Read: A horrific flashback in Sri Lanka
“It doesn’t make sense,” C. Christine Fair, an expert on terrorism in South Asia and an associate professor at Georgetown University, told me. She said that National Thowheed Jamath had never attacked churches previously. Moreover, Sri Lanka has generally not seen tensions between Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the population, and Christians, who are about 7 percent. It’s far more likely, Fair said, that an outside group, such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, based in the Indian subcontinent is involved in some way.
No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack. The Sri Lankan government, which imposed a social media blackout after the attack, has blamed National Thowheed Jamath and arrested several people. Rajitha Senaratne, a spokesman for Sri Lanka’s cabinet, told reporters Monday that there “was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.” He did not elaborate, nor did he provide evidence.
Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist networks, noted on Twitter that coordinated attacks on chuches is, in fact, a hallmark of ISIS, which has carried out similar operations in Egypt and the Philippines. Although Islamist militancy has not been a big problem for Sri Lanka, ISIS has issued some of its statements in Tamil, a language spoken in the south of India and by Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils. (Most of Sri Lanka’s Muslims are Tamil—though the country’s Tamil population is mostly Hindu.)
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It is not yet clear what, if any, links National Thowheed Jamath has with ISIS or other terrorist organizations. But jihadist groups have made successful inroads in parts of the world where they previously have had little influence, such as in the Philippines and Indonesia. They have used online propaganda to radicalize disaffected youth in Europe; have recruited from existing organizations, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria; and have stepped into the security vacuum in places like Libya. Indeed, Sri Lanka acknowledged in 2016 that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims had joined ISIS, a tiny fraction of the country’s overall Muslim population, but significant enough for the country’s government to have taken notice. It is not known whether any of them has returned home.
Additionally, operations like the one in Sri Lanka require expertise and planning. Militants have to be radicalized, recruited, and trained to carry out an attack of that magnitude. This suggests the existence of safe houses, planning cells, and bomb-making equipment and materials—all hallmarks of a well-organized group. “You don’t roll out of bed and decide to martyr yourself in a suicide-bombing attack,” Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism and a professor at Georgetown University, told me.