three years.
A Canadian travel warning had reported a risk of banditry and kidnapping in the area.
Late Wednesday, a Canadian geologist kidnapped at a remote gold mine in northeast Burkina Faso by suspected jihadists was found dead.
Blais and Tacchetto were working on a reforestation project with aid group Zion’Gaia.
Investigators on the ground have found no clues in their disappearance, but a senior Canadian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that they may have fallen victim to a kidnapping or a robbery gone awry.
“All options are being explored,” Canadian International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said after meeting Friday with Blais’ family in Quebec province.
“We are doing everything we can,” she said.
Burkino Faso is in the front line of a jihadist rebellion in the Sahel, a vast, dusty region on the southern rim of the Sahara.
Canada has 250 soldiers and eight army helicopters deployed in neighboring Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.
After chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, an Islamist insurgency gained ground in northern Mali, while Boko Haram rose in northern Nigeria.
Jihadist raids began in northern Burkina Faso in 2015 before spreading to the east, near the border with Togo and Benin.
Most of the attacks have been attributed to Ansarul Islam and the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM).
Smaller groups are also active, with the overall number of fighters estimated to be in the hundreds, according to security sources.
The groups are believed to be responsible for more than 270 deaths since 2015.
Ouagadougou has been hit three times, including a coordinated attack last March that targeted the French embassy and devastated the country’s military headquarters.
Eight foreigners have been abducted in the last four years, according to an AFP tally.
Among them is 84-year-old Australian doctor Kenneth Elliott, who was kidnapped with his wife Jocelyn in April 2015 in Djibo, where the pair ran a clinic for the poor.
Jocelyn Elliott was released after a year. Her husband, whose whereabouts remain unknown, has been declared a citizen of Burkina Faso, under a decree issued last November.


How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Updated 43 min 51 sec ago
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How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
  • Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.

Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal, band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the fact that foreigners were targeted.

“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath) group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

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As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.

 

TIMELINE OF SRI LANKA BLASTS

 

April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.

8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
east coast.

1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.

2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.

8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.

April 22

4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.

8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.