Instructions from headquarters: Islamic State’s new guerrilla manual

FILE PHOTO: Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Lena Masri and Ali Abdelaty

CAIRO (Reuters) – After losing territory, Islamic State fighters are turning to guerrilla war – and the group’s newspaper is telling them exactly how to do it.

In recent weeks, IS’s al-Naba online newspaper has encouraged followers to adopt guerrilla tactics and published detailed instructions on how to carry out hit-and-run operations.

The group is using such tactics in places where it aims to expand beyond Iraq and Syria. While IS has tried this approach before, the guidelines make clear the group is adopting it as standard operating procedure.

    At the height of its power IS ruled over millions in large parts of Syria and Iraq.

    But in March it lost its last significant piece of territory, the Syrian village of Baghouz, and the group has been forced to return to its roots: a style of fighting that avoids direct confrontation, weakening the enemy by attrition and winning popular support.

This attempt to revive Islamic State has so far been successful, analysts say, with many global attacks in recent weeks, including in places never before targeted by the group.

“The sad reality is that ISIS is still very dangerous,” said Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremists. “It has the tools and foundations needed to build insurgencies across the world.”

In a rare video published by IS’s Al Furqan network in April, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi encouraged followers to fight on and weaken the enemy by attrition, stressing that waging war is more important than winning.

“It was more downbeat than his only other video appearance from the pulpit of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in 2014, when he was dressed all in black and sporting a fancy watch.

“In the new video, he sat cross-legged on a mattress as he spoke to three aides. A Kalashnikov rifle rested against the wall behind him — the same type of weapon that appeared in videos of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Baghdadi’s predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who both adopted the guerrilla warfare tactic.

“He appeared as a commander of hardened mujahideen, of an insurgency group, not the pampered leader of a well-off caliphate,” said Katz. “His appearance totally mobilized Islamic State’s supporters all over the world.”

ORGANIZED TACTIC

Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamists, said IS has used guerrilla tactics to temporarily seize towns in order to attract media coverage but also as part of a new strategic approach.

“This kind of war has turned into a strategy for the group,” he said. “At this stage they are using it as a war of attrition, like Baghdadi said in his latest speech.”

In April, IS claimed it had attacked the town of Fuqaha in Libya, killing the head of the town council and setting fire to the municipal guard headquarters. “They seized control of the town for several hours and then returned to their bases safely,” the claim said of the IS fighters.

In recent weeks, al-Naba newspaper, one of IS’s most important media outlets, has published a four-part series titled “The Temporary Fall of Cities as a Working Method for the Mujahideen”.

In the articles, IS urged fighters to avoid face-to-face clashes with the enemy — something the group had previously encouraged.

The series explained how guerrilla fighters can weaken the enemy without taking losses. It urged the jihadists to seize weapons from victims and grab or burn their valuables.

“Among the goals of hit-and-run attacks,” the series said, was to take hostages, release prisoners and seize cash from the enemy.

Other goals were to “secure the needs of fighters” by collecting money, food, medicine and weapons “particularly when it is difficult to secure these needs because (the fighters) are in a weak position,” one of the articles said.

AL QAEDA TACTICS

” These guerrilla warfare manuals are the most detailed IS has published yet,” Katz said.

“The language is similar to the one used in manuals published years ago by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia via its al-Battar electronic magazine, which provided military instructions to supporters and cells around the world,” she said.

IS’s new manuals show that the group is short on fighters and finances, she added.

“When it lost its territory, IS also lost an important source of income, mainly taxes and oil revenue.”

“Financially, territorially and militarily speaking, the group is very weak,” said Katz. “That said, ISIS leadership seeks to revive its so-called caliphate, with special attention on areas outside of Iraq and Syria.”

Although not all of the group’s claims can be confirmed, it has announced some wide-ranging operations.

On April 18, IS claimed its first attack in Democratic Republic of Congo and announced the creation of a “Central Africa Province” of the “Caliphate”. Since then the group has claimed several more attacks in Congo.

On May 10, IS claimed it had established a province in India. It also said IS fighters had inflicted casualties on Indian soldiers in Kashmir.

The same day, militants on motorbikes stormed a town in northeastern Nigeria and opened fire on residents and soldiers in an attack later claimed by Islamic State.

IS has claimed more operations in Nigeria and dozens of similar attacks in recent weeks in Afghanistan, Niger, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In several cases, the group published pictures of bullets, rifles and other weapons it said it had collected from soldiers.

“By striking in a wide range of places, IS is promoting itself and proving it can reorganize and modify its strategy,” said Laith Alkhouri, co-founder and senior director at Flashpoint, which monitors militants’ activity online.

“ISIS super-temporarily seizes areas, flexes its muscles, subdues locals, even recruits from amongst them, and taunts governments by exposing security flaws or weaknesses,” he said. “This is a considerably important avenue for ISIS’s growth.”

“Guerrilla war is a less costly way to inflict damage and the group is using the tactic where it wants to expand, such as eastern Afghanistan, northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent and central Africa, he said.

“The group’s media realizes the importance of highlighting this, not only for boosting the morale of the support base,” Alkhouri said. “But just as importantly for expanding its footprint geographically and effectively setting up and expanding unrest zones around the world.”

(Reporting by Lena Masri and Ali Abdelaty; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom; Writing by Lena Masri; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Sri Lanka police arrest 23 for targeting Muslims after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol a road of Hettipola after a mob attack in a mosque in the nearby village of Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KOTTAMPITIYA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police arrested 23 people on Tuesday in connection with a spate of attacks on Muslim-owned homes and shops in apparent reprisal for the Easter bombings by Islamist militants that killed more than 250 people.

Soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled the towns hit by sectarian violence this week as residents recalled how Muslims had hid in paddy fields to escape mobs carrying rods and swords, incensed over the militant attacks.

The April 21 attacks, claimed by Islamic State, targeted churches and hotels, mostly in Colombo, killing more than 250 people and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Mobs moved through towns in Sri Lanka’s northwest on motorbikes and in buses, ransacking mosques, burning Korans and attacking shops with petrol bombs in rioting that began on Sunday, Muslim residents said.

Police said they arrested 23 people from across the island for inciting violence against Muslims, who make up less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the situation is under control and no new incidents had been reported on Tuesday.

But a nationwide curfew from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m. would be in effect for a second night.

The lone fatality was a man killed while trying to protect his home from attack.

When mobs arrived in the Kottramulla area on Monday evening, Mohamed Salim Fowzul Ameer, 49, went outside while his wife, Fatima Jiffriya, stayed with their four children.

Jiffriya, 37, then heard shouts and sounds of fighting.

“I opened the door to see my husband on the ground in a pool of blood, the police right in front and the mob running,” she said.

“His heart was still beating hard, I took him into my lap and started to scream for help,” she added, her voice breaking, as women consoled her children at an uncle’s house ahead of Ameer’s burial.

DEEP DIVISIONS

Sri Lanka has had a history of ethnic and religious violence and was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government.

In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East had made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.

Last year, scores of Muslim mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as Buddhist mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy, the central highlands district previously known for its diversity and tolerance.

Muslims said this week’s violence was more widespread.

Residents in the town of Kottampitiya recalled how a group of about a dozen people had arrived in taxis and attacked Muslim-owned stores with stones just after midday on Monday, with the mob soon swelling to 200, and then 1,000.

The mob attacked the main mosque, 17 Muslim-owned businesses and 50 homes, witnesses said.

“The Muslim community huddled in nearby paddy fields, that’s how no one died,” said one of a group of men gathered outside the white-and-green mosque with smashed windows and doors.

Abdul Bari, 48, told Reuters his small brick shop had been burned down with a petrol bomb. “The attackers were on motorbikes, armed with rods and swords,” he added.

Others blamed the police for failing to disperse the crowd.

“The police were watching. They were in the street, they didn’t stop anything. They told us to go inside,” said Mohamed Faleel, 47, who runs a car paint business.

“We asked police, we said stop them. They didn’t fire. They had to stop this, but they didn’t,” he added.

Police spokesman Gunasekera rejected allegations that police had stood by while the violence unfolded. He said the perpetrators would be punished.

“All police officers have been instructed to take stern action against the violators, even to use the maximum force. Perpetrators could face up to a 10-year jail term,” he said.

A police source said seven of those arrested for the violence in Kottampitiya were young Sinhalese men from nearby Buddhist villages.

“They were leading the charge yesterday. They were instructing people on which stores to attack,” said the police source.

The men said they were seeking revenge for the militant attack in the city of Negombo, where over 100 people were killed at the St. Sebastian’s Church during Easter prayers, the police source said.

A court remanded the men to police custody on Tuesday. They could not be reached for comment.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler)

Sri Lanka imposes nationwide curfew after mosques attacked

A Muslim man stands inside the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KINIYAMA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and shops owned by Muslims on Monday and imposed a nationwide curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter bombings by Islamist militants.

The militants targeted churches and hotels, most of them in Colombo, killing more than 250 people in an attack claimed by Islamic State and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Residents in Muslim parts of North Western Province said mobs had attacked mosques and damaged shops and businesses owned by Muslims for a second day.

“There are hundreds of rioters, police and army are just watching. They have burnt our mosques and smashed many shops owned by Muslims,” a resident of Kottampitiya area told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“When we try to come out of our house, police tell us to stay inside.”

Police imposed a nationwide curfew until from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m., spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Authorities also imposed a temporary ban on social media networks and messaging apps including WhatsApp after a clash in another part of the country was traced to a dispute on Facebook.

A police source said police had fired tear gas to disperse mobs in some places in North Western Province.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

A Reuters reporter saw a mob of several dozen young Sinhalese men wielding sticks and rods in what appeared to be a standoff in the town of Madulla in North Western Province.

Many anxious Muslims were hunkering down at home but young men, some of them carrying rods, were still zipping around on motorbikes, despite regional curfews from 2 p.m. before the nationwide curfew was imposed.

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

MOSQUE RANSACKED

Glass was strewn across the Abrar mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked overnight. All the windows and doors of the soft-pink building were smashed and copies of the Koran were thrown onto the floor.

A mosque official said the attacks were triggered when several people, including some Buddhist monks, demanded a search of the main building after soldiers had inspected a 105-acre (43-hectare) lake nearby.

Authorities suspect lakes and wells are being used as hiding places to conceal weapons.

A 34-year-old man who was at the mosque said about 150-200 came toward the mosque with rods and swords on Sunday but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the police.

But they came back and this time there were about 1,300 people. The Muslims, huddled in the mosque, asked the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob, but the police said the people wanted to inspect the mosque for weapons.

Then the crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said.

“They destroyed and burned Korans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution,” he said.

Police spokesman Gunasekera did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But in an emailed statement he said there had been some damage to property in Hettipola area of Kurunegala district but no injuries reported.

The police source said police also fired in the air the Hettipola area.

Several dozen people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores and a man was beaten in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on the west coast on Sunday in the dispute that started on Facebook, police sources and residents told Reuters.

Authorities said they arrested the author of a Facebook post, identified as 38-year-old Abdul Hameed Mohamed Hasmar, whose online comment “1 day u will cry” people said was interpreted as threatening violence.

“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the government information department, told Reuters on Monday.

On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator, Dialog Axiata Plc, said it had also received instructions to block the apps Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube until further notice.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams)

Gunmen kill six in second church attack in Burkina Faso

Map of Burkina Faso

Gunmen killed six people including a priest outside a Catholic church in Burkina Faso on Sunday, the government said, the second attack on Christians in two weeks in a nation increasingly overrun by jihadists.

Congregants were leaving church around 9 a.m. (0900 GMT) in the town of Dablo in the Central North region when about 20 men encircled them and shot six dead, according to a government statement and local sources.

The attackers then burned the church, looted a pharmacy and some other stores, and left, Dablo mayor Ousmane Zongo told Reuters. The government statement only mentioned the burning of a shop and two vehicles.

“These terrorist groups are now attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us,” it said.

Burkina Faso has been beset by a rise in attacks in 2019 as groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda based in neighboring Mali seek to fuel local tensions and extend their influence over the porous borders of the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.

The government declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali in December because of deadly Islamist attacks.

But violence has only worsened since. Two French soldiers were killed in an operation to rescue four people taken hostage in Burkina last week, France said. Over 100,000 people in Burkina Faso have been displaced by the unrest this year, the United Nations has said.

Roughly 55% to 60% of Burkina Faso’s population is Muslim, with up to a quarter Christian. The two groups generally live in peace and frequently intermarry.

Then in late April unidentified gunmen killed a pastor and five congregants at a Protestant church, also in the north, suggesting the violence was taking a religious turn.

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

U.S. envoy to Sri Lanka says threat is real; security forces maintain high alert

A soldier keeps guard as nuns walk out of St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By A. Ananthalakshmi and Alexandra Ulmer

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka said on Tuesday that some of the Islamist militants behind Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people were likely still at large and could be planning more attacks.

Sri Lankan security forces also said they were maintaining a high level of alert amid intelligence reports that the militants were likely to strike before the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is due to begin next Monday.

“Tremendous progress has been made toward apprehending those plotters but I don’t think the story is over yet,” Ambassador Alaina Teplitz said in an interview.

“We do believe that there is active planning under way,” she said, referring to the possibility of more attacks.

Scores of suspected Islamists have been arrested in the multi-ethnic island nation since April 21 suicide bomb attacks on hotels and churches. Among the dead were 42 foreign nationals.

“Security will stay tight for several days because military and police are still tracking down suspects,” a senior police intelligence official said. 

Another government source told Reuters security authorities had ordered police and other security forces across the Buddhist-majority country to remain on high alert because the militants were expected to try to strike before Ramadan.

Teplitz told Reuters the risk of more attacks remained real.

“We certainly have reason to believe that the active attack group has not been fully rendered inactive,” she said.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting Sri Lankan authorities in the investigations but Teplitz declined to give more details.

The State Department has issued a travel advisory suggesting people reconsider plans to travel to Sri Lanka.

SOCIAL MEDIA BAN LIFTED

The government has lifted a ban on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber, a source at the president’s office said. The ban was imposed immediately after the attacks to prevent the spread of rumors.

The government has also banned women from wearing face veils under an emergency law invoked in response to the blasts.

Authorities suspect members of two previously little-known groups – National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – of carrying out the attacks, although the Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility.

Authorities believe Zahran Hashim, the founder of NTJ, was the mastermind and one of the nine suicide bombers.

Islamic State released a video after the attack through its AMAQ news agency, showing eight men, with all but Zahran with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag, declaring loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The Islamic group’s media network published a video on Monday purporting to come from al-Baghdadi, in which he said the Sri Lanka bombings were Islamic State’s response to losses in its last stronghold of Baghouz in Syria.

In India, police said they had arrested a 29-year-old man in the southern state of Kerala, close to Sri Lanka, for planning similar attacks there. The man had been influenced by speeches made by Zahran, India’s National Investigation Agency said in a statement.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million population is mostly Buddhist but includes minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

(Additional reporting by Ranga Srilal and Shri Navaratnam; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Father, two brothers of suspected Sri Lanka bombings mastermind killed in gun battle

A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alasdair Pal and Shri Navaratnam

KALMUNAI/COLOMBO (Reuters) – The father and two brothers of the suspected mastermind of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings were killed when security forces stormed their safe house on the east coast two days ago, police and a relative said on Sunday.

Zainee Hashim, Rilwan Hashim and their father Mohamed Hashim, who appear in a video circulating on social media calling for all-out war against non-believers, were among at least 15 killed in a fierce gun battle with the military on the east coast on Friday.

Kamal Jayanathdhi, the officer in charge at Kalmunai police station on the east coast, confirmed the three men had died along with a child that appears in the video, and that the undated clip in which they discuss martyrdom, had been shot in the same house where the gun battle took place.

Two people who were inside the house, a woman and a seven-year-old girl believed to be relatives of the men, survived, he said, while a woman was killed in crossfire on a nearby street.

Niyaz Sharif, the brother-in-law of Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the wave of Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the island nation, told Reuters the video showed Zahran’s two brothers and father.

Sri Lanka has been on high alert since the attacks on Easter Sunday, with nearly 10,000 soldiers deployed across the island to carry out searches and hunt down members of two local Islamist groups believed to have carried out the attack.

Authorities have detained more than 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt since the April 21 bombings.

On Sunday police in the eastern town of Kattankudy raided a mosque founded by Zahran which doubled up as the headquarters of his group, the National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ).

HOLY WAR

In the video, Rilwan Hashim is seen calling for ‘jihad’ or holy war, while children cry in the background.

“We will destroy these non-believers to protect this land and therefore we need to do jihad,” Rilwan says in the video, sitting beside his brother and father.

“We need to teach a proper lesson for these non-believers who have been destroying Muslims.”

Rilwan, who has a damaged eye and badly disfigured hand in the video, had recently been injured while making a bomb, Jayanathdhi said.

On Sunday, when Reuters visited the house, police were sifting through the wreckage, taking fingerprints and video footage.

Watermelon rinds and a box of dates were still on the kitchen counter, while four pairs of children’s flip-flops were by the front door.

But in the main room, where the three men filmed the video, a huge crater had punched a hole in the concrete floor, while bloodstains covered the wall.

LOCAL VIGILANCE

Two men had moved into the three-room rented house in the Sainthamaruthu area of Kalmunai, days before the Easter Sunday attacks, police and locals said. After more people arrived, locals grew suspicious, said Mohammed Majid, the secretary of the Grand Masjid Sainthamaruthu, one of the town’s main mosques.

After evening prayers on Friday, a group of men from the local Hijra Mosque came to the house to question the occupants.

When one man brandished an assault rifle, the men fled, alerting police who arrived shortly afterward. One man was killed after running into the street with a gun to confront police, while a series of explosions came from the house, eyewitnesses said.

DANGER REMAINS

Authorities suspect there may be more suicide bombers on the loose. Defense authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, the National Thawheedh Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

At a nearby house where police seized more explosives and a flag of the Islamic State on Friday, locals said they feared more violence.

“People were coming and going but we didn’t know their names,” said Juneedha Hasanar, who runs a shop at the bottom of the street, yards from the house. “Now we are afraid.”

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, and on Sunday the group said three of its members clashed with Sri Lankan police for several hours in Friday’s gun battle on the east coast before detonating their explosive vests, the militant group’s news agency Amaq said.

The group said 17 policemen were killed or injured in the attack, but the Sri Lankan military has denied this. A police source told Reuters two policemen were slightly injured in the battle.

Police have said six children were among the other 12 people who died in the gun battle, and on Sunday recovered the partial remains of a child no more than a few months old.

(Reporting Shri Navaratnam, Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO and Alasdair Pal in KALMUNNAI; editing by Richard Pullin and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Sri Lankan police hunt 140 people after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan Special Task Force soldiers stand guard in front of a mosque as a muslim man walks past him during the Friday prayers at a mosque, five days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on Catholic churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Sanjeev Miglani and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police are trying to track down 140 people believed linked to Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings of churches and hotels that killed 253 people, President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday.

Muslims in Sri Lanka were urged to pray at home and not after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence.

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka also urged its citizens to avoid places of worship over the weekend after authorities reported there could be more attacks targeting religious centers.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters he had seen a leaked internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and there would be no Catholic masses this Sunday anywhere on the island.

The streets of Colombo were deserted on Friday evening, with many people leaving offices early amid tight security after the suicide bombing attacks on three churches and four hotels that also wounded about 500 people.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said on Friday.

The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ullama, Sri Lanka’s main Islamic religious body, urged Muslims to conduct prayers at home in case “there is a need to protect family and properties”.

Police have detained at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations so far.

Islamic State provided no evidence to back its claim that it was behind the attacks. If true, it would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.

The extremist group released a video on Tuesday showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

DEFENCE, POLICE CHIEFS QUIT

The Sri Lankan government said nine homegrown, well-educated suicide bombers carried out the attacks, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman.

Sirisena told reporters on Friday some Sri Lankan youths had been involved with Islamic State since 2013. He said information uncovered so far suggested there were 140 people in Sri Lanka involved in Islamic State activities.

“Police are looking to arrest them,” Sirisena said.

Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic Islamist groups – National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – they believe carried out the attacks.

Government officials have acknowledged a major lapse in not widely sharing an intelligence warning from India before the attacks.

Sirisena said top defense and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned over the failure to prevent the attacks.

“The police chief said he will resign now,” Sirisena said.

He blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decade-long civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have often refused to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Cardinal Ranjith said that the church had been kept in the dark about intelligence warning of attacks.

“We didn’t know anything. It came as a thunderbolt for us,” he said.

The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that had existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since the civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 38 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

They included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Britain warned its nationals on Thursday to avoid Sri Lanka unless it was absolutely necessary.

Fears of retaliatory sectarian violence have already caused Muslim communities to flee their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.

But at the Kollupitiya Jumma Masjid mosque, tucked away in a Colombo side street, hundreds attended a service they say was focused on a call for people of all religions to help return peace to Sri Lanka.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said 28-year-old sales worker Raees Ulhaq, as soldiers hurried on dawdling worshippers and sniffer dogs nosed their way through pot-holed lanes.

“We work with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. It has been a threat for all of us because of what these few people have done to this beautiful country.”

 

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Picture emerges of well-to-do young bombers behind Sri Lankan carnage

Coffins are laid in the ground during a mass burial for victims at a cemetery near St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, three days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Details began to emerge in Sri Lanka on Wednesday of a band of nine, well-educated Islamist suicide bombers, including a woman, from well-to-do families who slaughtered 359 people in Easter Sunday bomb attacks.

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on three churches and four hotels. If that connection is confirmed, the attacks looks likely to be the deadliest ever linked to the group.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the United States said the scale and sophistication of the coordinated bombings suggested the involvement of an external group such as Islamic State.

The Islamist group released a video late on Tuesday through its AMAQ news agency, showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag, declaring loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The one man in the video with his face uncovered was Mohamed Zahran, a Sri Lankan preacher known for militant views.

While the video showed eight men, Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said there were nine suicide bombers. Eight had been identified and one of them was a woman, he said.

“Most of the bombers are well-educated, come from economically strong families. Some of them went abroad for studies,” Wijewardene told a news conference.

“One of them we know went to the UK, then went to Australia for a law degree. Foreign partners, including the UK, are helping us with those investigations.”

Two of the bombers were brothers, sons of a wealthy spice trader and pillar of the business community, a source close to the family said.

Intelligence officials and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe believe that Zahran, a Tamil-speaking preacher from the east of the Indian Ocean island country, may have been the mastermind.

He was well-known for his militant views and fiery Facebook posts, according to Muslim leaders and a Sri Lankan intelligence report issued earlier and seen by Reuters.

The government suspects two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut, of which Zahran was believed to have been a member, and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible, with outside help.

MISSED WARNINGS

The early Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and military were also supporting the investigation into possible foreign connections, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, told reporters.

“If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, the sophistication of them, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” Teplitz said.

As well as the huge death toll, 500 people were wounded in the worst ever such militant attack in South Asia.

It has also exposed a significant Sri Lankan intelligence failure, with warnings of strikes not acted on and feuds at the highest levels of government.

“It is a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information,” Wijewardene said. “We have to take responsibility.”

Lakshman Kiriella, the leader of parliament, said senior officials had deliberately withheld intelligence about possible attacks.

A soldier looks on during the funural of eight-month-old Mathew, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A soldier looks on during the funural of eight-month-old Mathew, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“The top brass security officials did not take appropriate actions,” Kiriella, who is also minister of public enterprise, told parliament.

He said information about possible attacks was received from Indian intelligence on April 4 and a Security Council meeting was chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena three days later, but it was not shared more widely.

Sirisena has said his office never received the Indian report. The prime minister also had not been told of warnings of an attack, a minister said.

The president fired Prime Minister Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Two sources close to the president said he had asked the police chief and defense secretary to resign.

‘CHECKING ON MUSLIM AREAS’

A total of 60 people have been detained for questioning across Colombo, Wijewardene said. That total includes a Syrian, according to security sources.

Raids included areas near the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Negombo, north of the capital, where scores were killed on Sunday, a police spokesman said.

An unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2014.

“Search operations are going on everywhere, there is tight checking of Muslim areas,” a security source said.

Most of those killed and wounded were Sri Lankans, although officials said 38 foreigners were also killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Forty-five children were among the dead.

The government has imposed emergency rule and an overnight curfew. It said it has also blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumors that it feared could incite communal clashes.

 

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Heavy fighting flares between Taliban, Islamic State in Afghanistan

Afghan villagers who flee from the resent conflicts arrive at the Behsud district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Parwiz

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban insurgents are battling fighters loyal to Islamic State over control of territory in eastern Afghanistan in some of the heaviest clashes over the past year between the rival militants, officials said on Wednesday.

The fighting erupted on Monday in two districts of the eastern Afghan border province of Nangarhar, when Islamic State fighters attacked villages under Taliban control.

“Islamic State fighters have captured six villages in Khogyani and Shirzad districts but the fighting has not stopped,” said Sohrab Qaderi, a member Nangarhar’s the provincial council.

About 500 families had fled from the fighting, he said.

Casualty figures were not available.

A spokesman for the Taliban, who control more territory than at any point since they were ousted from power nearly 18 years ago, was not available for comment.

Islamic State fighters first appeared in eastern Afghanistan in around 2014 and have battled the Taliban as well as government and foreign forces.

The Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, sometimes known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region that includes Afghanistan, has made some inroads into other areas, in the north in particular.

It has also established a reputation for unusual cruelty, even by the standards of the Afghan conflict, and has been behind some of the deadliest attacks in urban centers.

While Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, has been an Islamic State stronghold, some villages in Khogyani and Shirzad districts have been controlled by the Taliban.

Fleeing villagers said they had to run for their lives.

“I could only rescue my family. We had to leave everything,” said Shawkat, 36, a resident of Markikhel village in Shirzad district who sought safety in a neighboring village.

Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor said, authorities would help the displaced villagers with food and medicine.

In August, more than 150 Islamic State fighters surrendered to the Afghan security forces after they were defeated by the Taliban in the northwestern province of Jawzjan.

The U.S. military estimates there are about 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.

Many are former Taliban. There is scant evidence of direct links with Islamic State in the Middle East, where the group has lost territory it once held in Syria and Iraq to Western-backed forces.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Scale, sophistication of Sri Lanka attack point to foreign links: U.S. ambassador

Friends and relatives carry the coffins of eight-month-old Mathew and his grandmother Agnes Vnikpridha, 69, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, at their funeral in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The scale and sophistication of the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka suggested the involvement of an external group such as Islamic State, the U.S. ambassador said on Wednesday, as the death toll from the bombings rose to 359.

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on three churches and four hotels, and details have begun to emerge of a band of nine, well-educated suicide bombers, including a woman, from well-to-do families.

Sri Lankan officials have blamed two domestic Islamist groups with suspected ties to Islamic State.

“If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, the sophistication of them, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, told reporters in Colombo.

“Exploring potential linkages is going to be part of (investigations),” she said.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and military were supporting the investigation, she said. Britain was also sending a team to help, Sri Lanka said.

Teplitz’s comments came as Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, conceded that there had been a significant intelligence failure before the attacks, with reports of warnings of strikes not acted on and feuds at the highest levels of government.

“It is a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information,” Wijewardene told a separate news conference. “We have to take responsibility.”

President Maithripala Sirisena had asked the police chief and defense secretary to quit, two sources close to the president said.

MISSED WARNINGS

Lakshman Kiriella, the leader of parliament, said senior officials had deliberately withheld intelligence about possible attacks.

“Some top intelligence officials hid the intelligence information purposefully … the top brass security officials did not take appropriate actions,” Kiriella, who is also minister of public enterprise, told parliament.

He said information about possible suicide attacks was received from Indian intelligence on April 4 and a Security Council meeting was chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena three days later, but it was not shared more widely.

Police said the death toll had risen overnight to 359 from 321, making it the deadliest such attack in South Asian history. About 500 people were wounded.

Islamic State also released a video late on Tuesday through its AMAQ news agency, showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag, declaring loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The one man in the video with his face uncovered was Mohamed Zahran, a Sri Lankan preacher known for militant views.

If the Islamic State connection is confirmed, it would be the deadliest ever such overseas attack linked to the group.

LAW DEGREE

The early Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

While the Islamic State video showed eight men, Wijewardene said there were nine suicide bombers. Eight had been identified and one of them was a woman, he said.

“Most of the bombers are well-educated, come from economically strong families. Some of them went abroad for studies,” Wijewardene said.

“One of them we know went to the UK, then went to Australia for a law degree. Foreign partners, including the UK, are helping us with those investigations.”

Wijewardene told parliament on Tuesday that two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts. He said on Wednesday the leader of one of those groups blew himself up in the attack on the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.

A total of 60 people had been detained for questioning across Colombo since Sunday, Wijewardene said. That total includes a Syrian, according to security sources.

Police searched more homes overnight, leading to the detention of 18 more people.

The overnight raids included areas near the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Negombo, north of the capital, where scores were killed on Sunday, a police spokesman said.

An unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2014.

“Search operations are going on everywhere, there is tight checking of Muslim areas,” a security source said.

Most of those killed and wounded were Sri Lankans, although officials said 38 foreigners were also killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Forty-five children were among the dead.

The government has imposed emergency rule and an overnight curfew. It said it has also blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumours that it feared could incite communal clashes.

(GRAPHIC: Sri Lanka bombings – https://tmsnrt.rs/2Xy02BA)

(GRAPHIC: A decade of peace shattered – https://tmsnrt.rs/2W4wZoU)

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)