TOPSHOT - An image grab taken from a press release issued on April 23, 2019 by the Islamic State (IS) group's propaganda agency Amaq, allegedly shows eight men it said carried out a string of deadly suicide bomb blasts on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, lined up at an undisclosed location. The man in the centre is belived to be Zahran Hashmi, who was identified by the Sri Lankan police as the leader of the Islamist National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) group, which Colombo has blamed for the attacks. - The Islamic State group claimed a series of bombings on churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka that killed more than 320 people on April 21, and released the photo of the men it said were behind the "blessed attack", describing them as "fighters" from the terror network. The massive casualty toll would make the Easter attacks the deadliest overseas operation claimed by IS since the group proclaimed its worldwide caliphate in mid-2014. (Photo by HO / AAMAQ NEWS AGENCY / AFP) / THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP.HO/AFP/Getty Images
An image released by Isis's propaganda agency Amaq of a group of men it says carried out the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka © AFP

Even as Isis fighters in Syria surrendered their final stronghold last month, terrorism experts lined up to warn that the defeat of the so-called caliphate would not spell the end for the Islamist terror group.

On Tuesday those fears appeared to have been realised, when official media channels for Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings on churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka that killed at least 359 people and injured 500.

Using its official news agency, Amaq, Isis published two statements declaring that the attackers were Isis fighters. It then released a photograph purporting to show the bombers standing in front of an Isis flag. A short video was released which showed the same men pledging allegiance to the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“There are suspicions that there were links with Isis,” said the Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday evening. “All that we knew earlier on was that there were foreign links and that this could not have been done locally.”

The Isis claim and Mr Wickremesinghe’s comments appeared to confirm suspicions that National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), the local Muslim extremist group initially blamed along with the group identified by Sri Lanka’s defence minister only as JMI, could not have pulled off such a devastating and sophisticated attack without international help.

While the precise connection between Isis and the local attackers in Sri Lanka is unclear, the scale of the bombings has raised the alarming prospect that Isis has embarked on a new wave of bigger and more deadly strikes just one month after it was defeated in Syria and Iraq.

“Jihad and Islamist situations in south Asia are going to worsen further, as governments here are lacking the will to handle the problem strongly,” said Animesh Roul, a south Asia counter-terrorism expert based in New Delhi.

Despite the two-day delay before claiming responsibility for the attack, terrorism experts said the claims from Isis were credible. “This is standard practice for Isis where they claim a bombing,” said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. “The delay is not particularly significant,” he added, drawing a comparison with the Nice truck attack in 2016 when Isis took a week to claim it was responsible. “At times like this, Isis is under a lot of pressure to release something that isn’t later proved to be wrong.”

The social media blackout imposed by the Sri Lankan authorities may also have contributed to the delay, analysts said. Despite the credibility of the claims, questions remain over whether the attacks in Sri Lanka were directly organised and funded by Isis or whether the local fighters were inspired by the group, seeking to frame their murderous actions as part of the global Islamist terror movement.

The NTJ was formed after breaking from the larger Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’ath, in 2016, said Mr Roul. “Mohammed Zaharan became more vocal and led the splinter group NTJ and pronounced sectarian ideals in tandem with Isis through YouTube and other message sharing platforms,” he added.

Until now the NTJ’s actions have been relatively low key, focused mainly on Sri Lanka’s Buddhist community. In December, the group was linked to a series of attacks on Buddhist temples. There were other signs it was becoming more militant. Government officials said that security agencies were informed by US and Indian authorities that the NTJ leader Mohammed Zaharan was plotting suicide bombings as early as April 4. The last tip-off came 10 minutes before the first bombing on Sunday, a diplomatic source told the Financial Times. Yet the message never reached the executive. 

Mr Wickremesinghe also told reporters on Tuesday that the country’s security services had been monitoring 36 Sri Lankans who had travelled overseas to train with Isis, raising the possibility that some of the bombers may have come from that group.

One motive put forward by a Sri Lankan official on Tuesday, but unconfirmed so far, is that the attack on Sri Lanka’s Christian community and westerners staying in luxury hotels, was in some way a revenge attack by Islamist extremists for the Christchurch mosque attacks. Brenton Tarrant, a rightwing extremist, was charged in connection with the attacks in which 50 people were killed. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern said that her government was not aware of any intelligence that supported this claim.

Whatever the truth of that claim, events in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, could force western security officials to rethink their approach to the growing threat from extremism. “Security players tended to think there were a few predictable places where attacks happened,” said Raffaello Pantucci, from the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank. “But we now see attacks can come from sideways. The authorities will have to re-evaluate.”

Additional reporting by Chathuri Dissanayake in Colombo

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