Taliban attack on U.S. military base kills one, injures scores

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Suicide bombers struck the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least one person and injuring scores in a major attack that could scupper plans to revive peace talks between the United States and the Taliban.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which struck the Bagram air base north of Kabul.

“First, a heavy-duty Mazda vehicle struck the wall of the American base,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. “Later several mujahideen equipped with light and heavy weapons were able to attack the American occupiers.”

The Taliban spokesman claimed the attack was still ongoing. The U.S.-led military coalition said the attack was “quickly contained and repelled”.

Abdul Shukoor Qudosi, the district governor of Bagram district, said 87 people were injured and one woman was killed, and that a clearance operation was still ongoing.

Five servicemen from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, were among those injured, the country’s defense ministry said in a statement. The majority of casualties were Afghan.

“A 30-minute clash also happened between the attackers, who obviously wanted to enter the base, and foreign forces,” said Wahida Shahkar, a spokeswoman for the governor of Parwan province, which includes the Bagram district.

Two attackers detonated vehicles laden with explosives at the southern entrance to the base, while five more opened fire. It was not immediately clear how many of the five gunmen were killed, Shahkar said.

A medical base being built for locals was badly damaged, the coalition of foreign forces in Afghanistan said in a statement. The Taliban denied this.

U.S. President Donald Trump called off talks with the Taliban in September after an attack by the group killed an American soldier. The Taliban controls more territory than at any point since being ousted from power by Afghan foes with U.S. air support in 2001.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Alasdair Pal)

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)

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)

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)

Islamic State counter-attacks out of final Syria enclave fall short -U.S.-backed SDF

Islamic state fighters and their families walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State launched two counter attacks on U.S.-backed fighters besieging their final shred of territory in eastern Syria on Wednesday but were beaten back without any progress, the Syrian Democratic Forces said.

The jihadists, waging a last-ditch battle in Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, dispatched suicide bombers against SDF fighters, who thwarted the attacks, the U.S.-backed force said.

Islamic State launched the second counter-attack in the afternoon, “(taking) advantage of smoke and dust over Baghouz”, the SDF media office said. “Fighting is still continuing. (Islamic State) made no progress so far and were stopped.”

There were no SDF casualties. “They attempted to carry out suicide attacks but failed,” the SDF said.

Black smoke mushroomed high over Baghouz as the sounds of gunfire, explosions and planes could be heard in a battle that the SDF has said is as good as over.

In parts of Baghouz already under SDF control, dirt roads were littered with the scorched remains of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Many houses had been completely flattened and roads had been cratered by missile strikes.

Islamic State’s black flag could still be seen painted on walls, while others had been emblazoned with freshly daubed SDF slogans and the words “Down with Daesh”, an Arabic acronym for the jihadists.

Islamic State (IS) held roughly one third of Syria and Iraq at the zenith of its power in 2014, when its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

Subsequently, IS was steadily beaten back by a range of enemies including the U.S.-led international coalition, suffering its major defeats in 2017 when it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa.

No Islamic State leaders are believed to be in Baghouz, according to a U.S. defense official. U.S. government experts strongly believe Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The group is still assessed to remain a potent security threat operating in remote territory in both Syria and Iraq.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said its forces had bombarded Baghouz heavily overnight before engaging in direct clashes with IS fighters in the pre-dawn hours.

Live footage broadcast by Kurdish Ronahi TV overnight showed a series of large blasts lighting up the night sky over Baghouz.

SUICIDE ASSAULTS

“There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces. Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions,” Bali said.

The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave. It resumed the attack on Sunday.

Around 3,000 IS fighters and their families surrendered to SDF forces in 24 hours, Bali said overnight. Three women and four children belonging to the Yazidi sect, a minority group who were kidnapped and enslaved by IS in 2014, were also freed, he said.

Islamic State put out a new propaganda video overnight Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, maintaining its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell,” one of the men interviewed in the video said.

Though Islamic State is on the verge of losing its last piece of territory, Syria remains carved up among other parties to its multi-sided conflict: President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Kurdish-led SDF, and anti-government rebels.

The war has escalated in recent weeks between the Assad government and insurgents in the northwestern region of Idlib, where Islamist militant group Tahrir al-Sham holds sway.

Overnight, government forces rained incendiary bombs on the area, where a full-scale offensive was averted in September by an agreement brokered by Assad’s Russian allies and Turkey, which backs his opponents and has forces on the ground.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Ellen Francis in Baghouz and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington/Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Indonesian children who joined suicide attacks kept isolated by parents

Anti-terror policemen walk during a raid of a house of a suspected terrorist at Medokan Ayu area in Surabaya, Indonesia May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

By Kanupriya Kapoor

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) – The parents of Indonesian children and young adults who took part in deadly suicide bombings in Surabaya had isolated them within a tightly knit circle of militant Islamists, police said on Tuesday.

A family of six killed at least 13 people, including themselves, by bombing three churches in Surabaya on Sunday in the worst militant attack in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country since the bombing of restaurants in Bali in 2005.

On Monday, another militant family of five riding two motorbikes blew themselves up at a police checkpoint in the city, wounding 10 people and killing four of the family and two others. An eight-year-old daughter survived.

“These children have been indoctrinated by their parents. It seems they did not interact much with others,” East Java Police Chief Machfud Arifin told reporters.

The eight-year-old daughter who survived did not have explosives strapped to her, but was thrown three meters (10 ft) into the air by the blast and was receiving intensive care in hospital, police said.

“She’s conscious. She will be accompanied by relatives and social workers when questioned by police,” said Arifin.

Police in Sidoarjo, near Surabaya, recovered pipe bombs at an apartment where a blast on Sunday killed three members of a family alleged to have been making bombs.

Three children survived and in interviews with police described how they had interacted only with parents and adults of similar ideology.

Every Sunday evening they were made to attend a prayer circle with these adults, said Arifin, adding that the families behind the two sets of suicide attacks had attended.

Police said that the fathers of the families involved in the church bombing and the apartment in Sidoarjo where bombs were found were also friends.

After some major successes tackling Islamist militancy since 2001, there has been a resurgence in recent years, including in January 2016 when four suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a shopping area in the capital, Jakarta.

MIDDLE CLASS HOUSING COMPLEX

Police suspect the attacks on the churches were carried out by a cell of the Islamic State-inspired group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organization on a U.S. State Department terrorist list that is reckoned to have drawn hundreds of Indonesian sympathizers of Islamic State.

The family involved in those attacks lived in a middle class housing complex in the city and police said the father was the head of a local JAD cell.

“I think the family setting and the isolation from the outside world… were perfect settings for him to indoctrinate the rest of his family,” said Alexander Raymond Arifianto, an Indonesia expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini was quoted as saying by news portal Tempo.co that one of the sons had also refused to attend flag raising ceremonies or go to classes on Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila, which enshrines religious diversity under an officially secular system.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla urged the public to provide information that could help stop attacks.

“Please be the government’s eyes and ears so these things won’t happen in the future,” Kalla told a conference in Jakarta.

In all, around 30 people have been killed since Sunday in attacks, including 13 suspected perpetrators, police said.

Sidney Jones, of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said in a commentary for the Lowy Institute that the attacks showed how urgent it was for authorities to learn more about family networks.

“If three families can be involved in two days’ worth of terrorist attacks in Surabaya, surely there are more ready to act,” he said.

(For a graphic on ‘Bomb attacks in Indonesia’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rBtid8)

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana and Gayatri Suroyo; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

New York police poised to thwart New Year’s Eve suicide bombers

New York Police Department Counterterrorism Bureau members stand in Times Square to provide security ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations in Manhattan, New York, U.S. December 28, 2017

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The New York Police Department is providing officers with specialized training to stop any suicide bombers at Sunday’s New Year’s Eve celebration, when up to 2 million people will flood the streets of Times Square, officials said on Thursday.

The stepped-up training is in response to an attempted bombing in a Times Square subway station walkway on Dec. 11. It comes on top of increasingly stringent security for the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The New York Police Department will also deploy observation teams trained to spot snipers, increase the number of explosive-detecting dogs and position more officers throughout the area this year.

Police have said they will incorporate lessons learned from what they have labeled as three terrorist attacks in the city in the past 15 months, in addition to their ongoing analysis of all attacks worldwide.

That intelligence will form part of the massive security operation for the “ball drop” celebration, a tradition that dates to 1907 and is now televised around the world.

“You will see an increase in heavy weapons, bomb squad personnel, radiological detection teams, and our technology to include over 1,000 cameras in and around the area of Times Square for the event,” the NYPD’s chief of counterterrorism, James Waters, told a news conference, two days before the event.

Officers involved in the New Year’s Eve security operation will receive a tactical bulletin and a training video on suicide bombers that they will be able to review on their department-issued phones starting Friday.

“We owe it to the cops to give them some kind of guidelines,” Waters said.

The training material will include instructions on protecting bystanders if officers suspect someone has a bomb and guidance on apprehending and disarming suspects with the assistance of the bomb squad, he said.

Police will also be on the lookout for snipers in response to the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival on Oct. 1, when a 64-year-old American opened fire from his 32nd-floor hotel room, killing 58 people and wounding some 500.

Detectives posted in hotels will keep an eye on guests, and additional emergency services and critical response teams will be on hand, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

O’Neill declined to say how many of the department’s 36,000 officers will work on New Year’s Eve, in order to keep would-be attackers guessing.

People who want to see the New Year’s Eve musical acts and other entertainment up close in Times Square will have to pass by dogs trained to detect explosives and heavily armed officers, go through a magnetometer to check for weapons, have their bags inspected, and then repeat all those steps a second time.

Police will again use dump trucks filled with sand, police cars and cement blocks to close streets starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday. About 125 parking garages in the vicinity will be emptied of all cars and sealed.

Even so, police acknowledged a possible suicide bomber could manage to get close to large crowds of people before the checkpoints are set up, as evident by the Dec. 11 attack.

On that day, police said, a Bangladeshi man set off a homemade pipe bomb strapped to his body in a subway pedestrian tunnel beneath Times Square, wounding himself and two bystanders.

Asked how to stop someone with such an intent, Waters said, “As a last resort: deadly physical force.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

Suicide bombers kill dozens at Shi’ite center in Afghan capital

Afghan women mourn inside a hospital compound after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan December 28, 2017.

By Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi and Akram Walizada

KABUL (Reuters) – Suicide bombers stormed a Shi’ite cultural center and news agency in the Afghan capital on Thursday, killing more than 40 people and wounding scores, many of them students attending a conference.

Islamic State said in an online statement that it was responsible for the attack, the latest in a series the movement has claimed on Shi’ite targets in Kabul.

Waheed Majrooh, a spokesman for the ministry of public health, said 41 people, including four women and two children, had been killed and 84 wounded, most suffering from burns.

The attack occurred during a morning panel discussion on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Sunni-majority Afghanistan at the Tabian Social and Cultural Centre, witnesses said.

The floor of the center, at the basement level, was covered in blood as wailing survivors and relatives picked through the debris, while windows of the news agency, on the second floor, were all shattered.

“We were shocked and didn’t feel the explosion at first but we saw smoke coming up from below,” said Ali Reza Ahmadi, a journalist at the agency who was sitting in his office above the center when the attack took place.

“Survivors were coming out. I saw one boy with cuts to his feet and others with burns all over their faces,” he said. “About 10 minutes after the first explosion, there was another one outside on the street and then another one.”

“SMOKE EVERYWHERE”

Deputy Health Minister Feda Mohammad Paikan said 35 bodies had been brought into the nearby Istiqlal hospital. Television pictures showed many of the injured suffered serious burns.

“There was a reading and an academic discussion and then there was a huge bang,” said Sayed Jan, a participant in the conference, from his bed in the hospital.

“I felt my face burning and I fell down and saw other colleagues lying around me and smoke everywhere.”

The bloodshed followed an attack on a private television station in Kabul last month, which was also claimed by the local affiliate of Islamic State.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement on Twitter denying involvement in the attack, which was condemned by both the Kabul government and Afghanistan’s international partners including NATO and the United Nations.

“I have little doubt that this attack deliberately targeted civilians,” said Toby Lanzer, acting head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Afghan men inspect at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan December 28, 2017.

Afghan men inspect at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan December 28, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

“Today in Kabul we have witnessed another truly despicable crime in a year already marked by unspeakable atrocities.”

Over the past two years, Islamic State in Khorasan, as the local group is known, has claimed a growing number of attacks on Shi’ite targets in Afghanistan, where sectarian attacks were previously rare.

The movement, which first appeared in eastern Afghanistan in 2015, has extended its reach steadily, although many security officials question its ability to conduct complex attacks and believe it has help from criminals or other militant groups.

Prior to Thursday’s attack, there had been at least 12 attacks on Shi’ite targets since the start of 2016, in which almost 700 people were killed or wounded, according to United Nations figures. Before that, there had only been one major attack, in 2011.

FORTIFIED ZONE

Backed by the heaviest U.S. air strikes since the height of the international combat mission in Afghanistan, Afghan forces have forced the Taliban back in many areas and prevented any major urban center from falling into the hands of insurgents.

But high-profile attacks in the big cities have continued as militants have looked for other ways to make an impact and undermine confidence in security.

The attacks have increased pressure on Ghani’s Western-backed government to improve security. Much of the center of Kabul is already a fortified zone of concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, following repeated attacks on the diplomatic quarter of the city.

But militant groups have also hit numerous targets outside the protected zone, many in the western part of the city, home to many members of the mainly Shi’ite Hazara community.

“This gruesome attack underscores the dangers faced by Afghan civilians,” rights group Amnesty International said in a statement from its South Asia Director, Biraj Patnaik. “In one of the deadliest years on record, journalists and other civilians continue to be ruthlessly targeted by armed groups.”

According to a report this month by media freedom group Reporters without Borders, Afghanistan is among the world’s most dangerous countries for media workers with two journalists and five media assistants killed doing their jobs in 2017, before Thursday’s attack.

According to Sayed Abbas Hussaini, a journalist at Afghan Voice, one reporter at the agency was killed in Thursday’s attack and two were wounded.

(Reporting by Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Turkey detains 44 in anti-terrorist operations, including bomb attack planners

Police and ambulances arrive at the site of an explosion in central Istanbul, Turkey, December 10, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police have detained 44 suspects in anti-terrorist operations, including the planners of two suicide bomb attacks in Istanbul last year, the city’s governor said on Thursday.

Twin bombs — one planted in a car and the other strapped to a suicide bomber — exploded in an attack outside the stadium of Besiktas soccer club in central Istanbul on Dec. 10, killing 44 people and wounding 155.

“One of the suspects detained in the operation had carried out reconaissance work before the December 2016 bombing, and had jumped and fled the car shortly before it was detonated,” Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin told reporters.

The other suspect detained has been identified as the organizer of a July 2016 attack against a police bus that killed 11 people, including civilians and police officers, and left 36 people wounded.

The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), an offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), claimed responsibility for both attacks.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the U.S., has fought a three-decades-old insurgency in Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton)