ISIS Still Has Global Reach, Despite the Caliphate’s Collapse
Exactly a month after losing its final piece of territory, the Islamic State is giving notice that it can still surprise the world—this time in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, it claimed responsibility for Easter bombings of three churches and three popular hotels which killed more than three hundred innocent civilians, including more than forty children, and injured another five hundred. “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,” the ISIS news agency, Amaq, claimed in its chat rooms on Telegram, a social-media app. “Coalition” refers to an international alliance of more than seventy countries that ousted ISIS from its territory in the Middle East. A second ISIS communique included a video of eight men standing in front of the black-and-white ISIS flag, seven with their faces covered by black-and-white kaffiyehs, as they pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. The communique identified each man who targeted each site on an “infidel holiday.”
Evidence beyond the claim is far from definitive. But Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, at a press conference, that government officials had early suspicions about ties between ISIS and two local Muslim extremist groups. So did U.S. counterterrorism officials. “Everyone believes there was some kind of external link because of the sophistication of the attack,” a U.S. official told me.
The scope of the attacks in Sri Lanka reflects the ongoing danger from extremist movements, whether ISIS, Al Qaeda, their offshoots, or their wannabes. The routing of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in 2001, and the death of Osama bin Laden, a decade later, did not eliminate Al Qaeda. Today, the group has active branches in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, and it controls a strategic Syrian province on the border with Turkey. In the past two years, ISIS has lost territory the size of Britain inside Syria and Iraq, but it still has eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism.
“ISIS has, of course, been badly battered, but territory and terrorism have never been co-terminus, and, in this respect, ISIS’s ideology and capacity to engage in violence far from its former battlefields still exists,” Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown University and author of the book “Inside Terrorism,” told me. Killing a terrorist group’s leaders or diminishing the physical territory that it controls “is not the same as undermining its ideology or destroying its raison d’être. Revenge and retaliation arguably infused ISIS with newfound purpose and energy.”
In a speech to Parliament, on Tuesday, Wickremesinghe said that a preliminary investigation indicated that the Sri Lanka bombings were in retaliation for the New Zealand assaults, although he provided no proof. Hoffman said that ISIS moved quickly to exploit last month’s attacks on two mosques in New Zealand, which killed fifty people, to justify and energize new attacks and “to make itself again relevant.”
ISIS still has its brand and an ability to inspire, Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. counterterrorism specialist and the author of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” told me. Even though more than a hundred of its senior leaders have been killed, and tens of thousands of its fighters and followers have been captured, the movement knows how to exploit local tensions for its own purposes. “Most ISIS provinces across the world build on preëxisting conflicts with sectarian, ethnic, and religious divisions,” he said. “This is true from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in the Sinai to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.”
The self-declared ISIS caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, remains free. He pushed for global attacks as the caliphate lost its territory. In 2016, he called on ISIS “soldiers” outside the caliphate to launch attacks against infidels worldwide. In an audio message, in 2017, Baghdadi appealed to his followers to “beware” of “the feeling of defeat.” Instead, he said, “Oh Soldiers of the Caliphate, fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner, and stand fast and courageous.”
In 2018, ISIS was linked with at least three thousand six hundred and seventy attacks worldwide, according to the BBC monitoring service. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for more than three hundred attacks in Afghanistan, more than a hundred and eighty in Egypt, about six dozen in Somalia, more than forty each in Nigeria and Yemen, and twenty-seven in the Philippines.
Sri Lanka was, in some ways, a curious target for ISIS. The South Asian country—like its neighbors India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—has never been a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, which included more than a third of the world’s countries. Sri Lanka is about three thousand miles away from ISIS’s fallen caliphate—and twice as far from New Zealand. Sri Lankan officials blamed two little-known local extremist movements—National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim—for the attacks. But neither was known to have links to ISIS until the video released Tuesday showed the perpetrators pledging allegiance.
The ties between ISIS and like-minded jihadi groups can range widely—from local groups espousing propaganda that imitates ISIS to the jihadi movement furnishing material support in planning specific attacks to local groups. A case of four Moroccans, who were arrested for beheading two female Scandinavian tourists, in December, underscores the difficulty in deciphering the depth of ties between ISIS and wannabe cells. In Morocco, the government concluded that the men, who attacked the women in the Atlas Mountains, were acting on their own initiative, despite having pledged allegiance to ISIS. In the past, the jihadi movement has had to “accept” the pledge in order for a group to be formally embraced. In the Moroccan case, ISIS did not accept bayat publicly or on social media.
The group’s reach now runs across Asia. Last year, an ISIS affiliate in Indonesia seized part of a high-security prison guarded by élite counterterrorism troops. Indonesian security forces eventually regained control—but not until after the Islamic State transmitted videos of detainees waving the black-and-white ISIS flag and pictures of murdered prison guards.
Hoffman said that al-Baghdadi appears to have successfully shifted ISIS’s focus from its center to its branches, which has enabled the group not only to survive but to spread geographically—most recently to Sri Lanka. “You don’t survive as a terrorist movement, and continue to evolve to more lethally effective, heinous manifestations like ISIS without an enormous organizational and ideological resilience,” as the staggering death toll in Sri Lanka demonstrates.