Sri Lankan officials walk by bodies amid blast debris at St Anthony's Shrine after the bombing at the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ishara S Kodikara

Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday that killed more than 320 people and wounded hundreds of others.

The fresh statement appears to corroborate an earlier, ISIS-linked video received by the Asia Times, which threatens future attacks in Arabic and Tamil language.

“The day before yesterday, the brothers of the strike force set out for a number of churches and hotels where nationals of the Crusader Coalition were present,” Islamic State said in a statement, the coalition being a reference to the US-led military alliance that was tasked with defeating the group in Iraq and Syria.

The statement lists seven attackers by their nicknames, though eight are pictured in a photograph (below) published by the ISIS media affiliate, Amaq News Agency. A separate video received overnight by Asia Times listen two of the eight attackers as having the same nickname, Abu Mukhtar, which could be the reason for the discrepancy.  

“The brother Abu Hamza attacked St. Anthony’s Church in the city of Colombo, placing himself in the center of a mass of Christians at war and detonating his explosive vest in their midst,” the statement reads, using a derogatory term for Christians.

“The brother Abu Khalil went to the Church of St. Sebastian in the city of Negombo and detonated his explosive jacket against the people celebrating their infidel holiday. The brother Abu Mohammed went to the Church of Zion in Batticaloa and detonated his explosive belt against them.

Christians as well as Jews are considered “People of the Book” in Islam, historically granted access to a protected, second-class status if they submit to the rules of the Muslim authority. But here, they are labeled as being “at war” with Islam.

“Islamic State’s point is that these Christians have no pact with them … in particular the dhimmi pact that is applied to People of the Book,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadist movements and Gothic scholar.

“As these Christians have no such pact, they are considered ‘at war’ with the Islamic State and so it is legitimate to target them in attacks like this,” he told Asia Times, adding that this designation has implications far beyond Sri Lanka or South Asia.

“In practice, since there are no Christians living under a dhimmi pact of IS [anywhere], pretty much all Christians in the world would be considered at war against IS,” he said.

The official statement goes on to claim the luxury hotel bombings, justifying these targets as establishments hosting foreigners whose governments are participating in the US-led coalition.

“The brothers Abu Ubaida, Abu Baraa, and Abu Mukhtar went to the gatherings of the Crusaders in the Shangri La, Cinnamon, and Kingsbury hotels in downtown Colombo and detonated a number of packages, then blew up their explosive vests against the Crusaders. And in the city of Dematagoda, brother Abdullah clashed with members of the police and killed three of them,” the statement said, calling the attacks a “blessed incursion”.

The statement appears to confirm the authenticity of a video received overnight by the Asia Times, in which Tamil and Arabic language are used to threaten further attacks.

Not acting alone

Sri Lankan cabinet minister and spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne on Monday announced that a local group called the National Thowheeth Jama’at (NTJ) was responsible for the attack. Senaratne stressed that the NTJ was not acting alone and had the support of “international networks” who could have helped plan the attack and gather the bombs.

“We don’t see that only a small organization in this country can do all that,” said Senaratne. “We are now investigating the international support for them, and their other links … how they produced the suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this.”

A senior security official in India told Asia Times: “We believe that the NTJ were only the foot soldiers and the controllers were some one else.”

“There could be several layers of control on such a complex terror operation, involving many people,” he added.

YouTube video

Given the complimentary claims, it is increasingly likely that Islamic State was indeed the “international network” behind the NTJ.

Tamil meets Arabic

The video received by Asia Times prior to the official announcement did not explicitly claim the Easter bombings in such detail. Instead, it flashed English text reading: “O Crusaders … This bloody day is our reward to you.”

The words are accompanied by the numbers “21/4” — the date of the attack.

Islamic State frequently uses the term Crusaders in its propaganda to castigate Christians and Westerners, the apparent targets of the attacks on Sri Lanka’s churches and luxury hotels.

The video includes a segment in Arabic: an audio clip of the slain Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani warning, “Our armies remain in every (mountain and valley); exploding into the bastions of the infidels.”

A photo of Adnani appears on the screen, with Tamil script at the bottom identifying his name and former position. Adnani was killed in August 2016 in an American-claimed air strike in northern Syria.

Then, a voice speaking Sri Lankan Tamil is heard, its content mirroring the Arabic. “Our troops will be everywhere. We will bombard those government (castles), which have enforced only oppression and exclusion.” 

The word used for castles in Tamil can be translated to the place where the rules are made, denoting a government building.

Then, images of eight men are shown one by one, each posing before the black flag with the Muslim profession of faith used by ISIS, listed by their nicknames — the same as in the official statement: Abu Ubaida, Abul Mukhtar, Abul Khalil, Abul Mukhtar, Abu Hamza, Abul Baraa, Abu Muhammad, and Abu Abdillah.

Normally, jihadists would refer to these men as “martyrs” to denote their holy mission. In this video, however, they are labeled as “assailants”.

The video purports to be from Al Ghuraba Media, a platform for ISIS supporters.

Al Ghuraba means “The Strangers” which references a hadith in the Quran attributed to the Prophet Mohammed: “Islam began as something strange (a stranger) and it will return to its beginnings, as a stranger, so blessed be the strangers.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State, was last heard in August 2018, in an audio recording titled ‘Give Good Tidings to the Patient’. In it, he encouraged his supporters to ignore territorial losses and to carry out attacks wherever they may find themselves.

– With additional reporting by Heba Afify

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