ISIS has released the second video of its supreme leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi on April 29, the first since he appeared in a video delivering a sermon as the Caliph at the Al Nuri Mosque of Mosul in Iraq on July 5, 2014. The focus of the video was to showcase Baghdadi, alive and healthy, discussing global matters with masked commanders. He praised attacks by “brothers” in Sri Lanka to avenge the loss of the last bastion of the Caliphate in Syria, Baghouz, on March 23, as well as an Australian jihadi holding a key position within the group.
Less than a month after the declaration of decimation of the Caliphate, on April 21, ISIS has claimed attacks in Sri Lanka — arguably the second-deadliest attack in history after 9/11. The selection of the day, time, targets, modus operandi and media messaging strongly indicates that ISIS must have been planning its “signature” global attacks on the chosen day to project a message to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, as well as to its own fighters and supporters, that “ISIS is alive and kicking”. Now, Baghdadi has himself owned the attacks as revenge for targeting Baghouz — where over 2,000 airstrikes over three months eventually managed to evict ISIS completely.
The group chose Sri Lanka carefully — a seemingly low-threat country, which had ample number of targets, a local network, and a known radicaliser, Zaharan Hashim, who had made his loyalty to ISIS known. His online presence for some years helped build the credibility of it being an ISIS attack.
However, a small group like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ), and its smaller ally, were not capable of mounting such attacks on their own. The scope, precise execution of the serial bombings and deadly suicide-responses to raids by Sri Lankan forces, between April 21-25, point to months of training by top-class experts, including dry runs. Training of more than seven suicide bombers is a supremely difficult task, fraught with the risk of some developing cold feet, or exposure before the targeted date of attacks. Such detailed planning and training required key ISIS experts, who would have kept the bombers motivated, and kept control over their thought processes and activities, till the final act.
Since August 2014, ISIS has chosen to fight frontal battles with security forces and supportive militia. This trend continued upto March 2019 when it lost its last bastion in Syria. It is unthinkable that the core ISIS leadership was not working on a strategy for its post-Caliphate phase, like the al Qaeda did after 9/11, anticipating the US-led response.
ISIS was steadily losing territories in Iraq and Syria since late-2014, yet it continued its global operations. Even though attacks in Western Europe were lower in number in 2018, leading experts are of the view that attempts to attack did not reduce. In May 2017, ISIS Wilayat in Philippines (ISP) gained control over the city of Marawi and was evicted only after five months of sustained military operations, with international support.
The UN, in its August 2018 report, assessed that ISIS had about 20,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, including those “concealed in sympathetic communities and urban areas… the group’s leadership has also decentralised to mitigate further losses, and is thus likely to survive in the two countries in the medium term, due to the ongoing conflict and complex stabilisation challenges.”
It has been reported time and again that thousands of foreign fighters escaped from Syria and Iraq before the Caliphate fell. On the strength of the idea of the Caliphate, ISIS has already amassed huge wealth through oil, taxes, extortion, ransom, bank robbery, sale of artefacts, etc.
It is clear that for the post-Caliphate phase, ISIS has also changed its external and internal communications strategy, as its previous strategy has been effectively countered. The three media companies of ISIS, namely Al Bayan, Al Furqan and Amaq are active in circulating messages through pro-ISIS accounts. Key ISIS accounts are not as easily visible or approachable, and can only be joined by screened “invitation links”. Hence, the challenge to detect the organisation’s online presence is much greater for law enforcement agencies.
Unlike Bangladesh — where the ISIS claimed many attacks before the big attack in Dhaka (July 2016) — in Sri Lanka, in order to recruit fighters for the Caliphate, ISIS waited to mount attacks on a scale and at a time of its choosing to deliver a strong message to the Global Coalition. The pattern of ISIS attacks in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as well as other theatres, clearly indicate that ISIS is fashioning strategy and tactics on the basis of local complexities. Local groups appear to be following the diktat of the main group, with regard to selection of targets, timing and media messaging.
The April 21 attacks in Sri Lanka are surely not a one-off event for the region or the world. Like the al Qaeda, ISIS may now also make concerted efforts to use “front groups” to capture pockets of influence in conflict zones, while carrying out its signature global attacks, seemingly, at will.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 1, 2019, under the title ‘A resurgence foretold’. The writer is an IPS officer. Views are personal.