Security personnel stand guard at St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 23, two days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, which held a day of national mourning on April 23. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP)
Ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) emerged as a ruthless, rampaging force to be reckoned with more than five years ago, the question that has haunted intelligence circles has been: If home is an option for foreign jihadists, what will they do if they return?
IS has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that left more than *250 people dead and hundreds more wounded, confirming what many had feared.
IS, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and affiliates such as Jemaah Islamiyah, have a long history of inspiring and coordinating Islamic suicide bombers.
Before Easter Sunday, IS alone had inspired 143 attacks in 29 countries while acting as a magnet for fanatical Muslims wanting to reshape the world in their own image, sucking them into war in Syria and Iraq.
As IS nears defeat in the Middle East, its militias are leaving to rejoin their families at home and hook up with the ranks of other jihadist groups in Asia and the West, where terror tactics have become an unfortunate and deadly norm.
Nightclubs, city malls, office blocks, public transport, pop concerts, hotels, schools, hospitals churches and mosques — with lots of people and lax security — are the low-hanging fruit for terrorists of all stripes.
Immediately after the attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, suspicion fell on local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), which had been named in an intelligence warning 10 days earlier.
Jama’ath means council, while thowheeth has been romanized from Arabic with various spellings. The most popular is tawhid or tawheed and signifies oneness with God, Islam’s central and most important tenet.
NTJ’s brand of Islam is straight out of the IS playbook: cheap, homemade simultaneous bombings targeting society’s most vulnerable, using fear to underscore a political or religious agenda. In military parlance, it is the very definition of terrorism.
What they want is a Sri Lankan Islamic caliphate and for non-Muslims to submit.
Almost 40 Sri Lankans are known to have fought with IS in Syria, similar to jihadist numbers from as far afield as Malaysia and Indonesia to Australia and Britain. Perhaps the most infamous Sri Lankan IS jihadi was Sharfaz Shuraih Muhsin, killed in an airstrike on Syria in 2015. More came from the nearby Maldives.
Small in number, potent in reach
Radical groups such as NTJ are small. Jemaah Islamiyah terrorized Indonesia and beyond for more than a decade but could only boast about 1,500 core members. Including the periphery, often made up of family and close friends, the number was closer to 5,000.
The group’s ties with bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan were extensive. That included funding, tactics, political strategies and demands for a caliphate encompassing most of Southeast Asia and northern Australia — a stupid and incredulous claim.
It’s a relationship that NTJ and IS appear to have mimicked.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Strategic Studies, the number of jihadists globally has quadrupled since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and the number of people killed by them stands at about half a million. Terrorism is cheap, nasty, psychotic and potent.
As recently as the Vietnam War, Hanoi and the Viet Cong reputedly had a hand in teaching the Irish Republican Army terror tactics, while their use of plastic explosives inspired the Tamil Tigers who used similar terrorist techniques in their bloody 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka.
Not since that war ended in 2009 has Sri Lanka endured such carnage.
The Easter Sunday bombings were carried out with precision, even if word had leaked. Ten days before the attacks, police were warned by international intelligence agencies of a threat by bombers to “prominent churches” and the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
"A foreign intelligence agency has reported that NTJ is planning to carry out suicide attacks,” it read in part.
There have been other threats in Sri Lanka, where Buddhists make up 70 percent of its population and 12.6 percent are Hindu while Muslims and Christians account for 9.7 and 7.6 percent respectively, but reports of ethnic and religious strife are not that common.
According to the Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, there were 86 verified reports of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians last year. That’s hardly rampant in a country of 22 million people.
NTJ has been active in recent years, earning a reputation for vandalizing Buddhist statues, and it went very public with its goal of importing the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka. Secretary Abdul Razik was charged with inciting racism in 2016.
Following his arrest, one commentator noted: “Tawhid Jama'ath [sic] is an organization which is despised by the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka, India and the world over. They are a minority of minorities who carry no respect whatsoever in the community.”
For all the ethnic bloodshed which has dogged Sri Lanka, the island state had escaped the tentacles of Islamic terrorism and the type of maniacal dogma normally associated with bin Laden and IS.
The latest bombings put the Vatican and its dioceses, and any government that felt immune to this type of attack, on notice.
Forensic scientists have determined that at least seven suicide bombers were deployed. At least 40 people have been arrested and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe admits security measures initiated after the intelligence warning were inadequate.
The Indian High Commission was presumably warned and was not hit. Whether the churches and hotels were warned and what measures they took to protect their parishioners and guests may well emerge as one of the great issues in this tragic and bloody terrorist act.
From the Vatican down, prayers will be said alongside reminders to turn the other cheek. Priests will deliver sermons based on peace and eternal love and the victims will be deservedly venerated.
Writing in The American Conservative magazine, commentator Rod Dreher noted that “we live in an age of martyrs.” Perhaps. But the Church has no shortage of martyrs. Its most confronting issue is the laity and their security. Parishioners would like to go to Mass in peace.
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. Twitter: @lukeanthonyhunt
*Sri Lanka revised the death toll by more than 100, to "about 253," according to a BBC report published April 26.