In the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that killed nearly 360 people, Philippine military officials said they had received an intelligence report pointing to potential similar plots, while Asian neighbors moved to increase security around possible targets.
Philippine local militants allied with Islamic State (IS) extremists could launch attacks after being inspired by the suicide bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, military officials who asked to remain anonymous told BenarNews.
“That is a real possibility. Sympathetic bomb attacks are not far-fetched,” a high-ranking official told BenarNews without divulging specific information, including the source and details of the intelligence report.
On Wednesday, Philippine government troops killed four Abu Sayyaf group militants in the country’s troubled south, military officials reported. The assault involving ground troops and attack helicopters providing air support was carried out amid suspicions that ASG militants could launch attacks similar to those that struck Sri Lanka.
A day earlier, IS claimed responsibility for the bombings in the Sri Lankan cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. The extremist group’s Amaq news agency released a video showing eight men – all but one with their faces covered – declaring loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as they stood in front of an IS flag, Reuters news agency reported.
Most of the suicide bombers were well educated and came from economically strong families, said Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister. The government suspects that two Sri Lankan Islamic radical groups, the National Thowfeek Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim were responsible, with outside help, Reuters reported.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday asked the national police chief and the defense secretary to resign, according to media reports. Previously, reports emerged that India had warned Colombo that terrorists were plotting to attack churches.
“Sri Lanka could have halted the attack because they had been warned but they were not proactive enough, the same as what happened on 9-11 in the United States,” Ahmad el-Muhammady, a political science lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews.
Focus on Asia
Sunday’s bombings in the South Asian island-nation demonstrate that IS has moved its focus and remains a dangerous threat despite being defeated in its traditional bastions in Iraq and Syria, according to regional terrorism analysts.
“The Sri Lanka bombings mean that ISIS is shifting its violent activities to Asia, where followers still exist, to continue their violent jihad,” analyst Rommel Banlaoi told BenarNews, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
“The Sri Lankan bombings can inspire ISIS followers in the Philippines to mount similar attacks,” said Banlaoi, who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
The Philippines has yet to fully recover from a five-month battle in 2017 with IS-linked militants who seized the city of Marawi. The battle ended in October 2017 with about 1,200 killed, mostly militants.
“The Philippines remains a target of ISIS,” Banlaoi warned.
In Indonesia, the director of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a local think-tank, said security authorities were capable of anticipating similar attacks that were less likely following bombings that killed at least a dozen people at churches and a police station in Surabaya in 2018.
“After the Surabaya bombings, police have arrested many suspected terrorists,” IPAC head Sidney Jones told BenarNews.
Stanislaus Riyanta, a security analyst at the University of Indonesia, said new anti-terror laws passed after the Surabaya blasts had strengthened police efforts, but he warned that new attacks could occur.
“Sleeper cells in Indonesia are just waiting for a trigger. So far, the JAD (Jamaah Ansyarut Daulah) and MIT (Eastern Indonesia Mujahedeen) networks are constantly being monitored. But the threat comes from lone wolves or sleeper cells that are not tracked by Densus 88,” he said, referring to the police anti-terrorism unit.
Investigators, meanwhile, were tracking potential terrorists throughout the country, Indonesian national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said.
“We have been mapping and profiling sleeper cells in all parts of Indonesia by continuously monitoring the movements of these groups,” he told BenarNews.
Jones pointed to government infighting in Sri Lanka for potentially allowing the bombings.
“In Sri Lanka, there is a domestic rivalry. The president and the prime minister don’t get along well. In Indonesia there is nothing like that,” she said.
In Malaysia, authorities have undertaken measures in response to the attacks in Sri Lanka, national police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said.
“I have instructed that the level of security in the country be increased, including security at worship places nationwide,” he told a press conference.
“We also have increased the safety and security measures at the Sri Lanka Embassy after the incident. We will do our best to halt any untoward incidents.”
And in Thailand and Bangladesh, officials said they were on alert for potential terror attacks. However, they downplayed any potential IS role in their countries.
“There were only a few IS ideologists flying from Malaysia and others heading for Syria, but they have nothing to do with Thailand. I’m not worried about it supporting attacks in Thailand even after the ones in Sri Lanka,” a security official who asked to remain anonymous told BenarNews.
“We monitored activities of potential extremist Thais, online and in the field, for many years,” the analyst said, adding “the number declined to the vicinity of 1,000.”
The director of Deep South Watch, a think-tank in Thailand’s insurgency-wracked southern border region, said extremists – not just IS – were threats to the world.
“There are no reports of Muslims in Thailand including the Deep South having a connection with IS,” Srisompob Jitpiromsri told BenarNews. “The organizations involved in the Deep South conflicts do not support or accept IS.”
In Dhaka, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal maintained that IS had no foothold in his country, a stance he held even after a deadly siege by terrorists at the Holey Artisan Bakery café in July 2016, for which IS claimed responsibility and posted photos online.
“There is no IS in Bangladesh. Some home-grown militants have been active here. We do not see any threat from the militants,” Khan said.
“Our law enforcers have crushed their backbone and networks. But we are not complacent. We have taken preventive measures so the militants cannot stage any sabotage,” he said.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Ali Nufael in Kuala Lumpur, Tia Asmara in Jakarta, Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok, Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, and Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.