Sunday 15 September 2019

Extremist group 'with links to Isil' main suspect for Sri Lanka attacks

Terror: People near a church that was attacked leave their houses as the military try to defuse a suspected van bomb. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Terror: People near a church that was attacked leave their houses as the military try to defuse a suspected van bomb. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Ben Farmer

A previous obscure Islamist extremist group known only for vandalising Buddhist statues has emerged as the prime suspect behind suicide bomb attacks that killed close to 300 in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

All seven bombers were Sri Lankan, but the scale and co-ordination of the attacks has led investigators to decide the homegrown group acted with the help of a more sophisticated international terrorist network, such as Isil.

One of the two bombers to strike the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo was identified as Insan Setiawan. A copper factory he owned was raided and nine suspects arrested.

The billionaire behind online clothing retailer Asos and one of the UK's largest private landowners lost three of his four children in the terror attacks.

Anders Holch Povlsen (46), is Denmark's wealthiest man and with his wife Anne holds more than 200,000 acres of the Scottish Highlands.

Jesper Stubkier, a spokesman for Mr Holch Povlsen's wholesale fashion business Bestseller, told the Press Association the couple lost three children in the attacks.

He declined to comment on the identity of the children and it was not clear in which of the series of blasts they lost their lives.

Mr Holch Povlsen has a net worth of 7.9 billion US dollars (£6.1 billion), according to Forbes.

Sri Lankan officials admitted they had been tipped off earlier this month that the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group was due to attack churches, but the warning failed to stop the carnage.

Three churches and three hotels were devastated in nearly simultaneous blasts across the island that killed at least 290 and wounded around 500.

"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," Rajitha Senaratne, the health minister and cabinet spokesman, said yesterday.

"There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded."

As Sri Lanka remained on edge and subject to curfew, the US warned that terrorists were plotting more attacks against the country, which hoped it had put decades of violence behind it. Tourist sites, hotels, airports and nightlife venues were all potential targets, the US State Department said.

More bombs were destroyed in a controlled explosion yesterday after they were found in a van close to St Anthony's Shrine, which was attacked on Sunday. Police also found detonators in the capital.

While 36 hours after the blasts there had still been no claim of responsibility, Sri Lankan government sources told 'The Daily Telegraph' the NTJ was the prime suspect.

Maithripala Sirisena, the president, awarded the military sweeping wartime powers to arrest and detain suspects.

The sophisticated nature of the multi-pronged assault and the targeting of Christians and Westerners have now raised the possibility the group could have joined forces with global terrorist networks such as Isil or al-Qa'ida on the Indian Subcontinent.

The Indians had reportedly become aware of the NTJ as a fertile recruitment ground for Isil, said sources in Delhi, although only a few dozen radicalised Sri Lankans are believed to have joined Isil in the Middle East, compared with hundreds from the nearby Maldives.

One working hypothesis in Delhi is that the NTJ may have hooked up with returning insurgents from Iraq and Syria.

Analysts have predicted the "localisation" of terrorism, where seemingly insignificant groups are inspired by or merge with powerful global networks, could be the future of jihad in Asia.

"The reality is that inevitably this group has links outside," said Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at India's Manipal University.

"I think their aim is global, it's not in Sri Lanka. Wherever they can get a soft spot they hit because they need recruits all the time and the only way that they can get recruits is by doing these kinds of spectacular activities.

"This is essentially a recruiting tool for them."

Isil made no claim of responsibility for Sunday's blasts.

Irish Independent

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