On top of all this, Mr Wickremesinghe says that some of the bombers had been to Syria; they are likely to have been among the three dozen Sri Lankans who have fought with IS. In short, Sri Lanka is not as quarantined from global jihadist networks as one might think. Few countries are. And as is has been bombed out of its so-called caliphate, thousands of its fighters have dispersed the world over, grafting themselves onto local Islamist groups like Sri Lanka’s NTJ and disseminating ideology and expertise. The threat of jihadist attacks is therefore likely to grow.
Last, the form of the atrocity in Sri Lanka—striking not only at hotels full of Westerners, but also at three churches—reflects the changing pattern of jihadist violence. Though al-Qaeda railed against “Jews and Crusaders” in the 1990s, it made its name striking secular targets, such as embassies and warships. Its more radical offshoot, is, instead came to prominence in Iraq by slaughtering local Muslims who disagreed with its bloodthirsty interpretation of the Koran, often with a degree of violence that even al-Qaeda’s leaders thought excessive.
IS has exported its modus operandi. In 2017 al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch, published a code of conduct that said Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist civilians and places of worship would not be attacked. By contrast, is proudly claims attacks on religious targets, including churches in Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan and now Sri Lanka. The aim of such sectarian terrorism is to promote the narrative of a clash of civilisations—an aim the jihadists share with white-nationalist terrorists, such as the one who attacked two mosques in New Zealand last month.
Both groups want to sow discord and force people to choose sides. The jihadists would love to provoke a backlash against Muslims, in the hope of pushing more Muslims into their camp. Neither governments nor citizens should fall into that trap. Instead, they should work harder to catch terrorists, while doing their best to soothe relations between Muslims and their neighbours. It was the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, remember, that first reported NTJ to the authorities three years ago.