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Sri Lanka bombings and the rise of ISIS in Asia

Sri Lanka bombings and the rise of ISIS in Asia

After I reported that ISIS is starting to move its forces to Africa and Asia following the destruction of the Caliphate, the Sri Lanka bombings occurred.   Across Asia, ISIS is on the ascent.  How should American policy makers respond?  

Last week, as Christians across the globe were celebrating Easter and Jews throughout the world were enjoying Passover, suicide bombers blew up three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  Later on the same day, there were additional smaller explosions within the country.  259 people were massacred and 500 others were injured in one of the worst coordinated terror attacks in recent history.  ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated terror attacks in Sri Lanka.  This came after I reported, “The murderous terror group is starting to move its forces to Africa and Asia.”   The question remains, in the wake of the fall of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, to what extent does ISIS pose a threat to Asia following the Sri Lanka bombings?

Although US President Donald Trump had claimed that the War against ISIS is over due to the collapse of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, many counter-terror analysts warned that such statements were premature given that ISIS terror leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi remains free and the terror group still has the potential to wage deadly terror attacks worldwide.  Furthermore, in the wake of the fall of the Caliphate, many ISIS terrorists have returned to their home countries in Asia, where they are beginning to claim territory.

 Already, ISIS has captured a number of villages in Afghanistan and ISIS is attempting to establish itself in Bangladesh.  Not too long ago, Bangladeshi MP Assaduzzaman Noor claimed that “IS is not the Islamic State but rather the Israeli state.  Israel is the biggest enemy of Islam.”  Shipan Kumer Basu, President of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, proclaimed that in the absence of vigilance by the authorities in suppressing the brutal terror group, there are many local supporters for the murderous terror group within the Asian country.  Aside from Afghanistan and Bangladesh, ISIS had also attempted to gain territory in the Philippines but they were repelled by the local authorities, who recently eliminated Abu Dar, the ISIS leader of the Philippines.  In 2017, ISIS terrorists in the Philippines held an entire island hostage for 5 months.  Over 1,000 people were killed as part of efforts for the local government to retain the main city.  Furthermore, according to the Clarion Project, the Rohingya rebels are linked to ISIS as well and they managed to initiate a major conflict against the Myanmar government.    

In the wake of the inroads that ISIS is making in Asia, the risk of another series of terror attacks occurring in the continent could not be greater.  Brahama Challeley, a professor for strategic studies at the New Delhi based Center for Policy Research, explained, “The defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge because battle-hardened fighters with the operational training to stage savage attacks are now returning home.” He claimed that the presence of such ISIS returnees in Sri Lanka explains how such a horrific and sophisticated coordinated series of terror attacks were able to occur within the Asian country.  

However, the threat of such a coordinated series of terror attacks occurring did not begin with the fall of the Caliphate.  It began in 2017, when Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi appealed to his followers to avoid feeling defeated: “Oh soldiers of the Caliphate, fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner and stand fast and courageous.”  The following year, in 2018, the New Yorker reported that ISIS was linked to 3,670 terror attacks worldwide with more than 300 taking place in Afghanistan, more than 180 in Egypt, about six dozen in Somalia, more than 40 each year in Nigeria and Yemen, and 27 in the Philippines.   Not too long before the Sri Lanka bombings this year, ISIS took responsibility for a terror attack that killed 16 in Afghanistan, a suicide bombing that killed 18 in a Pakistani market and twin bomb blasts in a Philippines church which slaughtered 23 others.   Indeed, ISIS making inroads in another Asian country was only a matter of time. 

For ISIS, Sri Lanka was a soft target.  The local authorities, who are Buddhist, fought a long and bloody civil war against the Tamil Tigers, a brutal terror group that implemented numerous suicide bombing attacks that included the use of female suicide bombers.  Given that brute force and not a peace agreement ended the civil war, keeping the peace on the island meant a constant suppression of Tamil (who are mainly Hindu) separatism.   Given this, Israel Hayom claimed that the Sri Lankan authorities turned a blind eye to the threat that Islamist extremism posed to the country.  Since the local Muslims were victims of many atrocities implemented by the Tamil Tigers, they were not on the radar screen of the Sri Lankan authorities.  However, Challeny claims that as the Sri Lankan authorities focused mainly upon suppressing Tamil separatism, there has been a surge in Saudi funded madrassas springing up who preach the radical Wahhabi ideology not only in Sri Lanka but also Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.  

The very presence of these madrassas provide a fertile ideological breeding ground for ISIS to set themselves up in a number of Asian countries.   This is demonstrated by the fact that Salafi Wahhabi Indian preacher Zakir Naik, who equates music with alcohol, believes people should have their hands chopped off for stealing, supports wife beating and death for homosexuals, blamed Bush for September 11, supports Al Qaeda terrorizing America and is ideologically opposed to the propagation of non-Muslim faiths, promotes the same radical ideology that is propagated in the Saudi-funded madrassas.   According to Basu, his preaching were very popular not only among the Sri Lanka bombers but also among the perpetrators of the 2016 Dhaka terror attack in the Holey Artisan Bakery, which led to the slaughter of 22 people.  Interestingly, Saudi Arabia granted Naik citizenship merely so that he would not be prosecuted in India for promoting Islamist radicalism.   According to Basu, these Saudi-funded madrassas in Asia not only promote the teachings of Naik but other radically minded individuals as well, thus leading to the rise of radical Islam in Asia.   If one wants to understand the magnitude of the rise of ISIS in Asia, it is of critical importance to understand in depth all of ISIS’s present activities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, where the murderous terror group has made numerous inroads in recent times.  

Is the Pakistani ISI helping ISIS?

According to the Business Standard, during the Sri Lanka bombings, “ISIS honed in on Sri Lanka as a soft target because of the relative peace post conflict with LTTE, using the NTJ, which had not yet earned notoriety for major violence and marked it for possible terror attacks of this nature.  Surprisingly, there is no mention of the role of Pakistan played in the past as a coordinator between the NTJ and ISIS, which is perhaps by design or default.  When an Indian Peace-Keeping Force returned from Sri Lanka in 1990, Pakistan posted a colonel from ISI as deputy high commissioner for its mission in Colombo.   He organized the aOsama Brigade, comprising Muslim Tamils of North Sri Lanka, to provide a base for terror attacks in Southern India.”  According to the report, Amir Zubair Siddiqi, who served as the ISI man in Colombo, was the one who trained Tamil Muslim Zakir Hussein, who later on planned to attack the US and Israeli Consulates.   Hussein was later arrested but was subsequently released and then went to Malaysia.  

The plans to attack the Israeli and US Consulate are not the only terror attacks that Pakistan stands behind.  The Brookings Institution claims that “Pakistan has long been a difficult and disruptive neighbor to Afghanistan, hoping to limit India’s influence there and cultivating radical groups in Afghanistan as proxies.  It has augmented Afghanistan’s instability by providing intelligence, weapons and protection to the Afghan Taliban.”  However, does the Pakistani ISI support ISIS, do they merely enable them like the Sheikh Hasina government does or do they work for the ascendancy of radical Islamist terror generally speaking but not ISIS in particular?

In 2017, a research report titled “ISIS in Pakistan” claimed that ISIS was alarmingly increasing their presence in the country while the government turned a blind eye to the phenomenon, claiming that the brutal terror group either did not exist within their borders or did not pose as grave of a threat to Pakistan as it did to other places.  A couple of years later, the Pakistan Market Terror Attack that was implemented by ISIS took place within the country.  Since then, the author has not been able to find any recent evidence of Pakistan assisting ISIS.   Pakistan has a new Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has barred militant groups from attacking from Pakistani soil and who has started to crack down on radical Islam.  Nevertheless, despite his good intentions, a Pakistani drug cartel may have financed the Sri Lanka bombings and Pakistan still has a long sordid history of enabling radical Islamist terror across the region, which has worked to the benefit of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar e-Toiba, Jaish e-Mohammed, and now potentially also ISIS.      

Why Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh is enabling ISIS

According to Basu, it is the dream of the present ruling government in Bangladesh to create an exclusively Muslim country.  He claims that in Bangladesh, Islam is the official state religion, Hindu writers are being removed from the school curriculum, more and more madrassas are getting built as minority places of worship are getting desecrated and minority faiths are slowly being ethnically cleansed from the country. 

Although the Western media claims that Bangladesh has been fighting against ISIS since 2016, when ISIS attacked a Dhaka café, killing 22 people, according to Basu, the reality on the ground has shown that the Sheikh Hasina government has been turning a blind eye to ISIS increasing their presence within her country and in public statements, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister denies their existence in Bangladesh.  Basu claims that Sheikh Hasina does this while taking a few symbolic acts to appease the West in order to serve the purpose of using ISIS to create an exclusively Muslim country for herself and her radical Islamist supporters.   Basu claims that ISIS and other radical Muslims are doing Sheikh Hasina’s dirty work of pushing the minorities out of the country for her.  Therefore, even as ISIS recently injured several Bangladeshi police officers who raided a radical Islamist hideout that turned out to be affiliated with ISIS, where a couple of terrorists were eliminated, the Sheikh Hasina government continues to deny the existence of ISIS in Bangladesh.   This remains the situation even after ISIS claimed responsibility for detonating an IED on the police, just a week after the deadly Sri Lanka bombings.

Due to this systematic Awami League policy of ignoring ISIS and other radical Islamist activities in Bangladesh in order to let them suppress minorities, Basu notes that the number of incidents targeting minorities within the country is on the ascendency.  They include but are not limited to:

  • A Hindu housewife was kidnapped in Manikganj
  • Hindu temples were vandalized in Madaripur
  • A 15-year-old Hindu girl committed suicide after being sexually harassed
  • Six idols in the Rodha Govinda Temple were vandalized
  • 20 Hindus were beaten to death by Muslim mobs in Sakhira Puja Mandap
  • In Jamalpur Sadar, a Hindu woman was tied to a tree and left there all tied up
  • A Hindu school teacher was attacked with harsh objects
  • The abduction of a seventh-grade Hindu girl
  • The abduction, selling and sexual enslavement of a Hindu girl by a Muslim trafficker
  • The Mosque Committee threatened to burn a Hindu crematorium if it was not shut down and handed over to them
  • A Hindu religious function in Dhaka was interrupted by Muslim mobs

According to Basu, although ISIS cannot be blamed for all of these incidents, the systematic persecution of the minorities of Bangladesh and the government’s encouragement of radical Islam breeds an environment where ISIS can flourish under the radar screen of the international community. 

For this reason, he claimed that the desire of 40 ISIS members of Bangladeshi origin to return to Bangladesh could be realized, even though the Border Security was given instructions to bar their entry.   As he told me previously, there are plenty of Bangladeshis who are sympathetic to ISIS that would volunteer to get them past Border Security, give them shelter and help them to build up ISIS bases within the country.  He claims that all they would have to do is change the name in order to avoid problems with the Bangladeshi authorities.   And for this reason, he predicts that unless the international government is vigilant in tackling the rise of ISIS in Asia by placing pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government, it is possible that something similar to the Sri Lanka bombings could also happen within his country.  This is especially so after ISIS recently released a telegram in Bangla proclaiming “coming soon,” implying that their next attack will be in Bangladesh.  

The ARSA-ISIS Connection

According to a report in the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, although ARSA, the main Rohingya rebel group, denies any links to ISIS, both the Indian and the Bangladeshi governments claim that ARSA is in fact linked to ISIS: “The smoking gun was an interception of long-distance calls between Hafez Tohar, the chief of ARSA’s military wing, on August 23 and 24, 2007, just prior to the large scale Rohingya rebels attack on Myanmar’s military outposts on August 25 that triggered a crackdown that led to the mass exodus of Rohingya from North Rakhine in Myanmar.   The incriminating testimony is a call from an Iraq number initiated by someone introducing himself as al Amin of Daesh in which ISIS wished ARSA the best in its jihad against the Burmese colonists, Buddhists and Hindu fanatics.”

The Myanmar media outlet Mizzama reported that a top Indian intelligence official claimed, “After ISIS’s huge failures in the Middle East in the face of Russian and US-led Western military action, there is a clear attempt to create a new theater of jihad where the narrative of torture and human rights violations reinforced by heavy-handed Burmese action can destabilize India’s east.  That will divert Indian military attention from Kashmir.  It is a clear Pakistani ploy.” 

A press release issued by a Myanmar government spokesman confirmed the above report, adding that recently ISIS has shifted its focus away from the Middle East and towards them: “ISIS mainly nurtured home-grown cells (a likely reference to ARSA).  The terrorists who entered from outside linked and worked with radical elements inside the country, as in the case of Sri Lanka.”  

 In recent days, the Economic Times of India have reported that armed gangs with potential links to ISIS have taken over Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they have been kidnapping people and threatening women with violence.  A rise in extremist ideology has been reported among the 900,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees currently living in Bangladesh.   According to the World Hindu Struggle Committee, in recent days, there has been an armed clash in the Rohingya camp of Cox Bazaar: “There are many horrendous crimes being reported including murders, kidnappings, disappearing and looting.” He claims that these radical Rohingya rebels who have taken over the Bangladeshi refugee camps have threatened to topple any Bangladeshi government that dares to react to their crimes.    

How America can fight against ISIS in Asia

In the wake of the Sri Lanka bombings and the ascendance of ISIS in Asia, it is of critical importance for American policy makers to re-evaluate Trump’s declaration regarding the defeat of ISIS and to formulate a strategy for struggling against the murderous terror group as they transform from an Iraqi and Syrian insurgency into a global clandestine terror group, which poses a threat to not only Asia but the entire free world.   Following recent developments, international cooperation between the US, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Philippines and other governments that are facing a radical Islamist threat in Asia is of utmost importance. 

As recent reports had suggested, India had supplied Sri Lanka with vital intelligence about the Sri Lanka bombings, which could have saved lives.   According to these reports, an internal feud among officials prevented this intelligence from being used properly.  If we want to prevent the next Sri Lanka, we all must work with each other regardless what our nationality is and what our political affiliation is.  Terrorism harms us all equally.  The political partisanship must end here.    

Furthermore, in light of recent gains made by ISIS in Afghanistan, a US withdrawal from the region at this time is not advised.  If anything, the US must put forward the same amount of efforts and resources into fighting against ISIS in Afghanistan that they did towards fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  On top of that, pressure must be placed on any governments who do anything in order to enable ISIS terrorism within their borders.  The Sheikh Hasina government should not be able to ignore ISIS merely so that minorities can be ethnically cleansed from the country.  While Pakistan’s new leader has made some progress, more pressure should be applied on him so that he continues to move in the right direction and does not regress due to domestic pressure.  There should be zero toleration for ISIS, even if they change their names while merging with local Islamist groups. 

Furthermore, even if we don’t like the human rights records of certain countries, we should be willing to overlook it enough so that cooperation against ISIS won’t be impeded for the rise of radical Islam is the greatest threat to the free world of our times.  Just because we don’t like how Myanmar is heavily repressing Rohingya civilians does not mean that we should avoid cooperating with them, when their very conflict was initiated by a rebel group linked to ISIS.  As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”  In light of this, more than anything, it is critical for American policy makers to act in order to prevent the rise of ISIS in Asia and not to sit by and let it happen.  



Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.