ISIS’s New Target: South Asia

The Sri Lanka attacks should put the region on alert.

Relatives carry the coffin of a bomb blast victim for a burial ceremony at a cemetery in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 2.
Relatives carry the coffin of a bomb blast victim for a burial ceremony at a cemetery in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 2. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka have brought the island nation to the forefront of the global terrorism discourse. The Islamic State militant group, via its quasi-official Amaq News outlet, took credit for the attacks, releasing pictures and videos of the alleged attackers. The video showed the suicide bombers who conducted the raids wearing black overalls, faces covered, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The Sri Lanka attacks have further strengthened the hypothesis that territorial destruction of the so-called Islamic State has not diminished the reach, the approach, or the brand power of the group. Instead, its attraction remains potent—and it’s making use of local groups and grievances. This poses a challenge for South Asia in particular, with its political tensions often crossing religious lines,  as the Islamic State rebrands as a global insurgency.

The alleged ringleader of the April 21 attacks on churches and luxury hotels, Zahran Hashim, was from the local Sri Lankan Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath. Hashim reportedly died conducting one of the hotel attacks himself. This group of attackers came from educated and wealthy families, with some of them also attaining their higher education from British and Australian institutions. National Thowheed Jamath, allegedly led by Hashim, is believed to be a radical offshoot of the Sri Lankan Thowheed Jamath. This sort of division was also observed during the foundation of the Islamic State, with the group’s ideologues breaking away from al Qaeda in the early 2000s, blaming Osama bin Laden for not being committed enough after the he forbade attacks on places of worship.

As the attackers struck on April 21, the style of the attacks and the chosen targets bore an immediate resemblance to the targets the Islamic State has chosen to attack in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Targeting hotels meant focusing on two important things: foreigners and the economy. Similar targets have been observed in pro-Islamic State attacks in other parts of the world as well, especially outside the Iraq and Syria theaters. Around the same time two years ago, on Palm Sunday in April 2017, twin suicide bombings hit the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, targeting a church and a cathedral. More than 45 people were killed, and more than 120 others were injured. On the other side of the planet, in May 2018, three Islamic State-inspired families conducted suicide attacks on three churches in Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, killing at least 13 people and wounding more than 40 more.

The Sri Lanka attacks further demonstrate the change in the Islamic State from a territorial group to a sponsor of terrorism worldwide. Sri Lanka, an ethnically diverse island with Muslims constituting only 9.7 percent of the 21 million total population, has had its fair share of run-ins with ethnic tensions, especially between Buddhists and Muslims. The secretary of Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath, Abdul Razik, was arrested in 2016 on charges of inciting hatred against Buddhists. However, no direct or significant pro-Islamic State groups had taken root in Sri Lanka over the past few years, despite reports dating back to 2016 suggesting around 32 Muslims from elite and well-educated families had joined Islamic State in Syria. The figure was presented by then justice minister of Sri Lanka, but members of the country’s Muslim community condemned the report, saying it would incite racism against them. At the time, ethnic tensions, especially between Buddhists and Muslims, were playing out publicly before the situation eventually calmed, only to be reignited.

Before this attack, South Asia had limited exposure to pro-Islamic State groups. The 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, bears a resemblance to the Sri Lanka attacks. There as well, young men from affluent and well-educated families conducted an attack that left 29 people dead, including themselves. As with Sri Lanka’s hotel strikes, the Dhaka attackers also targeted foreigners. Every country in South Asia has deep-rooted ties to the Middle East, specifically the wider Gulf region, thanks to migrant worker populations. India alone has more than 7 million people working in the Gulf, and Indian states such as Kerala, which supplies an enormous amount of labor abroad, have seen several pro-Islamic State cases emerging.

Despite regional attacks claimed in the name of the Islamic State, the group has no known official wilayats, or affiliates, in the immediate region, other than in Afghanistan, where the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has built up a formidable reputation. ISKP, manned by residual fighters from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and others who may have fallen out with the Afghan Taliban. The ISKP has had a direct impact on India, so to speak, as pro-Islamic State Muslims from Kerala and others such as former Indian Mujahideen leader Shafi Armar also found space in the ISKP ranks.

At the other end of the spectrum, the small island nation of the Maldives, about 400 miles off the coast of Kerala in the Indian Ocean, has also become a hotspot for pro-Islamic State activities. On a per capita basis, the Maldives has provided more recruits to the Islamic State than any other country, with up to 450 of its citizens known to have joined. While Pakistan has also seen attacks in areas such as Quetta and Balochistan claimed by the Islamic State, there is little evidence of either an extension of ISKP there or any separate group pledging official allegiance to them. The Pakistani theater of terrorism is a crowded space to begin with, which oddly makes it both hard and arguably easy for local groups to potentially pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in order to make a quick name for themselves. And as for Nepal, even though it has seen no known pro-Islamic State acts, its open borders with India and its rapidly increasing emigrant population in the Middle East raise concerns.

In some ways, India would be the most obvious target for an Islamic State-backed attack. But so far, despite being the victim of terrorist attacks by other groups, the country has not been targeted in a major way by Islamic State affiliates. But as the militant group moves to using smaller regional affiliates to carry out terrorism in its own name, a new set of challenges come into play for the entire region, demanding better intraregional cooperation to counter the same.

Despite not having an organizational foothold in Sri Lanka, the attacks conducted by National Thowheed Jamath on behalf of or by pure allegiance toward the Islamic State highlight a franchised form of terrorism that is going to offer a fresh set of challenges for counterterrorism policies. The Islamic State functions as a brand name nowadays, with those adopting its image creating instant narratives, gaining immediate attention, and reaching the front pages around the world. A lax approach after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State is no longer an option—instead, nations worldwide have to adapt to battle a hydra-headed insurgency.

Harsh V. Pant is director of research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and professor of international relations at King’s College London.

Kabir Taneja is an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

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