Why Sri Lanka Was Probably Not Retaliation for Christchurch

Even if the retribution argument were consistent with prior ISIS doctrine, which it is not, the timing is off.

Sri Lankan army soldiers secure the area around St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo.
Sri Lankan army soldiers secure the area around St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo. (Chamila Karunarathne / AP)

I have seen this before. Eight guys form a circle, hands in the center, in the configuration known to players of team sports as a huddle. ISIS calls this huddle a ceremony of bay’ah—a term dating to the earliest days of Islam, and likely beforethat historically has involved the physical laying on of hands, to swear allegiance to a commander. Past recipients of the bay’ah have included the Prophet Muhammad, the king of Saudi Arabia, and Saddam Hussein; it is not a ritual invented by ISIS. The most recent video of it out of Sri Lanka, however, is classic ISIS: A group of previously unknown jihadists stand in front of the black banner and pledge their soon-to-be-truncated lives to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the still-missing caliph of the Islamic State.

The likely culprits in the killing of more than 300 people in Sri Lanka on Sunday are now, according to the video released a few hours ago, blown to smithereens along with their victims. The attacks fit none of the patterns of political violence in Sri LankaWhy hit Christians? Why hotels?but they looked like vintage ISIS handiwork, and so they now are confirmed to be. ISIS loves hitting churches. It aims at international sites, the better to inflict pain on citizens of the coalition that has succeeded in obliterating its caliphate in Syria. All signs pointed to the only organization with the motive and opportunity to mount an attack of this magnitude.

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.

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 retributionnot 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 allan 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.)

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.

The Islamic State’s “prestige and power” have been diminished, but not destroyed. Its menu of secondary targets, where it can flex its remaining power and build up new prestige, is extensive. ISIS terrorists tried, with limited success, to hit Saudi Arabia on the same day as the Sri Lanka attacks. (Today ISIS released a video of the bay’ah from its operatives there. Its spokesman barks a brief but tiresome speech, then leads the same familiar huddle, with the Islamic State flag in the background.) In Syria the Islamic State has been crippled. In the rest of the world it is scanning its target list. Eventually it will find another juicy one. We have seen this video before. It will be in reruns for some time.