By JON GAMBRELL
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (AP) — The leader of the Islamic State group praised the Easter suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people in Sri Lanka in a video released Monday, calling on militants to be a “thorn” against their enemies in his first filmed appearance in nearly five years.
The video of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom the suicide bombers in last week’s attack apparently pledged their loyalty, came as the top official in the Catholic Church urged Sri Lanka to crack down on Islamic extremists “as if on war footing.”
Meanwhile, a government ban on niqab face covering took effect as soldiers and police officers conducted raids in eastern Sri Lanka, the home of the alleged mastermind of the attacks.
The 18-minute video of al-Baghdadi included images of the extremist leader sitting in a white room with three others, assault rifles by their sides. He discussed Sri Lanka in an audio portion of the video, suggesting the April 21 attacks came after they filmed him.
Al-Baghdadi praised the attackers, saying they conducted the bombings as revenge for the fall of Baghouz, Syria, the last territory the extremist group held there or in Iraq.
“As for your brothers in Sri Lanka, they have put joy in the hearts of the monotheists with their immersing operations that struck the homes of the crusaders in their Easter,” al-Baghdadi said, according to a transcript from the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group.
He also called on Islamic State-pledged militants in the island nation off the southern tip of India to be “a thorn in the chests of the crusaders.”
Authorities initially blamed the Easter attacks, targeting three hotels and three churches, on a local militant named Mohammed Zahran and his followers. Then the Islamic State group on April 23 released images of Zahran and others pledging their loyalty to al-Baghdadi.
Police conducted a later raid in eastern Sri Lanka that saw militants detonate suicide bombs in violence that killed at least 15 people, including six children. Explosives recovered by authorities bore hallmarks of the Islamic State group as well.
Anger against Sri Lanka’s government has grown after the country discovered its security services had prior, specific warnings an attack loomed.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo and the Catholic Church’s top official on the island, said the church may not be able to stop people from taking the law into their own hands if the government doesn’t do more.
“All the security forces should be involved and function as if on war footing,” Ranjith told reporters.
“I want to state that we may not be able to keep people under control in the absence of a stronger security program,” he said. “We can’t forever give them false promises and keep them calm.”
Ranjith, however, sought to assure Muslims the church will not allow any revenge attacks against them.
Catholic churches cancelled Mass on Sunday, a week after the bombings, for fear of another attack. Catholics celebrated Mass in their homes while watching Ranjith preside over a televised service. Other denominations also closed their doors.
The church closing followed local officials and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo warning that more militants remained on the loose with explosives and places of worship remained targets.
President Maithripala Sirisena also appointed former army commander Shantha Kottegoda on Monday as the top official in the Defense Ministry. He earlier requested the resignation of his predecessor, Hemasiri Fernando, for intelligence failures that led to the bombings.
In the eastern Sri Lankan city of Kalmunai, Associated Press journalists saw police and soldiers conducting raids in a predominantly Muslim area. Such operations are likely to continue around the area Zahran once preached his extremist message glorifying killing non-Muslims.
Meanwhile, Sirisena’s ban on wearing the niqab face veil took effect. The niqab is a black veil made of thin fabric, often with a small opening from which a woman’s eyes can peer out.
While previously unseen in Sri Lanka, the niqab has grown in popularity in the last 10 years after the country’s civil war.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report. Francis reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka.