ISIS, Sri Lanka, and the Future of Extremism

ISIS has allegedly claimed responsibility for the horrific attacks on Sri Lankan Christians over the Easter holiday. Whether or not Islamic State was genuinely responsible - the group has always been prone to cartoonishly grandiose claims - it nevertheless fits the pattern of operations that will likely occur following their military defeat in the upper Levant.

ISIS' recklessness and fixation on antic violence didn't translate into the discipline and intelligence needed to secure enduring military victory. I've written on (and, let's be honest, celebrated) the Syrian Kurds' triumph against Islamic State, which I maintain was relatively easy to predict. While the victory came at great cost of Kurdish life, and I worry their foreign partners might throw them to the Turkish wolves, the Kurds' operational acumen and sober determination meant success against ISIS was practically guaranteed.

In the meanwhile, ISIS clearly doesn’t want to be forgotten despite their crushing defeat in the Levant. Similar to how they staged dual spree killings in Beirut and Paris as their military fortunes began to crumble in 2015, the jihadis may focus on executing deliberately gruesome attacks outside Iraq and Syria now that the self-declared Caliphate has collapsed. If there’s one realm in which ISIS has always succeeded, it’s leveraging the massacre of civilians to claim significantly inflated strength and influence. This has been an ongoing pathology throughout the group’s existence, and one of the few areas that separates them from their siblings in al-Qaeda.

While both groups share the ultimate goal of creating a Salafist caliphate that spans the greater Muslim world, al-Qaeda made a conscious pivot towards building an image of popular legitimacy while fostering partnerships with outside actors - note the heavy support Syrian al-Qaeda receives from Turkey and ongoing military cover Saudi Arabia lends to AQAP in Yemen. ISIS took a divergent track, attempting to preemptively declare the formation of a Caliphate while leveraging indiscriminate violence and shock as a means of dominating the public imagination. No single group in the history of modern jihadism has garnered Islamic State’s level of media attention, a rather dubious honor that stands as their sole enduring achievement.

Examining a group’s stated aims is the foundational core of strategic analysis, and particularly useful in this case. A certain veteran of the Afghan Jihad, a tall fellow named Osama bin Laden, was open about his intent to use terror attacks to provoke the United States into militarily overextending itself in ways that goaded the American empire into self-harm. This is why I believe that, in an oblique sense, Osama bin Laden ultimately won the vaunted War on Terror. The U.S. sunk over $6 trillion into a post-9/11 campaign that led to the utter disgrace of the Iraq War and an ensuing power vacuum that allowed al-Qaeda to gain unprecedented territorial control that later birthed ISIS proper.

There is a secondary element to ISIS’ attacks beyond inflating perceptions of their actual power. Inflicting theatrical and highly public acts of murder against populations in majority non-Muslim countries only stokes animosity and suspicion towards Muslims as a whole, driving a wedge between culturally Islamic populations and their neighbors. This risks further alienating immigrant or minority communities that might already be seen with latent hostility.

Creating and enforcing this separation achieves one of the consistently stated aims of jihadi strategists, removing the “grey zone” whereby Muslim populations might become integrated within secular or non-Muslim communities. Jihadis have always seen modernity and irreligion as anathema, and their fixation on reviving an absolutist Caliphate hinges on subjugating all Muslims under the fist of doctrinal Salafism. Halting this integration process and casting Muslims as suspect outsiders also serves as an essential recruitment tactic - alienated young men convinced that non-Muslims around them are hateful outsiders make for prime suicide operatives. Second generation immigrants are starkly overrepresented among the flunkies who stage attacks in Europe, something ISIS’ strategists seem keenly aware of.

The odd undercurrent here is that jihadis and white nationalists share a core intent - they’re both violently opposed to Muslim populations commingling with the societies of Europe and North America. This extends more broadly to anti-Muslim demagogues across the world. The sole area where ISIS might be perceptive and clever is through their deliberate attempts to leverage right-wing nationalists as indirect allies. While the 2000s-era Bush war hawks served as al-Qaeda’s unwitting executors, 2010s white nationalists and their analogues outside the West are playing a less overt role on behalf of Islamic State. As a sidenote, ISIS claimed the massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka was direct retaliation for the neo-nazi shooter who murdered 50 Muslims at prayer services in Christchurch, New Zealand a month prior.

Sri Lanka itself is majority Buddhist, with Muslims constituting less than 10% of its overall citizenry. In tandem with this, Muslims throughout the broader subcontinent have been subject to ongoing discrimination and pogrom, with Indian PM Narendra Modi infamous for complicity in the 2002 Gujarat massacres. Further stoking animosity against Indian and Sri Lankan Muslims is a perfect wedge opportunity, one that may accelerate alienation and recruitment in a part of the world that has proven unusually immune to ISIS’ enlistment efforts. Despite India and Sri Lanka bearing a Sunni Muslim population totaling roughly 175 million (India has the world’s largest Muslim population after Indonesia), ISIS has been far more effective at drawing foot soldiers from less populous regions like Tunisia and Chechnya.

This is why, past a certain point, the more brutal and senseless ISIS’ attacks, the better. If they can seem bloodthirsty and perpetually menacing, it both enflames the aspersions cast on everyday Muslims while serving as a beacon for aggressive and disturbed young men.

Considering the broad strategic overview, it is possible ISIS may focus on instigating attacks in countries outside North America and Europe. While still imperfect, the security apparatuses of these regions have been reoriented towards preventing jihadi mass-casualty attacks. In terms of recruitment and stoking potential insurgencies, the Indian subcontinent as well as central and east Asia may prove a more promising theater. Governments that visit brutal crackdown on their Muslim populations in the wake of similar attacks may unintentionally grant local jihadist cells an image of undue legitimacy, a feedback loop that might accelerate towards nascent insurrection.

As demonstrated throughout Iraq and Syria, ISIS was able to assume military control and governance of local Sunni populations amidst newly formed security vacuums. While these incidents have received little attention compared to the actions of Islamic State, al-Qaeda once governed large swaths of Mali while al-Shabaab has assumed control of Somalia’s southernmost reaches. These territorial gains were achieved through subtle deliberation, and ISIS’ ingrained habit of brutalizing local populations while loudly slapping a bullseye on their forehead might prevent similar advances. Still, it stands as a possible format for what ISIS may attempt as an auxiliary to this renewed emphasis on theatrical mass-casualty attacks. We have seen premonitions of this through ISIS’ revamped efforts to insert themselves into the low-level conflict that has been long stewing throughout the Philippines' southernmost Muslim provinces.

As anthropogenic climate change risks mass displacement, resource competition, and ensuing instability, insurgent conflict will only become more severe over the remainder of this new century. With global warming poised to take an unimaginable  toll, minority populations alienated from political/economic power and the protection it provides will bear the cruelest brunt of it all - which only leaves further room for opportunist fanatics to exploit the subsequent chaos. I can’t truly predict whether ISIS will exist in its current incarnation down the line, but I do know the broader template has already been written.