What the terrorist threat from Sri Lanka may really mean: ANALYSIS

DONALD J. MIHALEK and RICHARD M. FRANKEL

What the terrorist threat from Sri Lanka may really mean: ANALYSIS originally appeared on abcnews.go.com

The world watched in horror on Easter Sunday as coordinated suicide bombings went off in Sri Lanka targeting Christian churches and hotels popular with tourists.

This attack killed at least 359 people, including four Americans, and injured hundreds more. The motive isn't clear, but the Islamic State (ISIS), or an associated group, quickly claimed responsibility for the wave of coordinated bombings. If it was ISIS, it may be the most devastating terrorist attack it ever carried out.

But even as a deeper investigation begins, the attack may teach the world a lesson it should've learned from al-Qaida -- if you don't learn from early attacks, they'll only get worse.

(MORE: ISIS claims responsibility for Sri Lanka Easter bombings that killed over 350)

Sri Lanka is a nation still recovering from almost 30 years of civil war, during which terrorism was a regular tactic used most prominently by the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka has mostly enjoyed peace since the end of the war in 2009, though.

Terrorism has taken on new forms and the world has adopted new tactics since the Sept. 11 attacks. Over the years, many groups have vied for supremacy in the terrorist world. Even among terrorists, competition drives some of their actions. Unfortunately, that competition manifests itself in these groups trying to conduct larger scale and more horrific attacks.

PHOTO: A view of St. Sebastian's Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019. (Chamila Karunarathne/AP)

Al-Qaida learned this lesson. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, it conducted brazen attacks against the USS Cole and African embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but none compared to planning involved in attacking the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. That one act took al-Qaida from a regional threat to a worldwide threat and gave it supremacy over all terror groups.

Each groups is driven by a perverted ideology that motivates their actions and members. In the case of the Tamil Tigers, it was liberation from the established government. For al-Qaida, it was to push the "infidels" out of Muslim countries and the broader world. ISIS wanted to establish a caliphate, an Islamic state, but with its defeat in Syria, it appears to be filling the void al-Qaida has left vacant.

(MORE: 'They don't know what they took' says father of US boy, 11, killed in Sri Lanka)

ISIS has become particularly adept at recruitment, using social media to push their message and advocating for individualized, ISIS-inspired attacks around the world.

No terrorism group operates in a vacuum though, and each has some type of sponsor to help them stay funded and operational. In some cases, state sponsors that share a group's ideology become a facilitator for activity. The Iranians and Hezbollah are a prime example of terror being enabled through a nation-state. The Mueller report pointed out that Russia attempted to "terrorize" another nation's legitimate electoral process.

Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka's minister of defense, told the Sri Lankan parliament Tuesday that authorities have information showing Sunday's blasts were carried out "in retaliation" for last month's attacks at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people.

PHOTO: Sri Lankan security personnel walk past dead bodies covered with blankets amid blast debris at St. Anthony's Shrine following an explosion in the church in Kochchikade in Colombo, April 21, 2019. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

Reports indicate that the Sri Lanka intelligence agency had warnings prior to these attacks, but didn't act on them due to a lack of information.

If true, this would follow a pattern of intelligence agencies being unable or unwilling to connect the dots prior to an attack, even though the lessons from the Sept. 11 attacks showed that connecting the dots is key to preventing them. It also signals that despite the great strides in intelligence gathering and sharing since the Sept. 11 attacks, when a government doesn't act on intelligence, terrorists will inflict mayhem.

The question of what the actual goal was for the attacks still needs an answer. If it was simply to attack Christians on Easter, via a soft target, whoever did it went beyond the normal homemade explosives that lonewolf terrorists generally have used. If it was to destabilize the government of Sri Lanka, why attack churches? If it was indeed ISIS, it is clearly expanding its target radius.

(MORE: Security increased at US churches in wake of Sri Lanka bombings)

While the investigation is ongoing, one thing is clear: The Sri Lankan attacks could be the precursor to more and larger attacks. The size, scope and coordination of the attacks indicate a greater logistical capability and structure. The spectacular nature of the attacks sends a clear message: someone is vying for the terrorism spotlight.

The hope is that if the next incident is in the planning stages, whatever intelligence has been gathered is given more veracity than the information collected by Sri Lankan authorities.

Richard Frankel is an ABC News contributor and retired FBI special agent who was the special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark Division and prior to that, the FBI's NY Joint Terrorism TASK force. He is currently the Vice President of Investigation for T&M Protection Resources.

Donald J. Mihalek is an ABC News contributor, retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who also serves as the executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation.

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