All in the family: How Sri Lanka terror reveals reality of threat

There is no doubt that ISIS is still a widespread threat around the world with a capacity to inspire attacks.

By
April 29, 2019 18:58
2 minute read.
A blood-spattered statue of Jesus Christ inside St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April

A blood-spattered statue of Jesus Christ is pictured while crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast, as the sun shines through the blown-out roof, inside St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A woman in Sri Lanka told media that five men in her family went missing during the attacks last week. Three of her brothers, her father and her sister’s husband, according to a CNN report. Much of the Sri Lankan terrorist attack now appears to have centered around Zahran Hashim, the founder of National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ) and two brothers and one of their wives from the prosperous Ibrahim family.

Although Sri Lanka has arrested dozens and carried out a deadly raid on Friday last week, the overall picture that is developing is of two closely linked families that were drawn to Islamist extremism. The authorities will have to eventually spell out all these connections and the timeline they believe led to the attack. However what we know is that not only did the NTJ radicalize its members, it also carried out a sophisticated attack that is one of the world’s most deadly terrorist attacks. We also know that Islamic State has claimed responsibility and that India and perhaps other foreign intelligence agencies warned Sri Lanka about the growing threat.

However the number of relatives from the same families who are either dead or missing after the attack and the Friday raid illustrate that families played a key role in this network. While some articles have asserted that the Sri Lanka attacks show that ISIS is gaining a foothold outside of the Middle East and that this is evidence of an increased ISIS threat after they lost their last bastion in Syria in March.

There is no doubt that ISIS is still a widespread threat around the world with a capacity to inspire attacks. But what we learn in Sri Lanka, as in similar attacks in Europe is that families play a key role in radicalization. For instance, in the wake of the Belgium terror attacks in 2016 two brothers were arrested. During the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the ability to finally track him down was linked to the discovery of family connections.

Islamist extremist groups, like other terrorist networks operate on numerous levels. On one level, they may become closer to acting like a state like ISIS pretended to, when they get big enough. But on the smallest level they work as a cell and then more like a mafia. Just as families are integral to the functioning of the mafia, they are also important in many terrorist networks. This points to the fact that ISIS threats, like the one in Sri Lanka, may not be as complex as they initially appear.

While families help terrorist groups maintain secrecy, since family members are bound up with existing close connections, living in the same compound or house sometimes, and already enjoying private conversations, once you find one member of a family that is known for extremism, finding others may be easier.

This means that the terrorist threat may not be broad, even if it may be clustered and deep in one particular area. Insofar as ISIS inspires other “lone wolf” attacks, the threat is also shallow, because it isn’t based on a network, but people who self-radicalize. Drawing too many conclusions from the Sri Lanka terrorist attacks, regarding ISIS “emerging” in new places, may be a learning the wrong lessons of Sri Lanka’s tragedy.


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