The extremist death cult can still strike globally
The Easter Sunday atrocities in Sri Lanka, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility, have been a sudden, appalling reminder that 18 years after 9/11, Islamist extremist networks can bring co-ordinated carnage to anywhere in the world.
The suicide attacks on churches, and the targeting of foreigners – there are 10 nationalities among the dead, which include two Australians – are all hallmarks of their terror. The 290 deaths in Sri Lanka puts it in the same category of mass murder as the 222 who died in Bali in 2002 and 2005, the Mumbai attacks of 2008, the Paris massacres of 2015, or the Madrid train bombings in 2004. The shedding of so much blood at Easter was designed to shock with its calculated viciousness, and to drive wedges between moderate Muslims and those of other faiths, or none, around the world. The scale has shaken even Sri Lankans that endured communal violence and civil war for nearly three decades.
Analysts believe this was an attack with global rather than local origins. The Islamic State may no longer be a state. In the past few months it has been driven out of territory the size of Britain that it audaciously conquered and governed across Syria and Iraq in 2014, destroyed by a combination of air power and militia forces on the ground. But no one should have doubted that Islamist terror could spring back in other forms, this time spearheaded by former foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq now dispersing around the world.
As so often, the terrorists struck at a soft target. A developing country that cannot afford expensive security, where small minority faiths exist, or where there is overlap between foreigners and a local population in which terrorists can be inconspicuous. Attacks in Bali, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey followed this pattern. But schools and churches in Pakistan and Nigeria have been attacked, with Easter a favoured time. And elaborate security has never stopped murderous mass attacks in Europe either.
This comes five weeks after the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers at mosques in Christchurch by Australian gunman Brenton Tarrant. He acted alone, but supported by a large online community of hate. After Christchurch there was criticism of security services for being too focused on Islamist radicals to the benefit of ethno-nationalist militants. The scale of far-right terror, with frequent smaller scale attacks on minorities, has ebbed and flowed. But Islamist terror has killed tens of thousands in its peak years, most of them fellow Muslims in the Middle East and Africa. Islamist networks have had nation-state backing, which far right extremists in the West don’t, and far greater access to weapons and sophisticated propaganda and communications. What the Islamists and the Western far right really share are totalitarian creeds that glamorise violence and wallow in conspiracy theories, self-pity, and revenge fantasies. The security services around the world cannot afford to let up against either extreme.