Islamic State’s leadership had long prepared for this new phase of its existence. Before he was killed in a drone strike, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said the loss of territory would not spell the group’s end.
Having lost its physical caliphate, IS has made it a point to prove its continued ability to inspire & orchestrate brutal attacks around the world, which puts it in a category of its own. IS continues to demonstrate a more lethal power of persuasion than Al-Qaeda & other Jihadist groups. It has adapted quickly to setbacks & increasingly using the tools of globalization (Bitcoin & encrypted communications) to take its fight underground & rally adherents around the world.
It is no coincidence that the deadliest terror organizations in the world are also the wealthiest as financial means are essential for terrorist organizations. IS’s financial strength is unassailable with estimates of its wealth between $50 – $300 million. The revenues of the Caliphate have been invested in legitimate businesses as well as laundered through banks & money lenders.
IS clearly has ample funds, military know-how & still tens of thousands of experienced foreign fighters on call. There were roughly 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries who joined IS in battle since 2014. Among them were at least 40 Sri Lankans. Thousands of these foreign fighters managed to escape to fight another day as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) closed in on their positions in Syria & Iraq. Many of them are attempting or have returned home. Beyond these battle-hardened survivors, there are plenty of IS sympathizers sustained by online radicalization & extremist preachers. The presence of foreign fighters from Sri Lanka could explain how IS was able to build vital personal links in the small community of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists. At this point, the precise involvement of returnees from Syria & foreign IS supporters in the deadly Easter Sunday attacks remains under investigation.
IS involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks
A series of coordinated blasts at high-value targets & targeting Catholic churches fit an all-too-familiar pattern of IS attacks on Christians, along with fellow Muslims. Although IS’s precise role in Easter Sunday’s attacks is unclear, terrorism experts agree that it is highly unlikely that small relatively unknown Islamist groups in Sri Lanka would have been able to plan & execute a complex attack using a large amount of reliable explosives (Dynamite) on multiple targets without some kind of assistance from a larger & more experienced foreign group. The near simultaneous attack would have been a leap of an order of magnitude in organizational & logistical capabilities for any extremist group. Building an effective IED can be tricky & its success in setting off bomb after bomb is indicative of a terror group’s training & skill.
The Easter Sunday attacks have demonstrated that territorial loss has not diminished IS’s reach. IS central is seemingly still capable of organizing & directing attacks far from its heartland. It has rebranded itself as a global insurgency & is exporting its expertise in bomb-making, fund-raising & recruitment far beyond what was its core territory. The terror group’s attraction remains potent & it is making use of local groups & exploiting grievances.
The major terrorist groups are increasingly hijacking local conflicts to extend global jihad to different parts of the world. The Uighur conflict in China’s western Xinjiang province & the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar are just 2 examples. In both these cases, global jihadist organisations sought to adopt local issues to broaden their support. IS & Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) are increasingly active in South Asia where political tensions often cross religious lines. Their affiliates are focussing on countries other than Afghanistan & Pakistan, where they are already quite strong. There is some evidence to suggest that IS sees India as promising territory & is intent on aggravating Muslim-Hindu tensions there.
Sri Lanka has a long history of ethnic conflict between the government & militant groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) & the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Sri Lankan militant groups have a long history of linking up with international terror organisations. The necessity of generating funds prompted even separatist groups like the LTTE to seek outside help.
After the civil war with the LTTE ended in 2009, militant Buddhism began to surge. Hard-line Buddhist monks targeted churches & mosques, priests & imams, often with the tacit support of the security services. While Muslims bore the brunt of these attacks, Christians suffered too & the 2 communities were essentially on the same side. But this informal alliance was seriously challenged by Sunday’s attacks, which the authorities say were carried out by Muslim extremists, primarily against Christians. In recent years, Sri Lanka has witnessed a spate of anti-Muslim violence linked to ultra-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist groups. In February 2018 in the eastern district of Ampara, 2 mosques & dozens of homes, small businesses & vehicles were destroyed. Authorities did arrest several suspects but concerns remained about police inaction during the violence.
Ties between the majority Buddhist community & the Muslim minority have been tense for the past few years. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country, with just 6% of the population adhering to the Catholic faith & Muslims making up another 10% of the total population. Although Sri Lanka was ravaged by decades of Tamil separatist insurgency that was crushed militarily in 2009, the country has little history of Islamist violence.
Sri Lanka has turned into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the last 10 years with tremendous efforts from the government. Such devastating terrorist attacks promised international attention. Sri Lanka was a soft target. Having successfully defeated the LTTE a decade ago through military might, it had become complacent. It has not seen a pressing need to develop police & non-military intelligence capacities to counter shifting security threats. 10 years of peace had bred over-confidence. The military had been more focussed on monitoring the country’s Tamil population & preventing another separatist insurgency than on a Muslim community that constituted only 10% of the population. This lack of preparedness was a significant factor that led to a little-known Islamist group being able to orchestrate the deadliest attack of its kind in South Asia. The resources & manpower needed for an attack of this magnitude are significant. Local groups are simply not capable of independently mounting an attack of this scale & complexity.
The government has admitted that it had received prior warnings from Indian intelligence officials about impending attacks on churches, but these were not shared across agencies. India had provided very specific intelligence inputs to Sri Lankan security officials about that attacks, including names of perpetrators, their modus operandi & movement of terrorists & places which were targeted on Easter Sunday. Sri Lanka had probably refused to pay heed to India’s alert on possible suicide attacks & the involvement of extremists based on its belief that New Delhi is trying to pit Colombo against Pakistan by pointing fingers at the island’s Muslim community. The Sri Lankan security apparatus was also apparently casual with the Indian alert as they did not comprehend any threat from jihadists after defeating the LTTE.
This glaring security failure highlighted the sheer inefficiency of the present government. Some of the responses provided by the President, the Prime Minister & state-officials, in the immediate aftermath, were ridiculous. The President & the Prime Minister were in a bitter feud. Both President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Minister of Defense & in charge of national police & Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been kept out of high-level security meetings since Sirisena tried to oust him last fall, said they only learned about the plot after it had been carried out. Sri Lanka has a deeply divided, weak & fragile government, which emboldened terrorist movements.
The Easter Sunday attacks
On April 21, 2019, 3 Catholic churches & 3 high-end hotels in Colombo were near simultaneously attacked by suicide bombers which resulted in the death of hundreds of people including several foreign nationals. The explosions maimed hundreds more. The deadliest explosion was at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, where more than 100 were killed. At least 28 people were killed at the Zion Church in Batticaloa, on the other side of the island on its eastern coast. St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Roman Catholic church in Colombo, was also attacked, with an unknown number of dead. It was later revealed that the attackers were from the Muslim community. The sites of the attack had been chosen with great care so as to garner international attention. A coordinated blast on Easter has massive religious ramifications as well.
The terrorists wanted to kill as many people as possible on Easter Sunday with their PBIEDs when they targeted large numbers of people attending mass. The churches targeted were relatively small structures with a large number of people to produce a higher impact. The targets selected were “Western” in nature because the Church & Christianity were Western inductions. The high-end hotels targeted, especially the Shangri-La Hotel & Kingsbury, are frequented mostly by Western visitors & tourists, although one can also find Sri Lanka’s super-rich in these spots. Hence, these were attacks on the “West” & viewed as a justifiable act of revenge for the Christchurch massacre of March 2019.
The Sri Lanka bombings exceeded all but the September 11 attacks in sophistication & deadliness. The alleged perpetrators, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), were previously known only for acts of hateful vandalism. The long-anticipated claim of responsibility for the attacks was made by IS on Tuesday night, 23 April 2019.
A day after the IS claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people, Muslims in some areas of Sri Lanka faced a backlash. Muslims are now afraid & resentful as ethnic divide deepens in Sri Lanka. Resentment is also building because Muslims believed their community is being unfairly targeted, even though the government was warned repeatedly about possible attacks. Muslim community leaders said they had for years, repeatedly warned the authorities about the potential for extremist violence growing within the community, including from the preachings of the alleged leader of the Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran Hashim. A ban on facial veils & house-to-house searches by security forces in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods across the country have added to the distrust.
A week after the attack, on April 29, Baghdadi himself acclaimed the Sri Lanka operation. Baghdadi’s intervention put to rest any doubts about the IS connection to the Easter Sunday attacks. The killing more than 250 people at churches & hotels is one of the terror group’s deadliest attack outside the borders of Iraq & Syria. In the weeks since, Sri Lankan officials have steadily built a case that the attackers had multiple connections to IS.
It would also appear that there were a few terrorist cells operating in Sri Lanka. In Colombo, navy detained 3 suspects along with 1 kg of C4 explosive when they were hiding in a 3-wheeler near the Wellawatte train station. In Sammanthurai, 40 km away from Batticaloa, security forces recovered a huge stash of explosives, detonators, 200 gelignite sticks, acid bottles, 40 metres of detonator cord, weapons, IS flags & banner, suicide kits & military uniforms from a safe house. In Kalmunai, a Muslim-majority municipality in the country, a joint operation by the Sri Lanka Army, Special Task Force & local police resulted in a shoot-out which lasted over 2 hours when the joint operation team rushed to Nintavur area after hearing an explosion behind a mosque. When the security team reached the spot, suspected terrorists hiding inside the house opened fire. 2 suspected terrorists were killed in the ensuing gun battle with 6 killed in the entire operation.
If one of the terrorists’ goals in slaughtering hundreds of innocent men, women & children at hotels & churches on Easter Sunday was to stir new religious hatred in Sri Lanka, they have succeeded. In Negombo, gangs of Christian men moved from house to house, smashing windows, breaking down doors, dragging Muslims into the streets, punching them in the face & threatening to kill them.
Looking to the Future – The use of
Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs)
Terror groups have the capacity to learn & often copy from each other or export tried & proven methods to other theatres of operation. The use of VBIEDs enable a numerically & technologically inferior force to accurately strike its enemy using large explosive payloads. As such, it has become one of the most popular methods of attack for a variety of terrorist & insurgent groups, mainly due to its role as a force multiplier.
Although terrorists employ a wide variety of tactics & strategies, their attacks have often targeted buildings in urban environments. Buildings in densely populated areas are attractive targets for several reasons: they tend to be tall structures with high concentrations of occupants, allowing for mass casualties & injuries from a single strike. They also tend to be valuable assets which translates to extensive property losses in the event of an attack.
Explosive devices can cause casualties & property damage in a variety of ways. Beyond a building’s collapse, an explosion can initiate uncontrollable fires that spread rapidly throughout the building; produce structural damage that traps people within the building & cause debris, broken glass & fragmented furniture to become deadly projectiles.
VBIEDs can hold enough explosives to significantly damage or destroy a building. The extent of damage a VBIED can cause depends largely on its proximity to a target. As such, terrorists have chosen to detonate VBIEDs in vehicles parked outside of buildings or within garages, or in vehicles that strike buildings. The mass-casualty potential of a VBIED was evident after VBIED attacks on the US Embassy in Beirut on 18 April 1983 killed 63 people. The VBIED attack on the USMC Barracks at the Beirut International Airport on 23 October killed 241 personnel. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a 4,000-pound TNT equivalent VBIED delivered in a rented truck outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City which triggered progressive collapse which consumed nearly one half of the building, killing 168 people.
The Islamic State is most infamous for its widespread use of VBIEDs. They claimed to have conducted 815 VBIED attacks in Syria & Iraq in 2016 alone. From 2011-2016, Action on Armed Violence has recorded over 21,000 deaths & injuries from VBIEDs