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ISIS claims responsibility for Sri Lanka bombings

The attacks targeted churches and hotels across the country and left more than 300 dead.

by Alex Lubben
Apr 23 2019, 3:49pm

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility on Tuesday for the string of suicide bombings that ripped through Sri Lanka on Sunday and left over 300 dead, according to the terrorist group’s news agency, Amaq.

In the bulletin, ISIS gave no conclusive evidence that its fighters committed the bombings, and the group has falsely claimed responsibility for attacks before. Security experts, however, said the bombings bear the signature marks of ISIS. The terrorist group has also repeatedly put out calls to instigate such attacks in their home countries, particularly since the mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand in March.

ISIS’ claim of responsibility comes two days after the bombings, an unusually long waiting period for the group, as New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi pointed out. The Sri Lankan government had already announced its investigation into another Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a small organization believed to have received international help before in attacks on Christian churches across the country.

Sri Lankan officials have also cited a third group as potentially responsible, signaling the lack of unity within a government that underwent a power struggle at the end of last year.

By Tuesday, 40 people had been arrested in connection with the attacks in the South Asia island nation, according to the New York Times. Video also surfaced Tuesday of a man believed to be one of the suicide bombers, walking into the St. Sebastian Church in Negombo with a backpack. The bomb that went off there was the deadliest of the blasts to roil the nation, killing dozens of people.

The threat of further attacks looms over Sri Lanka. The country’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said during a press conference Tuesday that there are "still people on the run with explosives,” according to CNN.

The U.S. is now sending the FBI to assist the Sri Lankan government in its investigation.

Ruwan Wijewardene, a junior defense minister, said Tuesday that another Islamist group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, was also involved in the attacks. The government believes that the suicide bombers were Sri Lankan but had international help in coordinating the attacks.

Wijewardene also initially said the attacks were in retaliation for the shootings in Christchurch but didn’t provide any evidence to back up that claim. The prime minister also later walked back his comments. “It’s possible it could have been because of the Christchurch attacks,” Wickremesinghe said. “We cannot say here.”

Aside from its inconsistent messaging since the bombings, the Sri Lankan government has come under fire for having intelligence that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath had planned to attack churches in the country, according to a security memo circulated on April 11. But the government didn’t act on the information, and the prime minister said he wasn’t even briefed.

In October, the president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, tried to oust the prime minister, and then attempted to dissolve the country’s parliament. The internecine quarrels led to legislators hurling chairs and even throwing chili pepper into each other's eyes.

Since the attacks, social media has been blacked out in Sri Lanka, and the military has been afforded war-time powers that allow officials more leeway to make arrests. The government said it’s trying to curb the spread of disinformation in the wake of the bombings, though it’s not clear that social media played any role in the radicalization of the attackers, the coordination of the attacks, or the spreading of images or video of the bombings themselves.

The death toll from the attack has continued to rise since bombs went off in several churches across the country and hotels popular with tourists in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. As of Tuesday, the total number of dead stands at 319, up from 290 on Monday. Among the dead are 45 children, according to UNICEF.

Cover image: Melton Roy, prays amid the newly buried graves of Easter Sunday bomb blast victims at Methodist burial ground in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Roy thanked The God for protecting his family from harm and prayed for the life of the people who were affected. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)