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Terrorism & Insurgency

Sri Lanka bombings point to likely involvement of Islamic State and an established jihadist network, increasing threat

23 April 2019
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Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard in front of St Anthony's Shrine two days after it was attacked as part of a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and hotels in Colombo on 23 April 2019. Source: Getty Images 1138828851

At least 310 people were killed and 500 wounded in co-ordinated suicide bombings against churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa during Easter Sunday services on 21 April. In addition, an improvised explosive device (IED) was defused at Bandaranaike International Airport. Sri Lankan police have arrested several members of suspected Islamist cells that they believe were responsible, and the Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

  • If confirmed as having been conducted by an Islamist NSAG, it would indicate a hitherto undetected increase in attack capability. On 22 April, Sri Lankan officials suggested that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), both relatively new, small, and domestic Islamist groups that have been involved in online preaching, fundraising and vandalism of Buddhist temples in early 2019, conducted the attacks. At least one group, NTJ, was identified in an intelligence report to the Sri Lankan government, most likely from India, warning of imminent attacks against churches and hotels 14 days before they took place. Emerging evidence of the extent of any network involved will likely determine the prospects of its early elimination, or the likelihood of a protracted campaign.
  • Sophisticated tactics and target selection points to support from transnational Islamist groups. The use of suicide tactics and complex IEDs in the attacks suggest that local militants were supported by returnees from Syria and/or transnational groups. On 23 April, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks and began publishing images of allegedly Sri Lankan fighters; the Sri Lankan government also said that a Syrian national had been arrested in connection with the attacks, and that the intelligence warning was based on inputs from an arrested Indian militant associated with the Islamic State. The targeting of churches likely indicates intent to “avenge” the Christchurch attacks in New Zealand on 15 March.

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