Report

The Islamic State’s New Afterlife

Sunday’s attack in Sri Lanka is just the latest evidence of the group’s persistent influence.

A Sri Lankan woman cries during a burial service for a bomb blast victim in a cemetery in Colombo on April 23, two days after a series of bomb attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.
A Sri Lankan woman cries during a burial service for a bomb blast victim in a cemetery in Colombo on April 23, two days after a series of bomb attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump has described the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State and its expulsion from Iraq and Syria as a signal achievement of his presidency. But as the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka demonstrate, the terrorist group is achieving a menacing afterlife around the world—thanks perhaps in part to the return of its members to their homelands.

On Tuesday, over the course of a few hours, the Islamic State’s spin-masters steadily released a stream of propaganda that has become a familiar routine to scholars of the group’s terrorist plots: first a claim of responsibility, followed by a video of operatives pledging allegiance to the group.

The operatives featured on Tuesday are alleged to have carried out a deadly set of bombings across Sri Lanka on Sunday, killing more than 300 people at churches and hotels in what is the group’s deadliest attack outside the borders of Iraq and Syria. Despite having lost its physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria at the hands of an international coalition of military forces, the Islamic State has made a show of force about its continued ability to inspire and perhaps even orchestrate brutal attacks around the world.

That capability puts the Islamic State in a category of its own. “The Islamic State continues to demonstrate a more lethal power of persuasion than al Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadist groups,” said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst.

With the establishment of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014, the group announced itself as the top dog among competing jihadi groups and appeared to portend the fulfillment of the end-times prophecy of the radical interpretation of Islam that it espoused.

The establishment of the caliphate lured thousands of foreigners to fight on behalf of the group and work in its bureaucracy in Iraq and Syria, but by 2016, with the group under renewed military pressure, its leadership appealed to its followers to remain in their home countries and carry out attacks there. Through social media platforms, the group spread its message. Via encrypted messaging apps, it radicalized its operatives and helped plot attacks. The resulting wave of terrorism struck Brussels, Paris, London, San Bernardino, Texas, Tunisia, and Orlando.

In several of those cases, the perpetrators pledged allegiance to Islamic State, sometimes on video, shortly before the attacks. Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, used Facebook to pledge allegiance to the group shortly before the attack.

Now, the Islamic State enters a new phase of its life, robbed of its territory but possessing military know-how and experienced fighters scattered from its now lost caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Thousands of foreign fighters who joined up with the Islamic State are now attempting to or already have returned home. Among the foreign fighters who joined up were at least 32 Sri Lankans.

The Islamic State’s exact role in Sunday’s attacks in Sri Lanka remains unclear, as is the participation of returning foreign fighters, but terrorism analysts argue it is highly unlikely that a relatively unknown group would have been able to carry out a coordinated attack using a large amount of reliable explosives hitting multiple targets without some kind of assistance from a foreign group.

Officials in Sri Lanka have described in vague terms an international nexus to Sunday’s attack. “We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Sri Lanka’s cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have occurred.”

Immediately after the attack, the Sri Lankan government responded by blocking major social media and messaging sites, including WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. Two days after the attack, the block remains in place and has been expanded to include virtual private networks, which can be used to evade such restrictions, Alp Toker, the executive director of NetBlocks, a research group that monitors internet outages, said in an email.

The government said the ban was motivated by a desire to prevent hoaxes from being spread online, but it could also have cut off lines of communication between terrorist operatives in Sri Lanka and organizers abroad. “It stands to reason that most of the attackers communicated over Facebook and WhatsApp, both of which are popular in the country,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher who has studied Sri Lanka.

According to a Sri Lankan police memo leaked on Monday, authorities there were warned by a foreign intelligence organization of an imminent terrorist attack. Such a warning may indicate that a foreign intelligence organization intercepted messages between the operatives who carried out the attack and organizers abroad.

In its propaganda distributed on Tuesday, the Islamic State’s official news outlet published images and videos of a group of men clad in black and standing in front of the group’s signature black flag with white script. In the video, the men pledge allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, indicating a familiarity with the group’s well-established protocol for carrying out acts of violence in its name.

Sri Lankan officials have said the attack may have been carried out as an act of retaliation for last month’s slaughter at two mosques in New Zealand, the Islamic State’s releases on Tuesday made no reference to a motive of retaliation.

The claim of responsibility fits the Islamic State’s modus operandi with only one major exception: The group is typically prompt in saying it was behind an attack, but in Sri Lanka it took a full two days for it to publish the video and images in question, a delay that remains unexplained.

Despite Trump’s claims of victory, U.S. intelligence officials have been far more cautious in declaring the group eradicated, arguing that it retains the ability to inspire violence.

“The group’s global reach remains robust, with eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East,” a U.S. counterterrorism strategy released in October of last year warned. “Despite many setbacks, ISIS maintains a sophisticated and durable media and online presence that allows it to encourage and enable sympathizers worldwide to conduct dozens of attacks within target countries, including the United States.”

Indeed, Sunday’s attack in Sri Lanka was not the only one carried out in the Islamic State’s name that day. In Saudi Arabia, a group of fighters loyal to the group attacked a domestic intelligence office. Saudi officials said the attack was foiled, but as in Sri Lanka, the Islamic State’s propaganda arm released a video claiming responsibility for the attack.

A day earlier, a suicide attack in Kabul targeting the Telecommunications Ministry there left seven people dead. The Islamic State again claimed responsibility.

And as the group continues to carry out attacks around the world, it is also appears to be spreading to new countries. Last week, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for its first attack in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where eight soldiers were killed.

In January, the Islamic State said it was behind an attack on the Egyptian military in Sinai and that it had kidnapped a Christian researcher there. The same month, the group claimed responsibility for a bombing targeting a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines that left 20 people dead.

The emphasis on targeting churches represents one of the Islamic State’s unique tactics. Following the mosque attacks in New Zealand, al Qaeda propagandists urged its followers to seek revenge but to avoid targeting houses of worship.

The Islamic State, by contrast, has shown no such restraint, and attacks on churches represent a hallmark of the group.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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