ISIS’ ‘Virtual’ Caliphate May Be Its Most Bloody Yet

Trump recently bragged: 'The caliphate is gone. As of tonight. Pretty good.' But in Sri Lanka, ISIS just blew up premature declarations of ‘victory’ over them - and jihadist terrorism in general

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People mourn next to coffins of their relatives killed in an explosion at St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church on Easter Sunday, Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019.
People mourn next to coffins of their relatives killed in an explosion at St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church on Easter Sunday, Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019.Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Ten days before the terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, on 11 April 2019, a top Sri Lankan police official sent out a confidential security memo.

Captioned with the headline - "INFORMATION OF AN ALLEGED PLAN ATTACK" - it warned of an impending suicide attack on Catholic churches by a little known radical Islamist group, the National Towheeth Jama’ath:

"Foreign intelligence has informed that Mohammed Cassim Mohamed Zaharan alias Zaharan Hashmi the leader of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath and his followers are planning suicide attacks in this country. The reports noted that these attacks could target Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Information received is at Appendix A."

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The Appendix gave details of the names, addresses, phone numbers - even the times in the middle of the night that one suspect, Rilwan, would visit his wife and children.

In January, months before the attack, Indian intelligence agencies, who had been monitoring the activities of the National Towheeth Jama’ath and its leader Mohammed Zaharan, had warned the Sri Lankan intelligence agencies that the group was stockpiling weapons and detonators to attack churches. 

This still image taken from Sri Lankan closed-circuit TV on April 21, 2019, a suspected bomber (L framed by door) with backpack before he enters St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka.Credit: HO / CCTV Sri Lanka / AFP

Going by this information, the Sri Lankan intelligence agencies kept a watch on the activities of the members of the group, particularly Zaharan, its leader, and his brother Rilwan.

A few months back, the Sri Lankan police arrested a man – one of the suicide bombers – on suspicion of vandalizing a statue of the Buddha. Further investigations led them to a remote coconut plantation in northwestern Sri Lanka where they found more than 100 kilograms of explosives, detonators, wire cords, rifles, bullets, dry rations and religious propaganda.

Given the nature of foreign intelligence that Sri Lanka’s security agencies received, the terrorist attacks on 21 April 2019, which killed over 300 people and injured over 500 people, undoubtedly point to a colossal failure of Sri Lanka’s intelligence and security services.

It’s a major embarrassment for the Sri Lankan government as it exposes the country's dysfunctional administrative setup, thanks to political infighting between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

These attacks also raise serious questions: Why didn’t the Sri Lankan government act on the foreign intelligence inputs immediately? Why were the heads of government - particularly the prime minister and his cabinet - kept in the dark about such a major security threat? 

Given the recent origins of the National Towheeth Jama’ath, how did the group manage to recruit so many suicide bombers in such a short time? Where did they get the training to detonate such high-grade explosives? What was the real nature of the group’s identification and coordination with ISIS, who two days after the day claimed responsibility for it? How deep is the ISIS supporter network in Sri Lanka, and are further attacks not just likely but inevitable?

In the coming weeks, Sri Lanka’s security agencies will have to grapple with finding answers for many such questions. But these sophisticated attacks must not be viewed in isolation as a Sri Lankan security/intelligence issue.

They must, instead, be analyzed in the context of two broader global problems: The scourge of religious extremism, particularly Islamist fanaticism, which plays out as terror attacks, and the simultaneous radicalization and "glocalization" of terror networks.

A woman mourns next to two coffins during a mass burial of victims of the suicide bomb attacks on churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in NegoCredit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

In 2016, speaking to the Parliament, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Sri Lanka’s justice minister, voiced his concern about the rise of Islamic extremism and warned that "the government was aware of some foreigners coming to Sri Lanka to spread Islamic extremism."

Wijeyadasa’s statement in Sri Lanka’s Parliament is significant as it points to the global nature of the threat and its resemblance to attacks carried out elsewhere, both in south Asia and worldwide, jihadists. 

In the recent past, Sri Lanka has witnessed a significant increase in the number of young Muslims, especially from "well-educated and elite" families, who went to join the Islamic State in Syria. 

In Sri Lanka, the perpetrators weren’t outsiders but rather citizens of the country itself. That was also the case in the 2015 attack at a university in North Eastern Kenya by Al-Shabab, the 2016 attack on Easter Sunday services in Lahore, Pakistan, by Pakistani Taliban’s Jamaat-ur-Ahrar faction, and the attacks on Christians in 2017 and 2018 in Egypt by the Islamic State.

Most were radicalized online by foreign recruiters, and formed terror cells seeking to establish extreme political Islam and terrorize their religious "enemies" locally, in their respective countries.

This was clear in the photos and video that ISIS put out showing National Towheeth Jama'ath's close links with the Islamic State - showing the Sri Lankan suicide bombers with the IS flags in the background swearing allegiance to the ISIS "caliph" Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. The choice of churches as a target is also a typical choice for ISIS. 

It's also pertinent to note that the bombings also come a month after the Islamic State spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Mujahir released an audio speech exhorting Muslims to avenge the New Zealand mosque attack.

This form of radicalization is not specific to Sri Lanka; almost all nations - including the United States, Britain, India, Kenya, Somalia, and even Pakistan, face this issue.

This radical, extremist ideology transcends geographic and national identities; violent extremism, clothed as religious instruction, spread its message online far before ISIS created a tangible, physical territory for its caliphate, and since ISIS’ loss of territory, it is continuing to radicalize and recruit for a virtual caliphate.

In the last few decades, the Internet has emerged as a key propaganda tool for spreading jihadism. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Islamic state and other jihadi organisations are now virtual organizations that are spreading their tentacles through the Internet, recruiting foot soldiers from across the world.

Those who left Syria have returned to their countries and continue to wage war against their own and other countries. Some estimates suggest that as many as 30,000 of the 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 plus countries who came to fight for ISIS in its caliphate between 2014-2016 may have survived military operations in Syria and returned to their countries to wage war against them.

That means terror has a new pattern. It’s "glocal" - global, yet local. Religious extremism and sectarian strife are on the rise across the world. And jihadi terror, a global phenomenon, is now carried out by decentralized, local terror cells. 

As Lisa Monaco, who served as a former homeland security adviserto President Barak Obama says: "We should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate with that of the virtual caliphate."

A man with a backpack walks in Shangri La hotel restaurant in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019 in this screen grab taken from a CCTV footage released on April 24, 2019.Credit: SIRASA TV via REUTERS

That the supporters of the Islamic State continue to publish infographics, gloating and celebrating the number of dead people in Sri Lanka, claiming to be revenge for the white supremacist attacks on the New Zealand mosque, shows that these extremists have taken on a digital avatar. They are decentralized, difficult to identify, and hidden behind a screen.  

Given this, claiming victory over ISIS, as Trump did, has turned out to be short sighted and counterproductive. It bolsters the narrative that there is an emerging Muslim-Christian war, a clash of faiths and civilizations. Unscrupulous politicians will try to make the maximum political capital out of this precarious security situation and narrative of all-out-war.

The hard truth is that the enormous efforts of the West to overturn the territorial reach of ISIS was always only half the battle – if that. The experience of losing the physical caliphate has left the ISIS hard core – rather than lost and disillusioned – far more experienced, reinvigorated, organized and weaponized.

"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," the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism stated last year. 

Islamic extremism and the perverse jihadist narrative was global and ideological before it was focused on the caliphate. Now, that sickness has metastasized into faceless cells, ironically far more dangerous and difficult to track. It’s not clear what kind of war the West can really wage to defeat it.

Shrenik Rao is the Editor-in-chief of the Madras Courier, a 233-year-old news brand which he revived in October 2016. He is also the founder & CEO of 7MB, a digital media company. An alumnus of the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rao writes about foreign policy issues. Twitter: @ShrenikRao