Sri Lanka bombings: Is ISIS moving its base from the Middle East to South Asia?

A celebration of the caliphate's defeat was evidently premature as the Islamist group — exactly a month later — claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings in Sri Lanka, killing around 253 people and injuring over 500 others


                            Sri Lanka bombings: Is ISIS moving its base from the Middle East to South Asia?

President Donald Trump, at the beginning of March this year, announced that the United States-backed forces had driven the Islamic State (ISIS) out of its last stronghold in Syria, exterminating the territorial "caliphate" the terrorist organization had maintained in swathes of Syria and Iraq since 2013. However, a celebration of the caliphate's defeat was evidently premature as the Islamist group — exactly a month later — claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings in Sri Lanka, killing around 253 people and injuring over 500 others.

The attacks in the Sri Lankan capital and other regions were reminiscent of ISIS' agenda of fuelling and fighting a global religious war as churches and luxury hotels were targeted on an Easter Sunday, largely affecting Christians and foreigners. 

Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Getty Images)

As Sri Lanka's intelligence agencies were trying to zero down on the suicide bombers' affiliation, ISIS new agency, Amaq took responsibility for the blasts, stating: "The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka were from the ranks of the fighters of the Islamic State." Another communique by the terrorist group included a video of eight men standing in front of ISIS flag, with their faces covered and knives in their hands, pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State.

The only man showing his face in the video is believed to be the mastermind of the attack —Mohammed Zaharan, a little-known extremist preacher from Sri Lanka. Also known as Zahran Hashim, he leads a local Islamist outfit in the country called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ). Prior to ISIS claiming responsibility for the attacks, Sri Lankan authorities had already attributed the basts to his local outfit and had suspected of him being one of the bombers. The authorities, days before the attacks, had also received tips from international intelligence agencies about a possible terrorist activity linked to NTJ. However, counterterrorism experts doubted that the small outfit could have pulled off such a large-scale and sophisticated attack without expert international assistance.

A screenshot of the video released by ISIS agency Amaq shows Mohammed Zaharan (C) with other alleged bombers. 

It appears that ISIS, amidst a heavy crackdown on its bases in the Middle East, is attempting to establish its relevance through affiliation with local Islamist groups — primarily in South Asia — marking a change in its general approach. Prior attacks carried out by the terrorist organization outside of the Middle East involve foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS and then going back to their home countries to unleash lone-wolf attacks.

"The Islamic State has several strategic moves in mind. The first is making itself the center of extremism by claiming responsibility for lone-wolf attacks, and the other is seeking to attach itself to local, national, and regional terrorist organizations to make it seem that their tentacles are spread more widely than they really are," Associate Professor of Political Science at Augusta University and Ph.D., Craig Douglas Albert, told MEA Worldwide (MEAWW). "Southeast Asia is one of the areas ISIS has been focusing its propaganda and recruitment efforts as well as its networking efforts. Its presence is increasing steadily in the Caucasus as well, and in Afghanistan, where it seeks to stake a claim there, even against the Taliban. "

An ISIL billboard is seen destroyed in the middle of the road on November 8, 2016 in Qaraqosh, Iraq. The NPU is a military organization made up of Assyrian Christians and was formed in late 2014 to defend against ISIL. (Getty Images)

The terrorist group's decentralized, global digital presence has also equipped it to provide technical expertise to local militant organizations in an attempt to gain prominence through them by association. 

"The attack in Sri Lanka is an example of this strategic shift since their land-holdings in The Levant have been significantly diminished, if not destroyed. Analysts must be cautious, however, that ISIS, and especially its cyber extension, The Cyber Caliphate, will be quick to claim responsibility for any attacks that they have even limited contact with the on-the-ground operators," the professor added.

ISIS' approach of affiliating with local radical branches has not only assisted in the group's survival but has also enabled it to spread its influence geographically, most recently to Sri Lanka. 

The bombings in Sri Lanka killed around 253 people and wounded over 500 people. (AP)

There has been a noted recent expansion of the group's global footprint with ISIS claiming its first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week, prior to the Sri Lanka bombings. The terrorist group, over the weekend, also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Afghanistan and an attempted attack in Saudi Arabia. There have been multiple other recent bombings and kidnappings linked to ISIS in the Philippines. 

ISIS is also using regional languages as a tool to recruit more members in South Asia. This was evident in the recent statement issued by ISIS for claiming responsibility for Sri Lanka bombings. The group's statement, which is typically released in Arabic and English, was also released in other regional languages — including Tamil, which is spoken by nearly 70 million people, particularly in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The statement was also issued in Malayalam, spoken by about 35 million people, mostly in the southern Indian state of Kerala, suggesting its prominence in southern India. 

Indian intelligence was among the agencies which warned Sri Lanka about the recent attacks after it uncovered an Islamic State cell in southern India, some members of which had been influenced by NTJ chief Zaharan's videos. 

Iraqi Federal Police officers hold up a captured ISIS flag in the Islamic State occupied village of Abu Saif, 6 kilometres from Mosul on February 22, 2017 in Nineveh, northern Iraq. Iraqi forces launched the offensive to take western Mosul from Islamic State, on February 19, 2017. (Getty Images)

"I see it as a desperate move by ISIS to stay relevant as they lose strategic ground in Syria and Iraq," Dr. Craig Douglas Albert said, adding that counterterrorism efforts to eradicate a terrorist group in one particular region is not enough, hinting at US-Iraq efforts to defeat ISIS in the Middle East.

"For counter-terrorism, it is important to remember that just because a specific group is defeated in one area does not mean, "mission accomplished." This type of ideology will continue to move and shift and new groups will emerge with the same type of violence and extremist agenda if the actual causes of the ideology are not mitigated."

"This ought to be a concern for all who wish to stop terrorism: what are the causes of extremist ideology that attracts individuals to groups such as ISIS to carry out egregious acts of terror? Until we focus more on this aspect, we will continue to see catastrophic attacks as Sri Lanka just experienced, unfortunately," the professor said.

ISIS was linked with at least three thousand six hundred and seventy attacks worldwide in 2018. The terrorist group claimed responsibility for over three hundred attacks in Afghanistan, over a hundred and eighty in Egypt, nearly six dozen in Somalia, over forty each in Nigeria and Yemen, and twenty-seven in the Philippines.