Sri Lanka on high alert over Ramadan terror threat

A soldier standing guard as nuns left St Sebastian's Church in Sri Lanka yesterday. The church was one of the targets of the Easter Sunday bombings. PHOTO: REUTERS
A soldier standing guard as nuns left St Sebastian's Church in Sri Lanka yesterday. The church was one of the targets of the Easter Sunday bombings. PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO • Sri Lankan security forces are maintaining a high level of alert after the Easter Sunday bombings, officials said yesterday, amid intelligence reports that Islamist militants were planning fresh attacks before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The head of the police ministerial security division had said in a letter to lawmakers and other officials that attacks were expected on Sunday or Monday by militants dressed in army uniform.

There were no attacks on Sunday and Monday, but security across Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka remains ramped up, with scores of suspected Islamists arrested since the April 21 attacks on hotels and churches that killed more than 250 people.

But the government lifted a ban on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber, an official source said. The ban was imposed after the attacks to prevent the spread of rumours.

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

Another government source told Reuters a document has been circulated among key security establishments instructing all police and security forces across the Indian Ocean island nation to remain on high alert because the militants were expected to try a strike before Ramadan, which is scheduled to begin on May 6 in Sri Lanka.

The government has also banned women from wearing face veils under an emergency law put in place after the Easter attacks.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan authorities have identified 42 foreign nationals among the 253 people killed in the string of bombings, officials said yesterday.

Another 12 foreigners remain unaccounted for and could be among unidentified bodies at Colombo's police morgue, officials said. Five foreigners were still in hospital.

A Foreign Ministry statement said the highest number of victims were from India (11), followed by Britain (six), China (four) and Denmark (three). Saudi Arabia, Spain and Turkey lost two nationals each. Bangladesh, Japan, Holland, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States all lost one national each.

VIGILANCE

Security will stay tight for several days because military and police are still tracking down suspects.

A SENIOR POLICE INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL, on reports of possibly more terrorist strikes in Sri Lanka.

There were six other people with more than one nationality.

The authorities suspect members of two previously little-known groups - National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim - of carrying out the attacks, although the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has claimed responsibility.

It is believed that Zaharan Hashim, the founder of the NTJ, was the mastermind and one of the nine suicide bombers.

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 Indian national, identified as Riyas A., alias Riyas Aboobacker, 29, was arrested on Monday by India's National Investigation Agency (NIA), which handles counter-terrorism cases.

During interrogation, he "disclosed that he has been following speeches/videos of Zaharan Hashim of Sri Lanka for more than a year", an NIA statement said.

"He admitted that he wanted to carry out a suicide attack in Kerala."

The NIA said it arrested Riyas "for conspiring to commit a terrorist act" in connection with a 2016 case against an Indian man wanted, along with others, for leaving India to join ISIS abroad.

Riyas had allegedly been in contact with that suspect, Abdul Rashid Abdulla, alias Abu Isa, and followed his online posts, including one "instigating others to carry out terror attacks in India", the NIA said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2019, with the headline 'Sri Lanka on high alert over Ramadan terror threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe