Daesh link to Sri Lanka attacks raises fears of South Asia terror ‘recruits’

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An image grab taken from a press release issued on April 23, 2019 by the Daesh propaganda agency Amaq claims to show eight men it said carried out a string of deadly suicide bomb blasts on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, lined up at an undisclosed location. (AFP)
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Relatives mourn during a burial ceremony of bomb blast victim at a cemetery in Colombo on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 25 April 2019
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Daesh link to Sri Lanka attacks raises fears of South Asia terror ‘recruits’

  • Investigators believe Daesh worked with an obscure preacher
  • In Sri Lanka, too, Daesh has been recruiting for years, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region

ISLAMABAD: A video that emerged following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka showed seven black-clad, masked figures led by an eighth man, his face visible, pledging allegiance to Daesh.

That man is thought to be Mohammed Zahran Hashim, a little-known radical preacher from Sri Lanka believed by investigators and experts to have masterminded the terror attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 wounded.

On Tuesday, the Daesh terror group claimed responsibility for the bombings, and issued threats of future attacks in both Arabic and Tamil. It also released a video of eight bombers allegedly involved in the strikes. 

However, even with Daesh claiming responsibility for the attacks, many questions remain, including whether the bombers were core fighters from the extremist group or members of local outfits who have pledged allegiance to the organization.

The Sri Lankan government has previously said the attacks were the work of a local Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), along with another group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

Now investigators are scrambling to determine if Daesh merely encouraged these groups to carry out the bombings or if the attackers included core extremists from the terrorist organization. Whatever the links, the Daesh claim suggests that the terror group remains a threat despite the recapture of its territory in Syria and Iraq. It has also heightened concerns about the organization’s growing influence in South Asia, reflected in the FBI, Interpol and other foreign intelligence services joining the investigation.

A close-up view of Mohammed Zahran Hashim. (AFP)

“Clearly a group as powerful as Daesh won’t go away quickly, and its role in this attack would suggest that it remains perfectly prepared to stage, or help stage, the deadliest attacks imaginable,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Arab News.

Daesh has built networks in a number of Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Maldives, the Philippines and Indonesia. In Sri Lanka, too, Daesh has been recruiting for years, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

“Sri Lanka is the only country in Asia where Daesh has not carried out an attack despite having a network for a considerable amount of time,” he said. Gunaratna said that Daesh had received considerable help from the radical preacher Zahran Hashim, a former member of the NTJ who broke away and created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Daesh branch in Sri Lanka,” he said.

The ‘main player’

With no history of Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka, NTJ  was the main contender for involvement with Daesh.

A government official who declined to be named said that the NTJ had split into three groups in 2016 since many of its followers disapproved of Hashim’s “extremist ideology.”

Hashim’s increasingly militant views came from his growing “international connections and links with Islamic groups in southern India,” the official said. 

The preacher is believed to have received his early schooling in Kattankudy, his hometown in eastern Sri Lanka. Unconfirmed media reports say he traveled to India to study Islamic theology, but abandoned his studies. Since then, he has reportedly traveled between India and Sri Lanka.

Last year, Hashim came on the radar of intelligence officials after three Buddhist statues were defaced in central Sri Lanka. Interrogation of the young men responsible revealed they were students of Hashim. That investigation also led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast.

Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said Hashim had been turned away by the people and moderate clerics of his native Kattankudy because of his hard-line views. It was then that he turned to YouTube. In the past two years, he gained thousands of followers with impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba media.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher, 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 shows images of the Twin Towers burning after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said that Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was almost certainly the “main player” in the Easter attacks.

Given the unprecedented scale, sophistication and coordination of the bombings, and the fact that foreigners were targeted, it was likely that he had worked with support from international “players,” they said.

“It’s hard to imagine that the attacks were purely domestic in nature,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum. “Most Sri Lankans had not heard about National Thowheed Jamath before,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said.

The group lacked the power to coordinate the attacks, he said. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

Specter of violence 

Sri Lanka endured several suicide bombings targeting government officials and installations during the decades-long conflict with ethnic Tamil separatists that ended in 2009. Since then, the country has enjoyed relative calm. After a lull in violence for 10 years, the trauma and anger over Sunday’s suicide bombings have been heightened with revelations that top officials failed to order tighter security arrangements despite the threat of violence. “Sri Lanka was an easy target,” Perera said.

Most importantly, those behind the attack were aware of the deep dysfunction within the Sri Lankan government and exploited it, experts said.

According to an April 11 intelligence report seen by Arab News, police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by the NTJ this month. Reuters also reported that Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches.

A minister said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had not been told about the warnings and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena. 

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year but was forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court. Their relationship is said to be fraught.  “The threat of an attack was known well in advance of Sunday, yet didn’t lead to any efforts to preempt it. That suggests you don’t have people communicating with each other at a high level,” said Kugelman.

“This government dysfunction, driven by tensions between the president and prime minister, could be something that the militants sought to exploit. In effect, they knew they would have a greater chance to pull off this horrific act because a hamstrung government wouldn’t be in a position to prevent it.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Sri Lanka as experts fear that festering tensions between Buddhists and Muslims could explode, raising the specter of the country descending into violence. 

Isolated attacks on Muslim-owned property have already been reported in the past three days.

“The government will need to step up and try to bring together a grieving nation that risks becoming more divided,” Kugelman said. “That won’t be an easy task for an administration that is itself deeply divided.”

Dibbert added: “The government needs to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation in order to fully understand what transpired on Easter. A heavy-handed response targeting ethnic or religious minorities would exacerbate tensions and further destabilize the situation.”


‘Mother of Satan’ bombs show foreign hand in Sri Lanka bombings: investigators

Updated 21 May 2019
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‘Mother of Satan’ bombs show foreign hand in Sri Lanka bombings: investigators

  • Detectives said the back-pack bombs used in the April 21 attacks on three churches and three hotels were manufactured by local militants with Daesh expertise
  • It was also used in the 2015 attacks in Paris, by a suicide bomber who hit the Manchester Arena in England in 2017 and attacks on churches in Indonesia one year ago

COLOMBO: One month after the Sri Lanka suicide attacks that killed more than 250 people, investigators have told AFP the bombers used “Mother of Satan” explosives favored by the Daesh group that are a new sign of foreign involvement.
Detectives said the back-pack bombs used in the April 21 attacks on three churches and three hotels were manufactured by local militants with Daesh expertise.
They named the explosive as triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, an unstable but easily made mixture favored by Daesh militants who call it “Mother of Satan.”
It was also used in the 2015 attacks in Paris, by a suicide bomber who hit the Manchester Arena in England in 2017 and attacks on churches in Indonesia one year ago.
Daesh has claimed the Sri Lankan bombers operated as part of its franchise. But Sri Lankan and international investigators are anxious to know just how much outside help went into the attacks that left 258 dead and 500 injured.
“The group had easy access to chemicals and fertilizer to get the raw materials to make TATP,” an official involved in the investigation told AFP.
Sri Lankan detectives say the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), local militants blamed for the attacks, must have had foreign help to assemble the bombs.

“They would have had a face-to-face meeting to transfer this technology. This is not something you can do by watching a YouTube video,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Investigators had initially believed that C4 explosives — a favored weapon of Tamil Tiger rebels — were used, but forensic tests found TATP which causes more burning than C4.
Police have also confirmed that 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of explosives found in January in the island’s northwest was TATP.
They are checking the travel records of the suicide bombers as well as foreign suspects to see when and where bomb-making lessons could have been staged.
“It looks like they used a cocktail of TATP and gelignite and some chemicals in the Easter attacks. They were short of the 100 kilos of raw TATP that were seized in January,” said the investigator.
Sri Lankan security forces have staged a series of raids since the bombings. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said Sunday that 89 suspects are in custody.
Army chief Mahesh Senanayake said last week that at least two suspects have been arrested in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, underscoring the international link.
On April 26, six militants, three widows of the suicide bombers and six of their children were killed at an NTJ safe house near the eastern coastal town of Kalmunai.
Police found large quantities of chemicals and fertilizer there that was probably meant to make bombs, authorities said.
The government has admitted that Indian warnings of the looming attacks in early April were ignored.
But President Maithripala Sirisena has said eight countries are helping the investigation. A US Federal Bureau of Investigation team is in Sri Lanka and Britain, Australia and India have provided forensic and technical support.
China offered a fleet of vehicles to bolster the mobility of the security forces tracking down militants.

The Sri Lankan who led the attacks, Zahran Hashim, was known to have traveled to India in the months before he became one of the suicide bombers.
Moderate Muslims had warned authorities about the radical cleric who first set off alarm bells in 2017 when he threatened non-Muslims.
He was one of two bombers who killed dozens of victims at Colombo’s Shangri-La hotel on April 21.
Army chief Senanayake said Hashim had traveled to Tamil Nadu state in southern India and been in contact with extremists there.
Hashim, one of seven bombers who staged the attacks, also appeared in an Daesh group video that claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Another bomber who was meant to have hit a fourth hotel, has been named as Abdul Latheef Jameel who studied aviation engineering in Britain and Australia.
Authorities in the two countries are investigating whether he was radicalized whilst abroad.
Jameel blew himself up when confronted at a hideout after the attacks.