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The Sri Lanka attacks show how Isis is moving east to recruit members

Sri Lanka isn’t the only country under the threat of Isis fighters. Reports have emerged that militant gangs, potentially linked to the terror group, are taking control in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh – and we've seen similar action in the Philippines 

Ash Gallagher
Sunday 28 April 2019 10:47
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ISIS bombers wearing backpacks take the lift to second-floor hotel buffet in Sri Lanka

Attacks on Sri Lankan churches during Easter celebrations rocked the news last week. Churches were desecrated and reduced to rubble. The pictures of agonising worshippers bled across media platforms. Residents across the country were shocked and terrified by reports and internet communications were limited.

Intelligence officials found possible links between suspected attackers and a Sri Lankan group who pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State. Isis’s own media reports revealed it claimed responsibility for the attacks. While the group lost its “caliphate” territory in Iraq and Syria last month, there are still fighters scattered globally looking for retaliation, mostly in the east. The group also claimed attacks in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan on the same day.

In Sri Lanka, officials admitted some fighters may have returned to the country from Iraq and Syria without being arrested or questioned. Sri Lankans were outraged at the lack of oversight by authorities and Muslim citizens say they warned officials about an extremist Imam three years ago, who was preaching hate in the eastern provinces.

Colombo journalist Munza Mushtaq noted that, weeks before the attacks, a report from “Indian intelligence” warned Sri Lankan officials “churches and tourist hotspots” were possible targets and still “no precautionary measures were taken”.

Mushtaq told The Independent: “Increasing racism and anti-Muslim attacks could have been an important reason why this ugly head of jihadism has raised its head in Sri Lanka.”

She believes ethnic Sinhala government officials aren’t willing to “accept” that racism is part of the motive for the attacks. They are known to issue inflammatory statements against Muslim communities, mostly of Tamil ethnic background.

But Sri Lanka isn’t the only country threatened by Isis fighters. Reports have emerged that militant gangs, potentially linked to Isis, are taking control in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. People are being kidnapped and women are threatened with violence. Bangladesh officials are worried about extremist recruitment among the nearly 900,000 refugees, who have already fled violence in Myanmar from both the government and extreme Buddhists. In 2017, militants who pledged to Isis in the Philippines held an entire island hostage for nearly five months. Over 1,000 people were killed in the battle to retain the main city.

If Isis wants to recruit more fighters and reinstate their mission, moving east is an easy option in Asian communities where many Muslim communities are being persecuted.

When I covered the battle for Mosul in 2017, I learned that people leaned towards Isis because they were the “tribe” who met their primal needs: first, security and representation, then food, water and purpose (or jobs). At first, it seemed like an attractive option. People want to feel like they belong and they are taken care of – it’s part of being human.

And so, even now, if Isis can appeal to people who have no one to defend them or if they threaten susceptible communities, they remain a strong force.

In Mosul, there were many Sunni Muslims who felt threatened by the mostly Shia-directed Iraqi government. Security forces created dissent by discriminating against them. So when Isis looked to take over, they found people frustrated and ready to support them.

But that’s not the only way to remain in power. If they can raise funds they can restock and create weapons, transport them globally and carry out further attacks.

Mosul native and analyst Rasha al-Aqeedi was recently interviewed on the Popular Front podcast. She explained that in the early days of Isis in Mosul, with every project they began, they would “demand a tax rate”, and their initial funding wasn’t from abroad. Officials claimed they were getting all their funding from foreign entities, but Aqeedi says they didn’t need to: “All they had to do was issue death threats. Security forces weren’t doing anything.”

Their behaviour became normalised and in a city of nearly 2 million at the time, it was easy for them to move about without Mosul citizens realising it. “They looked local, they looked like Iraqis. They were calling themselves rebels, so it was confusing,” said Al Aqeedi. By the time June 2014 came and the Islamic State issued their decree to expand their caliphate, Aqeedi said, “They were confident enough to carry out the surge.”

Back in Sri Lanka, two of the suspects who carried out the Easter attacks are associated with wealthy families in Colombo and were western-educated men. They are suspected of helping fund the militant group.

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While global heads of state are touting victory over Isis, and certainly they’ve liberated the territory militarily, many fighters either left, were chased out, or slipped away. And if they have freedom of movement in their home countries, they’ll work to regain influence.

Isis will do that by exploiting a faction of Islam, giving them an excuse to assert that power – but that’s all it is: an excuse. Isis suspects in Sri Lanka claimed they enacted retaliation on the Christians due to attacks in New Zealand. But the Muslim community in New Zealand rejects this “retaliation” and has vocalised peace and forgiveness towards their attacker, who acted in the name of white nationalism and Christianity. The point is, powerful criminals like Isis know how to mobilise and exploit belief to divide people and take sociopolitical control. With the right support and the right funding, their violence is powerful.

While it’s hard to tell if Isis will seek to regain territory, they may continue to look east and recruit fighters to ignite isolated attacks, creating fear in societies already battling so much division.

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