What the Sri Lanka Bombings Tell Us About the State of ISIS

By Rita Katz
Ishara S. Kodikara/Getty

On Tuesday, the Islamic State (also known as IS or ISIS) confirmed what the world already suspected when it claimed responsibility for Sunday’s devastating blasts across Sri Lanka, which killed over 300 and injured over 500. Breaking two days of silence on the attacks at the official level, ISIS is now outpouring with content on the matter.

A communique, released shortly after an initial report of responsibility by ISIS news agency ‘Amaq, was heavy in detail, identifying seven attackers and which locations each of them struck across churches, hotels, and housing in Sri Lanka’s Batticaloa, Colombo, Dematagoda, and Negombo areas. ‘Amaq released a video minutes afterward of the attackers pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi together, led by suspected attack “mastermind” Moulvi Zahran Hashim.

The attacks—and ISIS’ response—provide a troubling demonstration of how ISIS’ global network is adapting to its losses in Iraq and Syria, how its media machine thrives amid those setbacks, and how the group is willing to adjust its own playbook to justify an attack.

ISIS’ Network-Building Model

While ISIS’ claim may seem to contradict the Sri Lankan government’s early assessments that a radical Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath was behind the attack, it is actually fitting with the way ISIS has built its global network of military divisions and sleeper cells.

"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," said Sri Lanka Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne in the aftermath of the blasts. "There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded."

Senaratne’s assessment speaks to a critical foundation of ISIS’ recruitment game. Rather than building up membership from scratch, the group poaches members from existing hardliner groups—or oftentimes the entire groups themselves. To see how effective this has been for ISIS, one would only have to look to places like the nearby Philippines, where the group pulled from Abu Sayaaf Group and other factions to put toward its “East Asia Province,” Shabaab fighters in Somalia to form its “East Africa Province,” and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to form its “Khorasan Province.”

There is a mutual benefit between ISIS and the entities it absorbs: not only does ISIS grow a new tentacle in its global network, but its newly pledged members also gain access to a wealth of financing, training, contacts, publicity, and other resources. To that point, prior to this past Sunday, National Thowheeth Jama’ath’s most noteworthy activity was vandalism of Buddhist statues—never a suicide operation, let alone any deadly attack. Now, its members performed a sophisticated and well-coordinated series of bombings across Sri Lanka. These attackers almost certainly received some sort of training and assistance from ISIS—possibly from one of the group’s hubs in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region.

Analyzing ISIS’ Sri Lanka Claim

ISIS’ claim for the Sri Lanka attack marks significant deviations from its claims for similar attacks, showing just how willing ISIS to bend its own target scope.

First, it is worth noting that ISIS didn’t mention the attack on Christchurch mosques in New Zealand as a motivator behind the Sri Lanka attacks. Sure, it would be hard to believe that ISIS had managed to put together such a massive attack in one month after the New Zealand massacre, but such circumstances have never stopped jihadi groups from opportunistic outreach–let alone for one like Sri Lanka, which would be easy to frame as revenge against “Crusader” Christians.

But ISIS, by its own warped ideology, doesn’t need New Zealand as justification for its attack. ISIS’ résumé is already full of claimed atrocities against churches, from Indonesia and the Philippines, to Pakistan and Egypt. Issue nine of ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine even gave a religious edict for killing Christians, giving ISIS even less need to use New Zealand as reason to justify an attack like Sri Lanka.

Thus, Tuesday’s communiqué touts its victims in Sri Lanka as “Christian combatants,” echoing its past labeling of victims as “Christian Crusaders.”

The real rule-bending, though, is seen with the Sri Lanka claim’s stretched labeling of “coalition” targets. While ISIS-claimed bombings in places like Paris, Brussels, and others are framed as being against “Crusader states allied against the Islamic State,” a country like Sri Lanka, not a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, does not fit this criteria. With that, ISIS’ claim appeals to newly altered target criteria, stating that the attacks were made against “churches and hotels in which citizens of the Crusader coalition were present.”

An Enduring ISIS Media Machine

Despite its losses of territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS’ media machine thrives. The group’s media output for the Sri Lanka attacks, which has spanned detailed breakdowns of the attacks and video footage of the attackers, shows how robust of a grasp the group’s Central Media Division still holds over ISIS media work, even in far-off countries like Sri Lanka.

While Sri Lanka is not by any means a major staple of ISIS chatter and media, parts of the ISIS recruitment machine are well-fitting to Sri Lankan audiences. Tamil, one of Sri Lanka’s two official languages, is among those which ISIS media is translated to and a key component of the ISIS online apparatus. This translated content—statements, religious content, etc.—is promoted across ISIS-linked online spaces of various other languages, further connecting Tamil-speakers to the larger ISIS community. Social media and messenger applications unite these ISIS-supporters into one borderless network.

These corners of ISIS’ propaganda machine have provided further fuel to a pro-ISIS online celebration campaign launched in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Like other ISIS-linked campaigns, the one for Sri Lanka showed a robust level of coordinated outreach, with content in Tamil and a host of other languages flooding online spaces with hyped messages of celebration and characterizing the blasts as revenge for attacks on Muslims.

“Now you can't bomb us but we can bomb you,” one ISIS-linked Telegram channel posted. “Did you think that losing cities in [Syria] will make us give up?”

A user on an ISIS-linked Deep Web forum likewise exclaimed, “Just like the massacre of mosques, it is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

And, as terrorist attacks so often snowball into more violence, supporters are already capitalizing on the event to incite for more. An ISIS-supporting user wrote on Instagram, “Good job, Indonesia coming soon.”

“It is a motivation for all of us,” one ISIS supporter wrote bluntly on WhatsApp. “Death is our fate and shahid (martyrdom) is a choice.”

These messages show an ugly reality: the tragic attacks in Sri Lanka are not an ending phase of a linear process, but rather another component of larger cycle—one in which every attack feeds the same recruitment machine that inspired it. That said, we must confront the fact that while ISIS may lack the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, the world has still not figured out how to shut down its online life force.

Even militarily, the group is far from gone. Not including Iraq and Syria, ISIS claimed attacks across 13 different countries between April 10-23. This included unprecedented attack claims from Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sri Lanka; the group’s first provincial claim from Moscow Oblast, Russia; and suicide operations in Egypt, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Thus, instead of celebrating the group’s collapse in two countries, the international community must assess its progress—or lack thereof—in countering the group everywhere it exists, be it online or on the ground.

Read more at The Daily Beast.