Islamist extremists planning new attacks: Sri Lanka police

Sri Lankan military and police outside St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, days after a suicide bomb attack on the church, on April 27, 2019.
Sri Lankan military and police outside St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, days after a suicide bomb attack on the church, on April 27, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES

COLOMBO • Islamist extremists in Sri Lanka are believed to be planning attacks on bridges in Colombo, the authorities have said, as they warned that several conspirators in the Easter Sunday bombings which killed 257 people were still at large.

Police confirmed they had instructed stations around Colombo to deploy additional officers and asked the navy to deploy more vessels on rivers, following leaks of police intelligence reports warning that bridges into the capital were at risk of attack.

Sri Lanka's military has also set up a special command centre to coordinate anti-Islamist operations, while the army said more troops have been deployed for search operations.

Additional troops conducted searches overnight and seized explosives and weapons from several locations, although these were from criminal groups and not extremists, official sources said.

"Extensive cordon and search operations of the army and sister services across the country with assistance of the police are continuing in search of terrorists, hideouts, explosives, weapons and other war-like items... with the deployment of more and more troops as required," the army said in a statement.

The authorities had information about a small group of radicals who may be trying to stage more strikes, said Health Minister and government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne, who added that the crackdown on extremists after the Easter bombings had been largely successful.

"You can't say the threat is over, but the situation is well under control... better than what we expected."

But the government was also still on the hunt for "four terrorists" involved in the Easter attacks who were still at large, Mr Senaratne told AFP in an interview on Thursday evening.

ONLINE RADICALISATION

We believe Zaharan radicalised these people using Facebook. Especially in the past year, he had been openly calling for the killing of non-Muslims.

MR R. ABDUL RAZIK, a leader of the moderate Ceylon Thowheed Jama'ath group, on the mastermind of the recent bombings.

The Catholic Church announced on Thursday that it had called off the resumption of Sunday services following information of a "specific threat" against two of their locations just outside the capital. The reopening of Catholic schools, which was due after an extended Easter holiday, will now be put off indefinitely.

Public schools are due to reopen on Monday under tight security.

Mr Senaratne said the country's minority Muslim community had helped the authorities root out extremists in the weeks since the bombings.

 
 
 

"Everyone is giving information. They come forward to give a lot of information," he said.

Sri Lanka is also receiving international help, with foreign intelligence services working alongside their local counterparts, Mr Senaratne added.

While Zaharan Hashim, mastermind of the suicide attacks, used social media to publicly call for the death of non-Muslims, he worked for months in private chatrooms to persuade six young men to sacrifice themselves, Muslim community leaders said.

Hashim, who died in an attack on the Shangri-La hotel on April 21, inspired wealthy brothers Ilham Ibrahim and Inshaf Ibrahim to join and bankroll his assault, police and fellow Muslims said.

"We suspect the two brothers used their money from the spice business to finance the bombings," one police investigator said. "It seems the indoctrination was via the Internet - Facebook and YouTube."

Neighbours of the Ibrahim brothers said they were secretive but devout Muslims. They were not active members of a congregation, community leaders said. "We believe Zaharan radicalised these people using Facebook," said Mr R. Abdul Razik, a leader of the moderate Ceylon Thowheed Jama'ath (CTJ) group.

"Especially in the past year, he had been openly calling for the killing of non-Muslims."

Investigators and community leaders believe the group also used social media private messengers to keep in touch without being noticed by the authorities.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2019, with the headline 'Islamist extremists planning new attacks: Sri Lanka police'. Print Edition | Subscribe