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Islamic State and the age of atrocity

The caliphate is collapsing, but the Sri Lanka attacks showed that IS’s tactics remain deadly.

The wave of bombings across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday represents one of the deadliest terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic State (IS) outside Syria and Iraq. The latest reports suggest that “about 253” were killed – the figure was revised down by approximately 100 after local authorities reported errors in their initial counting of the victims. This is not the first time IS has attacked Christians or churches on holy days. In 2017 the group bombed two churches in Egypt: St George’s in Tanta and Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. The attacks took place on Palm Sunday (a feast falling on the Sunday before Easter), killing 47 and injuring 126. In November 2018, IS also killed another seven and wounded 19 in the Egyptian governate of Minya after a bus carrying Christian pilgrims was ambushed by gunmen.

All this is part of a strategy to cause the greatest possible offence. It is not enough for IS to provoke outrage through a terrorist attack alone – the group also wants the event to be an assault on human decency. This is known as the “propaganda of the deed”, where an action is invested with significance greater than itself and is designed to serve as an exemplar or motivating force for others.

The desire to cause maximum revulsion was also evident in IS’s approach to the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women. IS has consistently pursued a strategy of shock in order to destroy the “grey zone” – the name it gives to the phenomenon of hybrid and hyphenated identities within modern society. For IS, the world must exist in binary terms: a stark division between devout Muslims and everyone else. This explains the rationale behind the Easter weekend massacre in Sri Lanka, as Christians attended services in their places of worship.

Its aims are twofold: to intimidate opponents and inspire supporters. The menace of such an approach becomes even clearer when considering that, despite widespread reporting to the contrary, IS has not once claimed that the Sri Lanka attacks were “revenge” for the slaughter of Muslims by a lone gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand in March. The attacks go deeper than that and are part of a more considered – and nihilistic – world-view.

That much was confirmed in a remarkable new video released by IS on 29 April, featuring the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He explained that the Sri Lanka attacks were “revenge” for the loss of the Syrian town of Baghouz, Islamic State’s final territorial stronghold, where it waged a defiant last stand. The bombing victims were therefore singled out either because of their citizenship or because they share the same faith as those from some of the countries that formed the military coalition against IS. This also accounts for why prominent hotels were selected, with IS wanting to hit those prestige targets it knew would be frequented by tourists from Western countries. The significance of Baghdadi’s appearance in response to this attack should not be underestimated. It is the first time he has appeared on film since his dramatic declaration of the caliphate in June 2014.

The attacks in Sri Lanka were not intended as a standalone event. IS also attempted to attack state security installations in the Saudi Arabian city of Zulfi on Easter Sunday, reinforcing its ambition to strike multiple targets across different countries on the same day.

There is always a debate about the veracity of IS’s claims to being behind attacks. There is a view that IS will claim ownership of any attack or disaster in order to project power. Yet the only clear example of such a strategy came after the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 – in which a gunman killed 58 people – when the group claimed involvement despite having no connection to it. IS has passed up other opportunities to claim responsibility for deaths, for example when an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Mediterranean in 2016 (the cause, it transpired, was mechanical failure).

IS’s connection to the Sri Lanka attack is beyond doubt. It first issued its customary written statement of responsibility but, within 24 hours, also released a video of eight attackers swearing allegiance to Baghdadi. When the footage appeared, it did so emblazoned with the insignia and nomenclature of an IS production, carrying all the theatre we have come to expect from IS, with the attackers standing before a stylised flag bearing the Islamic testament of faith, clutching hunting knives and wearing face masks. That someone within the local group had direct contact with IS’s central command – believed to be hiding somewhere within the deserts in Iraq’s Anbar province – is therefore beyond dispute.

It is now thought that some members of the Sri Lankan team had international links. Among them was Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, who masterminded the plot. He is believed to have attended Kingston University in London for a year in 2006 as part of his degree in aerospace engineering in Colombo. He later moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he continued his studies.

This is the way IS is operating now, having lost its territorial control in Syria and Iraq. Attacks such as those in Sri Lanka allow the group to demonstrate sustained potency and prowess. Those who talk in absolutist terms of “defeating terrorism” or “winning” the war on terror don’t understand the challenge, which is amorphous and constantly metastasising. Our best options are often confined to choosing between outcomes that are bad and even worse.

Islamic State’s global network has become more diffuse and decentralised. In many parts of the world, former fighters have returned home, bringing with them technical skills and capability. Aggressive attacks such as in Sri Lanka make perfect sense from IS’s perspective, allowing it to pursue an asymmetrical strategy against the West while demonstrating its continued relevance.

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There is a subtext to these recent atrocities that has gone unnoticed. When the spectre of a global jihadist threat roared into the public consciousness on September 11, 2001, our efforts were focused on one group: al-Qaeda (and, to a lesser extent, the Taliban, because it had given al-Qaeda refuge). Today, however, the global jihad movement is more fractured. Al-Qaeda has been largely forgotten as new groups proliferate across the Levant, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. This is important context in understanding the policy of ultra-violence pursued by Islamic State.

Al-Qaeda called for retribution in response to the Christchurch terrorist attack but explicitly told its supporters not to target churches. Similarly, when gunmen affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015 they did not massacre the entire staff but instead pursued those deemed responsible for “blaspheming” against the Prophet. “Have no fear, calm down. I will not kill you,” one of the gunmen is reported to have said to other members of staff. In the aftermath of the attack, the group was able to claim that it had “avenged” the Prophet. Al-Qaeda aspires to present itself as a “righteous” militant movement, defending Muslim interests but responsibly. Its messaging is designed to suggest that the “real” extremists are the upstart insurgents of IS; a group whose strategy is entirely different from its own. Indeed, this is precisely the type of messaging that is evident within al-Qaeda’s Arabic literature.

This matters because as the jihadist movement becomes increasingly fragmented, groups will have to compete for recruits. In this, IS has demonstrated remarkable success. Since 2014 it has mobilised an unprecedented number of people across the world, often motivating them to act in extreme and barbaric ways. By the end of 2015, IS had succeeded in creating a palpable sense of fear in most European capitals which al-Qaeda has never been able to achieve – even in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Islamic State has burnished concepts of martyrdom and redemption within Islam to inspire unparalleled zealotry among its supporters. Even when on the back foot, they have proven themselves to be resilient and motivated. They were able to hold off the Syrian Democratic Forces for weeks during their final stand in Baghouz.

The terrorist group even released footage from within its beleaguered encampment calling on its members to demonstrate steadfastness. The thinking is relatively straightforward: divine reasoning cannot be understood, but the caliphate is collapsing either because God is testing IS supporters or because he is punishing them. Either way, the result is the same: supporters should double down in their devotion. This is precisely what Baghdadi underscored in his new video, explaining that God had ordered his men to fight, not to win. Their obligation is merely to have exerted effort, while results come from God alone. Therefore, he explained, IS had not surrendered any territory but had instead fought doggedly wherever it was challenged. The unspoken corollary is clear: here is a bowed but unbeaten movement that stayed true to its covenant with God.

There is an individual component to this, too. IS members are told they should continue fighting to the bitter end because either they will overcome their enemies or they’ll be killed in the process, becoming martyrs as a result. This is why IS remains so active despite the counter attack against it. The old question remains: “how can you fight an enemy who looks down the barrel of your gun and sees paradise?”

British authorities are now scrambling to determine the nature of the Sri Lankan ringleader’s contacts in Britain and are worried that IS may have already deployed sleeper cells across Europe. That is not an unreasonable expectation, nor is the fear that Islamic State will attempt a major atrocity on European soil to show its ongoing menace. Given the group’s ability to inspire and mobilise on a global level, that makes the prospect of yet more mass casualty suicide attacks particularly worrying.

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and director of King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation

Anthony Loyd on the age of the suicide bomber

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal