Los Angeles Times

Islamic State claims bombings in Sri Lanka

Militant group’s claims can’t be confirmed as the death toll rises and burials begin.

- By Shashank Bengali Times staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut and special correspond­ent Munza Mushtaq in Colombo contribute­d to this report.

The death toll rose to 321, in what would be one of the extremist group’s deadliest attacks outside its former stronghold­s of Iraq and Syria.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The men who rented the green, four-room bungalow along a quiet lane in a Colombo suburb took pains to avoid their neighbors. They ordered takeout, never went to the local mosque and only ventured outside in a white Suzuki sedan, its windows heavily tinted.

They drove off for the last time around 7:20 a.m. Sunday, recalled Riaz Mohammed, who lives next door. Barely an hour later, according to police, one of the men blew himself up in the restaurant of the ShangriLa hotel as part of a wave of Easter suicide bombings across Sri Lanka.

Islamic State said Tuesday that the attackers — at least two of whom are believed to have lived in the rented safe house — were its fighters. In a statement issued by its Amaq news agency, the extremist group claimed responsibi­lity for the coordinate­d blasts against churches and luxury hotels. It said the targets were “infidels” and “citizens of the crusader alliance.”

The death toll rose Tuesday to 321, including at least 38 foreigners, in what would be one of the extremist group’s deadliest attacks outside its former stronghold­s of Iraq and Syria.

The claim by Islamic State, more than 48 hours after the first bombings shook this island nation off the southern coast of India, appeared to support the Sri Lankan government’s contention that the assailants — including seven suicide bombers — were domestic extremists who acted with support from internatio­nal terrorist networks.

As usual, the extent of Islamic State’s involvemen­t could not be verified; the group routinely claims attackers who support its brutal ideology as its own, even if it doesn’t participat­e in their plots.

Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewarden­e told Parliament that the initial investigat­ion — which is believed to include informatio­n gleaned from 40 suspects arrested in the attacks — had determined that the bombings were “carried out in response” to shooting attacks on March 15 at two mosques in Christchur­ch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead.

But terrorism experts argued that National Thowheeth Jamaath, the Sri Lankan extremist group that the government accused of supplying the bombers, could not have planned and executed such a well coordinate­d attack in so little time.

Jonah Blank, a political scientist who covers counter-terrorism and Asian affairs at the Rand Corp., said it was “highly unlikely” that the Sri Lanka attacks — which follow the Islamic State playbook of attacking houses of worship — were linked to those by a white supremacis­t gunman in New Zealand.

“The bombings in Sri Lanka were highly complex and extremely sophistica­ted,” Blank said. “Operations like these typically take far longer to plan and arrange than the five weeks since the Christchur­ch bombings.”

Sri Lanka’s unstable coalition government is under pressure to show progress in the investigat­ion, particular­ly after some ministers accused President Maithripal­a Sirisena — and the intelligen­ce and security officials he oversees — of failing to act on informatio­n from foreign allies, including India, indicating a possible terrorist plot.

In a televised speech, Sirisena turned the blame on security agencies and said he had not been informed of any threat.

“They have failed in their responsibi­lity and action will be taken against those who are responsibl­e,” he said, pledging to remove some officials within 24 hours. “If I received informatio­n, I would have taken necessary steps to address it.”

Notably, Sirisena made no mention of the alleged Christchur­ch connection.

Blank said the New Zealand claim could be “misdirecti­on” by the suspects. He said it was plausible that the assailants received direct operationa­l support from militants experience­d in plotting and executing terrorist attacks.

Nothing in National Thowheeth Jamaath’s short history indicated it was capable of carrying out such a plot.

Neighbors in Paratta, the sleepy neighborho­od south of Colombo where the safe house was located, said the men had arrived in February — weeks before the New Zealand mosque shootings. For nearly two months, they worked undetected, assembling bombs that proved devastatin­gly successful, police said.

The house is now ringed by police tape, and officers have kept watch nonstop since raiding the property on Sunday afternoon. Through the sliding wooden gate sat the empty driveway where the suspects used to park their Suzuki sedan.

Much of the house was empty, its contents having been carted away by investigat­ors who found equipment to make explosive devices and suicide vests, including ball bearings, gunpowder, chemicals and detonators, as well as pieces of cellphones and SIM cards, officers said.

They uncovered nothing to conclude that the occupants were foreigners or working with foreign extremist groups, said Induka De Silva, a police inspector. But he was impressed with their planning.

“They did their research and found a quiet place,” De Silva said.

The house sits in a largely Muslim neighborho­od, down a lane of modest homes hidden behind gates. The only sounds on Tuesday afternoon were the occasional scooter and clucks of chickens.

Riaz Mohammed, a paint shop employee who lives next door with his wife and their three children, said at first the two men in their mid-30s were accompanie­d by women and children, but that they left the men after a few days.

Mohammed and his wife never spoke to the men, but he overheard them conversing with one another in Tamil, a Sri Lankan language. In the evenings they turned the volume on the TV way up, perhaps to mask other sounds in the house.

“They never set foot on the street,” he said, “not even to throw out their trash.”

Police said the men had rented the house online for about $230 per month from an out-of-town landlord, who has since been arrested. Investigat­ors say they do not believe he had knowledge of the plot.

As the probe widened, Sirisena on Tuesday imposed a partial state of emergency to give law enforcemen­t agencies the power to detain and question people without warrants. Some social media sites including Facebook and WhatsApp remained blocked for most users for a third consecutiv­e day, to inhibit the spread of rumors and hate speech.

Tempers ran high in Negombo, the majority Catholic town north of Colombo that saw the greatest number of casualties — 108 congregant­s killed during Easter Mass at St. Sebastian’s Church, Catholic leaders said. The other suicide bombings targeted a Catholic church in Colombo, a Protestant church in the eastern city of Batticaloa and three five-star hotels in central Colombo.

So many bodies had to be buried in Negombo that a new cemetery was dug Monday on a patch of land behind St. Sebastian’s Church, whose damaged tile roof was half-covered with tarps. Wreckage of pews lay strewn about.

Tombstones couldn’t be made in time, so temporary wooden crosses marked the burial spots, each bearing a number printed by hand.

After a nationwide moment of silence at 8:30 a.m., to mark the time of the first bombing, the coffins began coming — topped with flowers and carried by ashen pallbearer­s to the burial ground, where cemetery workers dug and dug to create enough graves to accommodat­e the bodies.

“We buried about 25 people today,” said Father Nishanta Cooray of Kandy in central Sri Lanka, who arrived in Negombo hours after the attack to assist church leaders. “And there are so many more to go.”

 ?? Carl Court Getty Images ?? COFFINS are carried to a mass grave in Negombo, the majority Catholic town that saw 108 congregant­s killed during Easter Mass at St. Sebastian’s Church. So many bodies had to be buried that a new cemetery was dug.
Carl Court Getty Images COFFINS are carried to a mass grave in Negombo, the majority Catholic town that saw 108 congregant­s killed during Easter Mass at St. Sebastian’s Church. So many bodies had to be buried that a new cemetery was dug.
 ?? Eranga Jayawarden­a Associated Press ?? MEMBERS OF a Sri Lankan family in Colombo mourn three relatives killed in the Easter attack. The death toll rose to 321, including at least 38 foreigners.
Eranga Jayawarden­a Associated Press MEMBERS OF a Sri Lankan family in Colombo mourn three relatives killed in the Easter attack. The death toll rose to 321, including at least 38 foreigners.

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