The series of suicide bomb attacks carried out by the ISIS terrorists in three five-star hotels and three Catholic churches in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka have pushed the island nation to a deep state of devastating grief after ten years of peace. According to government sources, 359 people have lost their lives and more than 500 people have been injured from the deadliest attacks occurred on Easter Sunday morning. A statement issued by ISIS and video showing Sri Lankan terrorists swearing allegiance to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi before launching the attacks confirm direct ISIS involvement, but it would be an interesting observation to trace why ISIS chose Sri Lanka as a location to carry out their attacks as Colombo has not particularly taken part in the global war on terrorism.

Nevertheless, it is true that communal unrest between Sinhala Buddhist majority and Muslim community in the island has grown drastically in the recent past, yet taking that unrest as the pivotal factor which inspired ISIS to attack civilians in Sri Lanka is misleading hypothesis due to various solid factors against it. Firstly, the Buddhist-Muslim unrest has not reached a bloodiest stage for slaughtering each other, and even if these terrorist attacks were an offshoot of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict, Buddhists temples and institutions would have been attacked but they were not. On the other hand, choosing the targets such as Catholic churches and five-star hotels in Colombo convinces the motives of the attackers as a part of the ISIS global mission against Christianity and the West. Moreover, Easter Sunday is the most revered day in the Christian calendar and attacking Christians on such a day would blow the entire Christendom. Secondly, the hotels they picked in Colombo are known as the favorite spots among the wealthy Western tourists come to Sri Lanka. These factors behind the attacks give a clue for a vigilant observer to understand the psyche of the attackers as a reflection of ISIS ideology and its antipathy to Christianity.

However, the emerging question after the mayhem on Easter day is what reasons encouraged ISIS to pick a tiny and less significant destination like Sri Lanka to carry out their attacks. As it has been mentioned above, Sri Lanka has not involved in the global war against terror or has not sent a single armed squad to the Western military operations against ISIS in Syria. On the other hand, the ties between Sri Lanka and Muslim countries have always been cordial. With these factors, ostensibly ISIS has no reason to target Sri Lanka. The attack carried out on Easter Sunday shows – ISIS is willing to attack their archenemy regardless of any geopolitical distance.

The statement released by ISIS claiming the responsibility of the attacks has described their targets as “Crusaders” which is indeed a medieval term displaying the age-long antagonism between Islam and Christianity. Looking at the way how events carried out by terrorists, it becomes certain that apart from the seven attackers, a number of other individuals were involved in the whole plot and as government forces identified the explosives used in the attacks are called “TATP” and which has been the favorite explosive used by the ISIS terrorists and which they called “Mother of Satan”.

Now, the important question is – how did a tiny island like Sri Lanka become exposed to ISIS activities? It was exactly four years ago when first Sri Lankan ISIS fighter named Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam died in Syria from air strikes and since then a number of Sri Lankans have been reported to join ISIS. Moreover, the ISIS presence in South Asia started to become an important issue since 2016, which was the year ISIS carried out most of its attacks in Europe. In the same year, Dhaka was also affected by ISIS terror.

Now get back to Easter Sunday attacks, the links between ISIS and radicalized Islamic groups operating from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Eastern Province of Sri Lanka were found by Indian intelligence. However, it seems Sri Lankan authorities did not pay attention to Indian intelligence. Overlooking the terrorism issue by the Sri Lankan government may have caused a steeping growth of Islamic extremism. The rise of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups like Bodu Bala Sana have agitated Sinhalese public opinions to be suspicious about the Muslim community. Even though some of the claims made by the groups are true regarding extremist activities in the island, their manner of approaching the problem has worsened the situation, as it paved the path to deviate Muslims from mainstream society which provided an ideal chance for Islamic extremism to infiltrate. The architect of the entire attack Zahran Hashmi was said to be the leader of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath which has been identified as a radical organization worked completely detached from other orthodox Muslim organizations in the country and the intelligence report made prior to the attack had shown the links between Hashmi’s organization and another Islamic extremist organization in Tamil Nadu in India. All of these traces affirm the fact that choosing Sri Lanka as a location for an attack was not a random choice made by ISIS.

In fact, the situation of ISIS in Syria has begun to deteriorate due to relentless attacks by the US, Russia, and the Syrian government. One outcome emerges from the territorial loss of the Caliphate – a strategic shift of ISIS fighters for different directions and it seems to choose Western targets and Christians outside the Middle East and Europe, has become a novel strategy of ISIS. The indication given by the ISIS in its heinous crime carried out in Sri Lanka is extremely a bad sign for the regional stability and if the links, existing between the ISIS and other South Asian Islamic extremist groups create a coalition of Islamic terrorism, indeed it would be a nightmare to the whole region.

Image: Bernard Gagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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