ISIS claimed responsibility on Tuesday for the coordinated suicide bombings on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, as the president of the traumatized nation promised to dismiss senior officials who had failed to act on warnings about the attacks, the New York Times informed.
As Sri Lankans buried the dead from the half-dozen Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 350 people, the Islamic State issued a statement boasting of the suicide assaults. It also distributed an online video showing the person Sri Lankan officials suspect of having led the attacks.
In the video, the man believed to be the chief suspect, Mohammed Zaharan, a little-known extremist preacher from Sri Lanka, leads masked, black-clad disciples pledging fealty to the Islamic State.
There is no proof that the extremist group did more than provide encouragement for the suicide bombings, part of its decree calling for attacks on others considered infidels by Islamic State ideologues. But the release of the video via the Islamic State’s news agency, and disseminated through its network of online chat rooms, suggested that the attackers had access to the group’s core operatives.
In most instances in which such pledge videos have emerged, investigations have found direct communication between the attackers and Islamic State operatives, who provide remote guidance.
In this case, such a connection would reinforce worries by Western security officials and others that the group remains a potent threat, despite the destruction of its self-proclaimed Middle East caliphate earlier this year. In a sign of the concern, the F.B.I., Interpol and other foreign intelligence services joined the investigation.
It remains unclear how Zaharan, leader of a local group known for little more than defacing Buddhist statues, could have organized and executed such a devastating, sophisticated attack. But Indian officials said Tuesday that they had been watching him since last year as a suspected online recruiter for the Islamic State.
Some Sri Lankan officials speculated that the attacks had been retaliation for the mosque massacres in New Zealand last month. But there was no corroborating evidence to support this.
For Sri Lanka, the island nation still recovering from a wrenching civil war that ended a decade ago, the trauma, anger and recriminations from the suicide bombings only worsened as it became clear that some top officials had known of the threat.
A spate of anti-Muslim violence was reported as the death toll from the attacks rose to at least 359. The authorities said more than 40 suspects had been seized, all Sri Lankans. And the prime minister said that Zaharan, whose whereabouts were unknown on Monday, may have been one of the suicide bombers.
In his first national address since the attacks, President Maithripala Sirisena sought to allay criticism that he was at least partly responsible for the security failure. He announced major changes were coming, the Times adds.
“I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defense officials,” the president said.
He acknowledged “there was an intelligence report about the attack,” which his subordinates had known about for many days, but he also claimed that he was “not kept informed.”