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Sri Lanka and the deadly reach of the Islamic State

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A week after enduring hideous violence on their holiest of days, Sri Lankan Christians largely stayed away from their places of worship. The archbishop of Colombo conducted a televised mass from his home on Sunday out of safety concerns for his flock — still reeling after a coordinated series of suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels on both sides of the country.

The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State, and some officials floated the possibility that it was intended to be retaliation for a white supremacist’s assault on two mosques in New Zealand. The specter of an international Islamist militant plot hung over the island nation. The Islamic State’s online propaganda arm released images of the suspected ringleader of the attack, accompanied by seven scarf-clad followers, declaring allegiance to the extremist group and its leader, Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi. On Monday, a video emerged of Baghdadi, appearing rather healthy and discussing the operation.

In response, Sri Lankan authorities snatched up dozens of potential suspects over the course of the week, including 48 people over the weekend, while uncovering various caches of weapons and bombmaking material. Full curfews went into effect in parts of the country. Late Friday, at least 15 people died during a raid by government troops on a house in the eastern town of Sainthamaruthu. According to police reports, some suspected militants detonated their own bombs as security forces approached, killing themselves along with six children and three women also inside the home, while others died in a subsequent shootout.

“Ripped pieces of clothing were scattered on the ground together with bullet casings,” my colleagues reported from the crime scene the following day. “Torn sheaves of paper with the hadith — the sayings of the prophet Muhammad — were strewn in two places.”

The exact logistical link between the local militants and the Islamic State is still unclear. But the attacks in Sri Lanka showed the enduring ability of this brutal extremist organization to inspire violence throughout the world. The group has this capacity even as it has lost its territorial fiefdoms in war-torn Iraq and Syria, arenas where President Trump has desperately sought to declare victory over Islamist militants.

"We should not be too dismissive of ISIS claims or capabilities,” Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in the George W. Bush administration, said to my colleagues. “I do think it is possible that ISIS has communicated directly or embedded with these local groups and found a way of helping plot, amplify and supercharge their capabilities and operational effectiveness on the ground. The ISIS diaspora and expertise is real, and ISIS has global designs — in South Asia and elsewhere.”

Analysts have pointed to the “viral” nature of Islamic State online messaging and propaganda, which has netted new adherents and would-be recruits at a scale previously unimaginable — and entirely divorced from the physical project of building a territorial “caliphate.”

“The Islamic State is like an international conglomerate that has untethered itself from the costly, time-consuming business of operating retail bricks and mortar,” wrote James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO. “A global map showing ISIS inspired or conducted attacks is revealing, far beyond anything al-Qaeda has managed. And, no question, it will continue to conduct lethal attacks, seeking over time to obtain weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological, radiological and cyber.”

Rather than a one-off, argued terrorism experts Charlie Winter and Aymenn al-Tamimi, the attacks in Sri Lanka ought to be seen as a “test run” for what the Islamic State can potentially achieve elsewhere. Indeed, the attacks themselves may offer proof to the Islamist militants’ sympathizers that the organization is capable of thriving far from its now-lost dusty redoubts in the Middle East.

They pointed to a proximate historical precedent: “Back in 2004, the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, was militarily defeated in Fallujah — a city it had been occupying for six months alongside other insurgents. At the time, the group’s then leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, framed territorial defeat as a tactical setback in the short term, but a strategic victory in the long term. He asserted that Fallujah mattered most because of what the battle for the city said about AQI. It put AQI on the map, he claimed, showing it to be a viable force capable of fighting the ‘crusaders’ head-on and globalizing its ideology. That, he said, was priceless. Sure, AQI was materially weakened, but that didn’t matter, because at the very same time it had been ideologically strengthened.”

The organization that eventually evolved out of AQI? None other than the Islamic State.

In Sri Lanka, the Islamist militants found a particularly vulnerable target. A political rift between the country’s president and prime minister is being blamed in part for the security lapses leading up to the bombings, including the depressing fact that officials within the government apparently did not act on tips concerning the likely threat of an attack.

Now, there’s a risk that it could overcompensate. “We had to declare an emergency situation to suppress terrorists and ensure a peaceful environment in the country,” said Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. “Every household in the country will be checked” and lists of all residents made to “ensure that no unknown person can live anywhere.”

The president decreed that face coverings for Muslim women would be banned starting Monday for security purposes. Sirisena also blamed investigations into the Sri Lankan military’s bloody role in a decades-long civil war with Tamil separatists for supposedly weakening the country’s security apparatus. Critics scoffed at that claim, arguing that he was playing into the hands of a Buddhist nationalist clique linked to the armed forces that is, in part, responsible for stoking communal tensions.

Those are already flaring. Local officials told reporters that hundreds of Muslim refugees of the Ahmadiyah sect — who initially fled to Sri Lanka from Pakistan to flee religious persecution — have now gone into hiding out of fear of reprisal attacks.

It’s another sign of what extremist plots can achieve. “People are terribly scared,” Russell Eardle, a British Sri Lankan man, said to my colleagues last week. “They are peaceful, and they don’t know who is to blame. But if another religion has done this, it could be the beginning of another war, which nobody wants.”

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