How should we make sense of the Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people and wounded 500? Now that Islamic State appears to have claimed responsibility for the attacks, the question arises: is this merely the latest symptom of an epidemic of Islamist violence, motivated by a belief in offensive jihad (“holy war”)?
The answer is complex and not necessarily in line with public perceptions. Islamist terrorism has been decreasing globally, and particularly in the west, since its peak in 2014-15 when Isis established its caliphate. In recent years, however, far-right supremacist terrorism has risen sharply, to more than one-third of terror attacks globally, even accounting for every extremist killing in the US in 2018. Yet it was more likely to be overlooked or tolerated by western polities, because of cultural history, familiarity and legal protections extended to domestic groups (such as US constitutional safeguards for freedom of speech and the right to bear arms). Thus, attacks by Muslims between 2006 and 2015 received 4.6 times more coverage in US media than other terrorist attacks (controlling for target type, fatalities, arrests).
These two violent ideologies are not separate, but work in tandem, hammering away at the political order, which is increasingly vulnerable for a number of reasons. In reaction to last month’s massacre at mosques in Christchurch, Isis spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir called for Muslims “to avenge their religion” anywhere and everywhere. And that, according to a video posted this week under the Isis banner, was precisely the “bloody reward” meted out to worshippers and tourists in Sri Lanka. In the west, far-right leaders, such as Gerard Batten of Ukip, intimated that this was an attack by Islam on Christianity, which mainstream officials apparently won’t acknowledge because, as Batten tweeted, “the world does not fear [Christians], as it does the ‘religion of peace’” – a perceived asymmetry that the Christchurch suspect had sought to reverse by live-streaming his actions on the internet.
The spread of this transnational terrorism, whether Islamist revivalism or resurgent ethno-nationalism, is fragmenting the social and political consensus globally. That is precisely its aim: to create the void that will usher in a new world, with no room for innocents on the other side, and no “grey zone” in between.
So far this century, it has mostly taken the form of offensive jihad. Through extreme violence and intimidation, but also via the persuasive promotion of absolutist beliefs, the goal is to advance a strict and radical form of Islamic governance everywhere that “chaos and savagery” (tawahoush) can be created. But now, far-right supremacist terrorism is gaming off the jihadist threat, much as fascism played off communism. Jihadist groups, in turn, after diminishing in countercultural appeal following the killing of Osama bin Laden and Isis’s military defeats, are poised for renewal as attractors to the disaffected: in part because of the rise of the far right, in part because the socio-political conditions that gave rise to these groups have not appreciably changed.
Far-right terrorism has increasingly co-opted key jihadist precepts and tactics (although it tends to involve lone actors linked mainly through social media). In 2007, the supremacist group Aryan Nations proclaimed an “Aryan jihad” to destroy the “Judaic-tyrannical” system of “so-called western democratic states”. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, made his own link. Responding to a court examiner, he said he was “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people … the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret”. As a prelude to the Christchurch attack, the suspect posted a manifesto citing Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed scores of leftist youth in 2011, as inspirations. It adopts a version of the jihadists’ reasoning to justify mass killing as moral virtue: appealing to a transnational brotherhood in a clash of civilisations that pits one global identity (the white race) against another (Islam) in a fight to the death for survival, with no place for bystanders or fence-sitters.
The question, after Sri Lanka, is how an ostensibly weakened Isis has found itself able to respond. In a 2017-18 study of young men emerging from Isis rule in the Mosul region, my research team found that most Sunni Arabs we interviewed and tested had initially embraced Isis as “the revolution” (al-Thawra). Although many came to reject Isis’s brutality, the group had imbued them with two of its most cherished values: strict belief in sharia, and belief in a Sunni Arab homeland as opposed to a unified Iraq. Moreover, those who believe in these values expressed significantly greater willingness to fight and die than supporters of a unified Iraq. Isis may have lost its state but not necessarily the allegiance of people in the region to its core values.
In a follow-up study in 2018-19, most of those surveyed said Isis couldn’t be eliminated as a belief system or expunged physically without changing the disadvantaged religious, social and economic pre-Isis conditions under which Sunni Arabs still see themselves living. Indeed, over the past week, Isis has been able to retake Syrian territory in the mountains near Raqqa and the eastern desert; and in several Sunni areas of Iraq (Makhmour, Kirkuk, the Anbar desert) Isis bands attack government forces by day and take over villages at night at a pace similar to that seen just before the caliphate’s creation.
As the caliphate was being crushed by a coalition of powerful nations, Isis media declared the group’s intention to step up external operations. The Sri Lanka bombings show many of the features that Isis’s external operations branch, known in Arabic as Emni, developed in Europe to enlist local sympathisers, culminating with the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks. In 2014, at least 21 Isis operatives were sent back from Syria into Europe to attack soft targets. All the plots except one were foiled owing to a failure to cultivate local facilitation networks. In contrast, the “success” of the Paris and Brussels attacks owes largely to Isis engaging an extensive network of overlapping and preexisting local social ties among families, friends, workmates and petty criminal bands clustered in particular neighbourhoods.
Although as yet there is no evidence that Isis-Emni directed or contracted out the bombings, there is clear indication of a strong attachment to Emni methods. The two local Islamist groups that Sri Lanka’s defence minister held responsible for the Easter bombings had hitherto mostly occupied themselves with vandalising Buddhist relics and shrines. But the Easter operation included multi-site coordination, somewhat sophisticated ordnance, suicide attacks and the targeting of Christians and foreign tourists.
Isis’s Amaq news agency published a video showing eight of the nine supposed suicide attackers pledging allegiance to Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An earlier video on the Al-Ghuraba website showed the eight men posing under the Isis banner, and pictured Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who directed Emni until he was killed in an American airstrike in Syria in 2016, warning about “exploding into the bastions of the infidels”. According to Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, some of the men “travelled abroad and have come back”, suggesting they may have been among the scores of Sri Lankan fighters who had returned from Syria, now minded to avenge the almost mirror-image actions of the far right that will surely be mirrored back, again and again.
The world’s postwar trend toward greater tolerance and less violence relative to the past – including democracy’s spread to a majority of the world’s nations – risks being thrown into reverse, spurred by varieties of transnational terrorism that provoke and intensify one another. Constraining these radical forces demands more than countering their violent expression. Maintaining a more tolerant, less violent world requires dealing squarely with the underlying causes of these emerging forces. Chief among these is the failure of the global market economy to sustain cultures and communities that provide identity, meaning and purpose in life even when people’s material conditions are wanting. Terrorism is one response to this failure; the rise of authoritarian regimes that give a parochial sense of community is another. The complex and onerous task of liberal societies is to make the space for a third.
• Scott Atran is an anthropologist and founding fellow of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford