Islamic State: From Territorial to Spiritual Caliphate
Soldiers secure St. Anthony's Shrine after bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo: AP)
By Abdul Basit

Islamic State: From Territorial to Spiritual Caliphate

May. 13, 2019  |     |  0 comments

In March 2019, when the Islamic State (IS) was driven out of Baghouz, its last territorial stronghold in Syria, US President Donald Trump announced that the terror group has been defeated. Yet, with the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that near-simultaneously targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 250 people and injuring 500 others, the group has baffled the international community. After the attack, IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi appeared in a video indicating (among other things) a new phase of global expansion in the group’s organizational evolution.

The bombings in Sri Lanka, along with a string of attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, mark the global phase of IS’ terror campaign. The timing of these attacks is also instructive: revenge for the loss of the so-called Caliphate in Syria. Also, the fresh wave of violence has been unleashed ahead of Ramadan, Muslims’ fasting month, when IS traditionally urges its supporters to step up their attacks.

From a Quasi-state to a Global Terrorist Group

Following recent battlefield losses, IS has compressed its various wilayats (provinces) in Iraq and Syria into two and moved away from the proto-state model of the Caliphate. In other words, IS has pivoted from a territorial to a spiritual Caliphate. IS’ hybrid organizational structure allows it to quickly adapt to changing operational environments and adverse circumstances. IS is trying to retain and safeguard the ability to carry out attacks (external operations). Similarly, the online community of its supporters and sympathisers has migrated from open-end social media platforms to encrypted ones and the dark web.

This global phase of IS expansion is driven by a strong sense of “revenge for the lost Caliphate. The strategic logic of revenge campaign is to dispel the impression that the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has weakened the group. Soon after IS claimed the Sri Lanka attacks, one of its supporters posted in the Telegram messaging service, “The biggest attack happened without any territory, so you failed.” The loss of territory has no correlation with the ability (or the lack of it) to carry out attacks. IS is still the deadliest terrorist group in the world. According to the BBC, the group carried out  as many as 3,670 attacks in 2018.

The group is survived by eight official affiliates spread across Asia and Africa, two dozen networks and an alluring ideological narrative among radicals and extremists. The ideology justifies attacks on churches, killing the Christians. In January, IS murdered 20 worshippers in a church in the Philippines. Likewise, it unleashed a string of attacks on churches in Indonesia on Mother’s Day in 2018. In 2017, IS militants killed 49 Christians at two churches in Egypt.

The IS ability to exploit the grievances of Muslim minorities and use their alienation for its own ideological agenda will keep it afloat. The Sri Lanka attack is a prime example of this assertion. Originally, the grievances of a segment of the Sri Lankan Muslims were against the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community, but IS exploited the sense of disenfranchisement among some extremists in the community to attack the Christians to fulfil its own strategic goal of global expansion.

Future Challenges

From the Sri Lankan attacks, it is evident that the cohort emerging out of Syria is operationally experienced, highly skilled and networked groups of jihadists. In future, deciphering various forms of cooperation and linkages between aspiring (local) jihadist cells and IS will be critical in determining how the networks are formed and what kind of threat they pose. In the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, two of the local extremist groups, the National Tawheed Jama’ath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), were linked with IS.

Since the IS center of gravity now lies in its worldwide external operations, denting the group’s ability to mount large-scale attacks will be critical in overcoming the new threat it poses.

The NTJ is a splinter of a larger radical Islamist group, the Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamath (STJ). NTJ was involved in defacing the Buddha statues in December 2018 and inciting communal violence between the Sinhalese Buddhist community and Muslims. Meanwhile, the JMI is an extreme offshoot of NTJ formed by the ringleader of the Easter Sunday suicide bombers, Zahran Hashim (the unmasked man in the bay’yah video), when he was expelled by the former for his militant views.

So far, it is also not clear if Zahran had direct contact with IS or not. Zahran frequently travelled between Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives. However, investigators have ascertained that one of the eight suicide bombers, Jameel Mohammed Abdul Latheef, who planned to target the Taj Samudra hotel, travelled to Syria in 2014 where he linked up with IS recruiters.

Media reportage indicates that NTJ also had a nexus with the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen India (JIMI) unit, which was formed by Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). If investigations prove that these groups are linked to each other as well as to IS, then the global jihadist group has found new footholds in South Asia beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. On May 1, IS issued an alert threatening attacks in India and Bangladesh along with appointing a militant commander Abu Muhammad Al-Bengali as its new chief for Bengal.

IS’ official affiliate for Af-Pak, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), has forged similar low-end and high-end links  (involving strategic, operational and tactical alliances) with like-minded groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Almi (LeJA), Jandullah, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), among others. Interestingly, the Easter Sunday bombings starkly resemble the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka. For instance, both attacks targeted foreigners in the high-end neighborhoods in main cities (Colombo and Dhaka) and the perpetrators in both attacks were educated and belonged to urban-middle and upper middle classes. The follow up crackdowns in both instances found involvement of families and females in the attacks as well.

Two of the eight suicide bombers in Sri Lanka attacks, Inshaf Ibrahim and Ilham Ibrahim, were brothers and sons of a wealthy spice-trader, Mohamed Ibrahim. Inshaf targeted the Shangri-La Hotel while Ilham detonated his suicide vest at the Cinnamon Grand hotel. Ilham’s wife, Fathima Fazla blew herself up, along with her unborn child and two sons, when police raided their house. This is a concerning trend and needs to be probed further to counter IS’ emerging footprint in South Asia amid its efforts to expand globally.


Hardly a month after losing its physical Caliphate, IS has put the world on notice that it is far from defeated. The Easter Sunday bombings necessitate a re-evaluation of the group’s operational capabilities, particularly the networks it is forming with like-minded radical groups with the help of returnee fighters, and its mind-set which is consumed with vengeance.

Since the IS center of gravity now lies in its worldwide external operations, denting the group’s ability to mount large-scale attacks will be critical in overcoming the new threat it poses. Equally important is discrediting its ideological narrative. A terrorist group can easily recover from loss of territory and organizational degradations but loss of ideological legitimacy discredits religiously-motivated militant groups permanently.

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