The Islamic State is not gone. We knew that already; even President Donald Trump, after the Islamic State’s territorial defeat, noted that “on occasion these cowards will resurface.” What we know now is that the Islamic State’s “prestige and power,” which Trump said had also been destroyed, live on too, and can still motivate massacres from followers in heretofore unlikely places. Amaq, the Islamic State’s propaganda wing, framed the Sri Lanka attack as an attack on a “Christian” and “Crusader” coalition.
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Also of interest is what the Islamic State declined to say, but that the Sri Lankan government asserted. Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister for defense, told Parliament today that the attack was retribution—not for Syria and blows against the caliphate, but for the mass murder of Muslims by a white-supremacist gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. He did not provide evidence for this claim, and there is reason to doubt it.
The Easter terrorists did not refer to Christchurch at all—an omission that might strike some as strange: What better proof of the Islamic State’s core claim, that Muslims cannot live full and virtuous lives in non-Muslim lands, and that the caliphate is their only protection and salvation? Here we see that hyper-sectarianism has its costs.
The Islamic State, in its form for the past five years, sought to attract followers with reinforcement both positive and negative. The positive reinforcement came from the promise of a terrestrial paradise in Mesopotamia, where one might bask in God’s favor. The negative came from unremitting abuse directed at Muslims who chose to live in the West; they were cast as the absolute scum of the earth. Those who resisted the call to immigrate to the caliphate, and remained in places such as Christchurch as taxpaying, loyal citizens of infidel lands, were selling their soul to the enemies of Islam and would burn for eternity while the caliphate’s elect few watched with delight from the gardens of paradise. The Islamic State would be mixing its messages if it were to claim that it attacked Sri Lanka to avenge the souls of those it considered worthy of hellfire anyway.
The propaganda value of Christchurch for a group such as ISIS is, then, inestimable, yet difficult to exploit. One sometimes sees supporters of ISIS comment on attacks on Muslims in the West with a pitying shrug: You sold your souls to the infidel—and for this? (Notice the similarities between ISIS and radical separatists through the ages, including certain strains of the Nation of Islam.)
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Even if the retribution argument were consistent with prior ISIS doctrine, the timing suggests it’s not correct. The bombings in Sri Lanka were among the more spectacular in the history of terrorism, and they almost certainly took more planning than would have been possible in the past five weeks. (It may seem easy to get several guys to push detonator buttons all at once, in several different locations. But terrorists are often bumblers, and the more complicated the plan, the greater the chance of disruption.) When the 50 Muslims were shot in Christchurch, the world probably seemed more ripe than ever for an ISIS resurgence, to show that the group remained deadly. That ripeness is more likely to have influenced target selection (as Brian Fishman notes) than to have initiated an attack where plans for one had not previously existed.