Opinion Society & Culture Terrorism

Before the Sri Lanka attacks, much of South Asia seemed resistant to ISIS. Now it’s reassessing the risks.

NEW DELHI — It was one of the last places anyone expected the Islamic State to strike.

Just weeks after its decisive defeat in Syria, the radical group claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks more than 3,000 miles away in Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.

The attacks, which killed more than 250 people, were notable both for their brutality and their location. That’s because South Asia has proved relatively resistant to the brand of extremist violence peddled by the Islamic State, with a few exceptions.

Among those is Afghanistan, home to the only official Islamic State affiliate in the region. And a disproportionate number of people from the tiny archipelago of the Maldives left to fight for the group in Iraq and Syria.

India, meanwhile, has the second-largest population of Muslims in the world, but experts say that around 100 citizens are believed to have travelled to the self-declared caliphate, fewer than the number of such recruits from the Netherlands. The estimates for the number of people from Pakistan and Bangladesh, both Muslim-majority nations, who went to join the Islamic State are lower than the figure for Germany.

But in the wake of the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, governments throughout the region are reviewing their assessment of the threat posed by the Islamic State. In India, authorities have carried out several raids and arrested alleged Islamic State sympathizers in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Here’s a look at the threat around the region.

Nalaka Sanjeewa Pieris said he helped pull the injured from the St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, after it was bombed on April 21.

Sri Lanka

According to the Sri Lankan government, at least 32 of its citizens travelled to join the Islamic State when it controlled a swath of territory in Syria and Iraq. Some returned home, according to Shiral Lakthilaka, an adviser to Sri Lanka’s president, and those returnees helped “plant the seeds” of the Easter Sunday bombings, he said, without providing further details.

Officials say all perpetrators of the attacks were Sri Lankan, and investigators are working to determine whether they received direct assistance — in terms of training or funding — from the Islamic State. Authorities are also probing whether any of the bombers returned from Syria or Iraq and whether they travelled to India.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the Sri Lankan attacks are an example of a growing trend where “local groups with local grievances” form ties with international terrorist groups in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The local group potentially gets training, funding and a link to an attention-grabbing “brand” like the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Islamic State gets to demonstrate its relevance despite its loss of physical territory.

Enrico Fabian for The Washington Post

The imam of a mosque in Kerala, India, reads the Koran. According to the National Investigation Agency, 22 individuals have left the Indian state of Kerala in the last years to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

India

India is home to about 200 million Muslims, but the Islamic State has failed to make significant inroads in the country, even in the restive Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Since 2014, there have been about 180 cases involving the group’s sympathizers, said Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who has written extensively about the Islamic State. “From a grand perspective, it’s nothing,” he said. “You have to see this as a complete refusal of the Indian Muslim community to fall for this nonsense.”

A spokesman for India’s National Investigation Agency, which investigates terrorism-related cases, declined to comment on the threat posed by the Islamic State in the country. The only attack linked to militants inspired by the group came in 2017, when a crude bomb exploded on a train in the state of Madhya Pradesh, injuring at least 10 people.

Yet there are regions where the Islamic State has managed to draw adherents, including in the northern part of Kerala. The state has the highest literacy rates and development indicators in the country, as well as deep historical ties to the Middle East through migration and trade. In 2016, a group of five families left Kerala hoping to reach Islamic State territory via Afghanistan.

In the disputed region of Kashmir, where existing Islamist militant groups are fighting Indian rule, the Islamic State has a negligible presence, authorities say. “There are some boys over there who jump up every so often and wave [an ISIS] flag,” said Ajai Sahni, a terrorism expert and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “That’s just an effort to get attention.”

Maldives

Best known for its pristine beaches and turquoise seas, the island nation of Maldives is one spot in South Asia where Islamic State recruitment tactics have had notable success. Experts believe about 200 Maldivians left to join the militant group, one of the highest per capita rates in the world. In recent years, the predominantly Muslim nation has experienced an influx of investment from Saudi Arabia and the growing influence of a puritanical strain of Islam. The Maldivian capital, Male, is one of the most densely populated cities on earth and is home to dozens of criminal gangs.

While the Islamic State has urged its adherents to strike the places where they are living, there have not been attacks linked to the group in the Maldives to date. There have, however, been arrests of people who were reportedly inspired by the group’s ideology and conspired to carry out violence. Taneja suggested that in the Maldives, the main appeal of the Islamic State was as an actual place for disaffected young men to go. “They were most interested in joining the caliphate,” he said. “Once that geography was taken away, that interest also watered down a bit.”

A witness describes the moment when gunmen stormed a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and captured hostages in 2016.

Bangladesh

In recent years, Bangladesh has struggled with attacks linked to Islamist militant groups, including the Islamic State. The most infamous was the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in 2016 in an upscale area of the capital, Dhaka. Twenty-two hostages were killed, most of them foreigners.

Bangladesh maintains that the Islamic State has no presence in the country, but other governments disagree. The United States says that a faction of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) serves as the local branch of the Islamic State. The country has designated the group a terrorist organization.

“They talk like ISIS and behave like ISIS,” said Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist who lives in Sweden and tracks militant groups. Meanwhile, Islamic State propaganda channels targeting Bengali speakers — operating primarily on the messaging app Telegram — have become active again after a lull last year, he said. “Obviously they are regrouping and trying to excite their base.”

Mufti Mahmud Khan, a spokesman for Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, a counterterrorism unit, said that local extremists “follow the ideology of international militant groups, but that does not mean they are run by their chain of command.” Such groups are “now much weaker than the past.”

Khan said that police are investigating the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for an improvised bomb that injured three on April 29 in Dhaka. But he also urged caution. “The cyber world is now very wide,” he said. “Anyone can claim anything.”

Members of Daesh, the name given to the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and of the Taliban were captured by Afghan authorities in Nangahar in October 2017.

Afghanistan

The Islamic State has been active in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, for the past five years, and it has been the main target of a joint U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism campaign there. Some fighters are former members of the Taliban and an associated group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The regional affiliate is known as ISIS-Khorasan.

The group’s fighters have terrorized villages and towns in border districts of Nangahar province, beheaded local elders, and forced thousands of people to flee to the provincial capital. They have had complicated relations with the Taliban, alternately competing and collaborating with them. In the past year, U.S. and Afghan officials claim to have driven Islamic State forces largely from the area, and they have been much less active.

A second, separate focus of Islamic State activity in Afghanistan has been to carry out suicide bombings and violent attacks in Kabul and other cities, especially targeting the Afghan Shiite community, which is also composed of minority ethnic Hazaras. The Islamic State, a Sunni radical group, views Shiites as apostates.

In the past five years, the Islamic State has claimed deadly bombings and shootings at a number of Shiite mosques and shrines. It has also attacked schools, gymnasiums, hospitals, public gatherings and voter registration centers. The worst to date was a bombing in July 2016 that targeted a peaceful protest by young Hazaras in Kabul. The blast killed 85 people and wounded 400.

A bomb hidden among bags of potatoes at a Pakistani market killed at least 21 people, many of them ethnic Hazaras, police said on April 12. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistan

The risk posed by Islamic State in Pakistan is somewhat murkier, and most analysts see its activity there as an outgrowth of its Afghan affiliate. The group has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in the restive Balochistan province, including one in April at a fruit and vegetable market in the city of Quetta that killed 21 people. However, experts say that the group appears to be drawing from an existing pool of militants who have chosen to switch allegiances.

For instance, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a veteran commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan who was killed in 2016, pledged loyalty to the leader of the Islamic State in 2014 and brought with him a number of prominent fighters. In Pakistan, adherents of the Islamic State “continue to do the exact same thing they were doing, but now with a brand-new identity,” said Sahni, the terrorism expert.

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