Christchurch to Colombo: The unseen arc?

The fact a Christchurch-Colombo connection was made by a Sri Lankan government minister raises a terrible prospect.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard in front of St Anthony’s Shrine two days after it was attacked in Colombo, April 23. (AFP)
A reminder to stay alert. Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard in front of St Anthony’s Shrine two days after it was attacked in Colombo, April 23. (AFP)

After the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, former CIA Director Michael Morell offered a dismal assessment of the state of the world.

There are, he said, at least triple the number of Islamist extremists today than there were on 9/11. It’s not clear how an accurate headcount could ever be done but the Islamic State’s possibly opportunistic claim of responsibility for the Sri Lanka attacks underlines a grim reality.

The Islamic State (ISIS), now without territory and with its dream of a thriving caliphate smashed, remains influential.

Not long ago, US President Donald Trump declared ISIS “100%” defeated in Syria but that was not “mission accomplished” by any means. Whatever the depth and scale of ISIS’s logistical support to Sri Lanka’s bombers, it has an ideological hold that transcends borders. Anne Speckhard, director of the US think-tank International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism, called ISIS’s baleful influence across the world “the wave of the future.”

This sombre picture is further shaded by Sri Lankan defence minister’s assertion the bombings were carried out in retaliation for the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Doubt has been cast on any direct cause-and-effect sequence. Complex, coordinated, multisite attacks, such as in Sri Lanka, can take months to organise and the Christchurch attacks occurred six weeks ago. Even so, the fact a Christchurch-Colombo connection was made by a Sri Lankan government minister raises a terrible prospect.

Terrorism is increasingly focused on religious rather than secular political targets. There is the possibility of an endless spiral of revenge and counter-revenge attacks by extremists claiming to serve as armed protection groups, flag-bearers really, for their respective communities. For terrorism itself is metastasising. It is drawing in white nationalists who attack Muslims and visually distinct people in Western countries.

In reference to the Sri Lanka bombings, Morell said the world needs to be prepared to deal with this type of terrorism for generations. But how?

The choice of targets is increasingly diffuse, making it harder to know what to police and where. Sri Lanka, an island-nation attractive to tourists from around the world, has minuscule Christian and Muslim populations. Christchurch, a New Zealand backwater, with a tiny community of Muslims, doesn’t readily present itself as a terrorist target.

Add to that data gathered by Simon Cottee, a lecturer in criminology at Kent University in the United Kingdom, on the so-called calypso caliphate.

Cottee offered a “conservative” estimate of 130 Trinidad and Tobago nationals who journeyed to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS from 2013-16. Though that might seem a “trifling number,” Cottee said, it’s big for a Caribbean nation with a population of 1.3 million and places Trinidad and Tobago “top of the list of Western countries for foreign-fighter radicalisation.”

“Calypso jihadis” sound rather jolly until one considers the importance of the group’s existence. As Cottee wrote, it illustrates “the genuinely global reach of ISIS… (and its ability to frame) its grievances and ambitions in a way that was understood across many different countries and cultures.”

So, is this “Terrorism 3.0,” the snappy term coined by James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander for “the evolution of global terrorism”? Stavridis uses his technologically adept label only for ISIS’s new clicks-only strategy and the enforced move away from the “costly, time-consuming business of operating retail bricks-and-mortar” outlets.

There are also new complications caused by rising white nationalist extremism. It is given ballast by politicians such as Trump, who appeals to racial and religious animus to cater to working-class white American voters. Taken together with long-running jihadism, white nationalism feeds the sense of a spreading, religiously and racially focused conflict.

It’s been nearly 30 years since American political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that future wars would be fought between cultures rather than countries. Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory has become a cliche, one to be ignored. It’s regarded as an alarmist academic attempt to construct an omnibus narrative that enfolds and explains communal frictions but extremists of various stripes seem to be committed to making it a reality.

Hopefully, we won’t get there but there is a very real risk we might.

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