Tragedy in Sri Lanka May Be Connected to ISIS’s Global Influence

ISIS Sri Lanka

April 24, 2019

Picture released by ISIS’s Amaq News Agency showing the alleged attackers. Reads: “Martyrdom Attacks by Islamic State militants shake Sri Lanka…the perpetrators of martyrdom attacks in Sri Lanka.”

On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, nine suicide bombers carried out attacks at churches and tourist attractions across Sri Lanka, killing more than 250 people and injuring at least 500 more. In the attack’s aftermath, Sri Lankan authorities blamed a local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a small but violent group that was founded in 2016 in eastern Sri Lanka known primarily for its anti-Buddhist sentiments, claiming the local group was aided by a larger unspecified foreign terror organization. Regardless of whether these attacks in Sri Lanka were explicitly directed or inspired by a foreign terrorist organization, they underscore the potent threat of Islamist extremism.

Though it appears all of the bombers were Sri Lankan, authorities are investigating the extent to which the attacks may have been motivated by ISIS and its radical, violent ideology. Two days after the bombing, ISIS released photos and a video of what it said were the alleged attackers pledging allegiance to the group. These claims are still being examined; however, ISIS has claimed atrocities in the past without any substantiated evidence.

While ISIS lost control of its remaining territory in Syria in 2019, its ideology and adherents continue to pose a global threat. Religious institutions are frequently targeted by Islamist extremists, particularly those motivated by ISIS’s brutal sectarian violence.

In the past year, most of the high-level attacks against religious institutions around the world were carried out by ISIS militants or its affiliates, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which officially pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2016.

ISIS does not hesitate to attack sensitive targets, such as religious institutions, which can be partially explained by the ideological faction that caused the ISIS to splinter off from al-Qaeda in 2004. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of ISIS’s predecessor organization that split from al-Qaeda, emphasized sectarian warfare and condoned attacks on Sunni Muslims they deemed to be apostates. Fifteen years later, ISIS still adheres to Zarqawi’s brutalism, and sectarian violence remains a staple of many Islamist extremist attacks. 

Examples of Islamist extremist attacks targeting religious institutions in the past year:

  • May 2018: ISIS militants bombed three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, killing 28 people and injuring 57 others.
  • May 2018: ISIS-affiliated militants attacked and attempted to take several hostages in an Orthodox church in Grozny, Chechnya. Two policemen and one churchgoer were killed, and two others were injured in the attack.
  • May 2018: Boko Haram militants killed 86 people in two suicide attacks at a mosque and a market in Mubi, Nigeria. 58 others were injured in the bombings.
  • May 2018: Boko Haram militants killed 12 people and injured 20 others after detonating explosives at a mosque in Mabanda in the northern region of Cameroon.
  • May 2018: Boko Haram militants killed four people and injured 15 others in a suicide bombing at an open-air mosque for refugees in Dikwa in northeastern Nigeria.
  • June 2018: ISIS militants detonated two bombs placed near an ammunition cache in a Shiite mosque in Sadr City, Iraq, killing 20 people and wounding 110 others.
  • July 2018: Boko Haram militants killed 11 people and injured eight others in a suicide attack on a mosque in the local government area of Konduga in the northern Nigerian state of Borno.
  • August 2018: An ISIS-linked suicide bomber attacked a church in Shubra el-Kheima, Egypt. His explosives detonated early, killing only himself and injuring two others.
  • August 2018: Two ISIS militants dressed in burqa entered a Shiite mosque in the town of Gardez, Afghanistan and opened fire. One attacker blew himself up, and the other was gunned down by security guards. 39 people were killed, and 80 others were injured.
  • September 2018: Islamist extremist militants, believed to have ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, attacked a mosque in the Kompienga Province of Burkina Faso, killing five including an imam. In another attack in the same village, they killed three people and wounded two others.
  • September 2018: ISIS fighters attacked a worshiper leaving a mosque north of Baghdad, Iraq. The victim had just finished praying when the attackers shot him.
  • November 2018: Multiple ISIS gunmen opened fire on a bus in Minya, Egypt carrying Christian Copts, killing 7 and injuring 14 others.
  • November 2018: ISIS claimed responsibility for an explosion at an Afghan National Army base mosque in Khost Province, killing 27 and wounding 57 others.
  • January 2019: Taliban militants attacked a mosque in the Qaysar District of Afghanistan, killing five Afghan soldiers.