The Slatest

ISIS Claims Responsibility for Sri Lanka Attacks. Should We Believe Them?

Security personnel stand guard in front of St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo.
Security personnel stand guard in front of St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 23, two days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.
Jewel Samad/Getty Images

ISIS claimed responsibility on Tuesday for the coordinated suicide bombings that killed more than 300 people at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Sunday. The claim came via the group’s Amaq news agency, which also posted a list of the attackers’ noms de guerre and a video of men alleged to be the attackers declaring allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The claim came shortly after a Sri Lankan official said the government believed the bombings had been in retaliation for last month’s shootings at mosques in New Zealand. Officials have blamed the local Islamist militant group National Thowheed Jamaath for the attacks, but also suspect international assistance. The government was reportedly monitoring the group and had received warnings about it from the United States and India prior to the attack.

Generally, ISIS claims should be regarded with some skepticism. Although ISIS and Amaq were once considered fairly reliable in their claims of responsibility, they’ve been less so in recent years, after publishing a number of dubious claims, including for the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, which by all accounts was committed by one man with unknown motives.

A decade after the bloody conclusion of the brutal 26-year civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka certainly has experience with sectarian violence and with suicide bombings—the Tigers are credited with pioneering the tactic. But for all the long-running tensions between the country’s Buddhist majority and predominantly Hindu Tamil minority, Islamist extremist violence and attacks on Christians are both pretty rare. The unprecedented scale of Sunday’s attacks and the nature of them led analysts like Amarnath Amarasingam, who studies extremism in Sri Lanka, to suspect outside involvement, even before today’s claims.

It’s true that U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria declared total victory over ISIS last month, bringing a long-awaited end to the “caliphate” as a territorial entity. U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called for the removal of U.S. troops from Syria, has also been particularly anxious to pronounce the group fully defeated. But experts and military officials have consistently warned that ISIS remains a threat, both as an organized terrorist group and as a global “brand” that can inspire violence from sympathizers far from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

The Sri Lanka claim comes just a few days after ISIS claimed responsibility for its first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an ambush that killed eight government soldiers in a region already threatened by rebel violence and an ongoing Ebola outbreak. The attack was initially attributed to a long-established local rebel group known as the Allied Democratic Forces, but as the New York Times reports, members of the group have previously been found in possession of ISIS propaganda, and there’s evidence it has received cash from ISIS financiers.

As terrorism researcher Aaron Zelin writes, “we might be seeing a new tactic to garner more media attention: attacking locales with foreign fighter networks [that] do not have robust security and counterterrorism measures.”

To keep itself relevant, ISIS may be working to insert itself into long-running conflicts, including those, like in Sri Lanka and Congo, where its brand of Islamic extremism has traditionally played little role. It’s possible ISIS has some operational role in planning these attacks, or that its role is merely inspirational, or that it’s simply taking credit for violence it had little to do with. The important thing is global relevance: A group that no longer exists as a physical place wants us to think it’s everywhere.