Sri Lanka Attacks Show Continuing Threat Posed by the Islamic State

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Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

On April 21, a group of jihadists detonated suicide bombs in a coordinated attack on three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, the Shanghai-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury, frequented by tourists. They also attacked three Catholic churches in the midst of holding Easter services in Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo, and the cities of Negombo in the north and Batticaloa in the east.

As of April 29, the total casualties exceeded 350 people. Approximately 250 people were killed outright as a result of the explosions, and another 100 people have subsequently died from injuries suffered during the attack. An additional 600-plus people also sustained injuries in the explosions.

Sri Lanka has a long history of terrorism activity that accompanied the civil war between the minority Hindu Tamil Tigers and the mostly Buddhist majority. Ironically, it was the Tamil Tigers that first used a suicide vest, sending young women into crowds of people to detonate their explosives. In 1991, a young Tamil Tiger woman detonated a suicide vest while she was adjacent to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, assassinating him.

The civil war ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Of late, however, there has been rising tensions between Sri Lanka's small Muslim minority, about 10% of the population, and the island's Buddhist majority. During the civil war, hundreds of young Muslims were kidnapped and killed by the Tamil Tigers. Mosques in Kattankudy and Eravur were the scene of large massacres of more than 260 Muslims in 1990, and thousands of Muslims were forced to abandon their homes in northern towns that came under the control of the Tamil Tigers. Many have remained displaced, almost 30 years later.

In 2018, the Sri Lankan government declared a national state of emergency after Buddhist Sinhalese groups in the central district of Kandy attacked a mosque, along with dozens of Muslim-owned businesses and private residences. In December 2018, an organization calling itself the National Thowheed Jamari (NTJ) came to prominence when its supporters were accused of attacking Buddhist shrines in the Kegalle district. The organization's name means National Monotheism Organization.

The NTJ was formed in 2014 by militant Wahhabism preacher Mohamed Zahran. He is also known as Moulvi Zahran Hashim. The Tamil-speaking Imam was responsible for organizing religious gatherings, distributing videos and literature calling for a strict, literal interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah and Hadith. The Sunnah is the traditional social and legal customs and practices of the Islamic community, and the Hadith are the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The two documents are an important source of Sharia or Islamic law.

The NTJ is a breakaway from the larger Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamal (SLJT). That organization is also a hardline Islamist organization. It has been criticized by many, more moderate Sri Lankan Muslim organizations for promoting extremist, fundamentalist positions -- making mosque attendance compulsory, promoting Sharia law over Sri Lanka law, forcing women to cover their faces and to wear long robes rather than saris, engaging in the fundamentalist indoctrination of children and for inciting violence against Buddhist monks and monasteries. The group has often cited what it described as the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand by Buddhist groups. The SLJT disassociated itself from the NTJ following the Sri Lanka bombings.

Following the attack, the Islamic State released a video through its AMAQ communications office that showed eight men standing under a black ISIS flag, declaring their loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All but one of the participants, identified as Mohamed Zahran, the NTJ's head, had their faces covered.

Sri Lankan authorities claim that there were a total of nine suicide bombers, saying that eight of them have been identified and that one was a woman. The ISIS video identified seven attackers. It named the three jihadists who attacked the churches, using their nom de guerre, as Abu Hamza, Abu Khalil and Abu Mohammad. Three jihadists, identified as Abu Obeidah, Abu Barbara and Abu Moukhtar, were responsible for the attacks on the hotels. A seventh jihadist, identified as Abu Abdullah, was slated to detonate his bomb in the Taj Samudra hotel. His vest initially failed to detonate, however. It subsequently blew up outside a small hotel in a Colombo suburb, killing several police officers.

Abu Abdullah, whose real name was Jameel Mohammed Abdul Latheef, was believed to have trained with ISIS operatives in Syria in for three to six months in 2014, where he learned how to make improvised explosive devices and conduct secure communications. He was sent back to Sri Lanka, supposedly, to organize a local affiliate of the Islamic State.

In addition to its links with the Islamic State, NTJ is also believed to have close ties with Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen India (JMI), the Indian unit of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. The Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, another Sri Lanka jihadists organization, is also suspected of having played a role in the bombings.

Sri Lankan authorities have arrested 76 people suspected of being part of NTJ, or having materially assisted it. On April 27, Sri Lankan security forces clashed with militants from NTJ when they raided a militant safe house. Sixteen people, including six children, died during the raid. Three suicide bombers at the safe house blew themselves up. Also killed were Mohammad Zahran's father and two of his brothers.

Since the bombing, considerable evidence has emerged that the Sri Lankan government had received numerous warnings, including one from the Indian government more than a month before, about the possibility of an attack.

On April 29, ISIS issued a second video, this one featuring Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This was the first time that al-Baghdadi has appeared in an ISIS video since one in June 2014, in which he famously declared the creation of Islamic State. In addition to refuting claims that he had been killed, the video underscored the extent to which ISIS is embracing the Sri Lankan attacks as their own.

In the video, al-Baghdadi claimed that the Sri Lanka attacks were retribution for the attack on the Islamic State's last stronghold of Baghuz. Sitting cross-legged with an AK-47 assault rifle at his side, a pose strongly reminiscent of one frequently taken by Osama bin Laden in al-Qaida videos, al-Baghdadi declared:

"This is only part of the revenge awaiting the crusaders and their followers."

He went on to assert that ISIS-inspired jihadists had already carried out 92 attacks across eight countries since the loss of Baghuz. Western intelligence agencies, however, have disputed the number. In the video, al-Baghdadi also referenced the overthrow of the presidents of Algeria and Sudan and the re-election of Israeli President Netanyahu to underscore that the video was current and that he is still very much alive.

The Sri Lanka attacks have been cited as evidence not only that Islamic State is still active but that it is also growing in its international capabilities and sophistication -- specifically, that it's moving from working with lone wolves to working with packs of lone wolves. It is clear that Islamic State is still very much alive, as many intelligence professionals have warned since the fall of Baghuz. It does not, however, mark a change in how it interacts with jihadists around the world or how it conducts its operations.

In the case of the Sri Lankan attacks, there are clear links between at least one of the suicide bombers and ISIS. However, this is not unusual. There were thousands of foreign fighters that trained and fought with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Many have returned home to train fellow jihadists, and to further radicalize jihadist sympathizers in their home countries.

The Sri Lanka jihadists did demonstrate a significant degree of coordination, simultaneously attacking seven different targets and succeeding in detonating six different explosives within minutes of each other. Here again, however, this does not indicate any new ISIS capabilities. The 2015 Paris attacks involved six separate incidents, over the evening and early morning of Nov. 13 and 14, which began over about 35 minutes at six locations in central Paris. Likewise, in 2017, the Islamic State affiliate in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf, took control over the Mindanao city of Marawi and held it hostage for five months, while Philippine government forces counterattacked. Both operations required a great degree of coordination among local militants. Even though both incidents involved jihadists who had spent time fighting for Islamic State, both operations were planned and carried out by local jihadists, working independently of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has always shown a great deal of operation opportunism in its tactics. It will endorse and take credit for the acts of lone wolves whose links to ISIS are limited to swearing allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Likewise, it will do the same for more elaborate operations where its links might be limited to having trained some of the participants in the past, even though it played no direct role in either planning or funding the attacks. In one sense, the Islamic State is evolving into a sort of jihadist franchisor where it provides the brand name and, in some cases, the training, without providing the capital or local management to carry out terrorist attacks, and then leverages the resulting publicity to further enhance its jihadist brand. In this regard, the Islamic State is evolving differently than al-Qaida -- becoming more decentralized while the latter still exerts a greater degree of central control over its affiliates.

The Sri Lanka attacks do underscore, however, the vulnerability of churches to jihadist attacks. Attacks against Christian churches by ISIS-inspired jihadists have become increasingly frequent. In 2018, there were more than 80 attacks against Christian churches, which resulted in approximately 500 deaths and hundreds more injuries. In 2019, there have already been 15 attacks that have resulted in more than 360 deaths and around 1,000 injuries. The numbers increase even more dramatically if ISIS-inspired attacks against other religious groups are included. Churches are notoriously soft targets, invariably undefended and open, making them highly vulnerable to an attack.

The attacks in Sri Lanka were clearly inspired by the Islamic State's jihadist ideology and carried out by militants who embraced and were affiliated with ISIS, even if it is unlikely that the attacks received any direct financial or other assistance from the group. It does underscore the continuing appeal of the Islamic State's jihadism and the fact that, notwithstanding its recent defeat in Syria and Iraq, it remains a powerful and highly persuasive force. Indeed, ISIS may be more dangerous as a franchisor of jihadism than it was as an armed state.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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