The National·Analysis

Sri Lanka probes ISIS link to bombings as death toll climbs

The claim by ISIS that it is behind the Sri Lanka bombings is supported by 'some of the evidence,' prime minister says.

ISIS' claim of responsibility is supported by 'some of the evidence,' prime minister says

Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 22, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (Jewe; Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

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The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Sunday's deadly string of bombings in Sri Lanka, providing a photo and the noms de guerre of the eight men it says were responsible for the attacks.

While only one man's face is visible — Zahran Hashim, a radical imam known for his fiery pro-ISIS sermons on Facebook and YouTube — the Sri Lankan government seems inclined to believe that the terrorist group was behind the coordinated blasts at churches and hotels that killed at least 359 and injured 500 others.

Authorities  had initially identified a homegrown extremist group, National Thowheeth Jama'ath, as the prime suspects. But they now suggest that the plot had "international support" from a terrorist organization in India called Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, and perhaps the Islamic State.

"We can't tell you immediately, definitively to whom they had links," Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told a news conference Tuesday. But initial suspicions "that there were links with ISIS," have now been backed up by "some of the evidence."

This undated image posted by the Islamic State group's Aamaq news agency on April 23 purports to show Mohammed Zahran, a.k.a. Zahran Hashmi, centre, the man Sri Lanka says led the Easter bombings, as well as other attackers. (Aamaq news agency via AP)

Ruwan Wijewardene, the country's defence minister, told parliament that the preliminary investigation has revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka, "was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch."

At least 58 people are being held for questioning in connection with the Easter weekend blasts, but all of them are thought to be Sri Lankan citizens.

The Islamic State propaganda network frequently claims responsibility for violent acts and plots across the globe, often without furnishing any proof.

But if nothing else, its boasts about marking the "infidel holiday" of Easter with the six Sri Lankan strikes demonstrates that the group retains ambitions to be the world's foremost terrorist brand, despite losing the last remnants of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Security footage shows suspected Sri Lanka bomber

3 years ago
Duration 0:55
Security footage shows a suspected bomber walking into a Sri Lankan church with a backpack just before the Easter attacks.

ISIS has also claimed responsibility for a Sunday attack in Saudi Arabia, in which four men armed with automatic weapons and explosive belts tried to storm a police station in the city of Zulfi, 250 kilometres northeast of Riyadh. All four were killed, and three policemen were injured in a gun battle that lasted for hours.

Afterwards, Saudi authorities staged a raid on what they said was a nearby ISIS "bomb factory," arresting 13 men and seizing 75,000 kilograms of fertilizer.

The Saudi government announced via Twitter on Tuesday that it has executed 37 terrorism suspects, although it's not clear if that number included any of those arrested this past weekend.

The Islamic State also says it was behind a Saturday attack on the headquarters of Afghanistan's communications ministry in Kabul. The suicide bombing and commando raid killed four civilians and three police, and wounded at least eight other people.

In a "comeback" attack in Syria last week, ISIS fighters killed at least 35 government soldiers, including four senior army officers.

And in the month since its "final" defeat in the Syrian border town of Baghouz, real or wannabe members of ISIS have staged their first-ever attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing eight government soldiers inside the zone where an Ebola outbreak is raging.

President Donald Trump holds a chart documenting ISIS land losses in Iraq and Syria as he delivers remarks at the Lima Army Tank Plant in Lima, Ohio, on March 20. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The group has also claimed to be behind the assassination of a Tuareg leader in Mali, and a joint assault with Boko Haram soldiers on the city of Diffa in southeastern Niger.

Two alleged plots in the United States have also been linked to the group.

In late March, police in Maryland arrested a 28-year-old man after he stole a U-Haul truck, with the supposed intent of driving it into crowds along the banks of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.

And Monday, a mother of seven from a small Wisconsin town pleaded  guilty to using hacked social media accounts in an effort to help others plan attacks in the name of ISIS.

A BBC data analysis, published last month, showed that ISIS claimed to have been behind 3,670 attacks worldwide last year — an average of 11 each day — and a further 502 attacks over the first two months of 2019.

This March 24 photo shows smoke rising behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghouz in Syria near the Iraqi border, a day after the Islamic State's 'caliphate' was declared defeated by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

Most were in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but the group also claims to have been active in Somalia, the Philippines, Egypt and Nigeria.

The group has also taken responsibility for a number of smaller-scale incidents in France, Belgium and Australia. (An ISIS claim of responsibility for a shooting spree along Toronto's Danforth Avenue last summer that left two dead and wounded 13 others has been rejected by police.)

The New York Times calculates that the Islamic State or its acolytes have carried out attacks in at least 25 different countries since 2017.

And in a wired world, support and encouragement doesn't need to happen face-to-face.

In one foiled 2017 plot against a high-tech hub in India, ISIS members allegedly recruited all the would-be attackers and helped them plan every detail, even obtaining their weapons, without ever meeting them.

It's that type of "remote control" assistance that authorities in Sri Lanka are now investigating, focusing on the bomb-making, reconnaissance and planning efforts that made Sunday's attack so deadly.


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.