Sri Lankan officials pointed at Islamic extremists for the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels that left more than 300 people dead, as the Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The Islamic State group’s claim was released by its Amaq news agency on Tuesday. It said those responsible for the attack were “among the fighters of the Islamic State,” according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, ABC News reported.
The wording could mean that the fighters were inspired by Islamic State ideology and calls to attack churches, or that there was a more direct link. The Islamic State, which offered no verification for its claim, has in the past claimed responsibility for attacks that are in line with its ideology but for which no direct link has been found.
Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene told Parliament that officials are certain Islamic extremists were responsible but did not name the Islamic State.
“Investigations have revealed that the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists in retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand,” Wijewardene said, according to The Washington Post. Last month, a gunman killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he was unsure of the Islamic State’s link to the New Zealand attacks, but was clear that the attack was not solely the work of home-grown terrorists.
“There seems to have been foreign involvement,” he said. “Some may have traveled abroad and come back. … So far it is only Sri Lankan citizens that have been taken in for questioning.”
Wickremesinghe also said in a Tuesday media briefing that there are “still people on the run with explosives,” CNN reported.
Wijewardene said two radical Islamist groups were involved in the attack, naming the National Throwheed Jamath and the Jammiyyathul Millathu Ibrahim.
Thowheed Jamath “wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” said Michael Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
“It wouldn’t surprise me either if there were at least a couple of people who had traveled to Syria,” he said. “There was never a large Sri Lankan population there, but it only takes one or two to return and inspire a local group to align itself ideologically and tactically with a global violent jihadist organization.”
Nicholas Rasmussen, who also formerly directed the National Counterterrorism Center, said the links between Syria and Sri Lanka do not need to be broad to be effective.
“But it wouldn’t take much — a connection between Sri Lankan foreign fighters in Syria with like-minded people back home — in order to create such a connection,” Rasmussen said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed “Islamic radical terror” for the attacks.
“This is America’s fight, too,” Pompeo said Monday, adding that “radical Islamist terror remains a threat.”
As Sri Lanka mourned for the more than 300 dead and 500 wounded in the attacks on three churches and three high-end hotels, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, criticized the government over reports that officials had advance information that an attack was in the works, but did not share it, The New York Times reported.
“News media reported that there was information pertaining to a possible attack,” Cardinal Ranjith said at a news conference. “If that’s the case, couldn’t we have prevented the situation? Why wasn’t there any action?”
Police reported that more than 40 people have been detained in connection with the attacks.
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