by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
What was the logic behind the attacks carried out by Islamic State supporters/operatives in Sri Lanka, killing hundreds of native Christians in their churches as well as foreign tourists in hotels? The question is relevant in light of some pundits portraying the attacks as driven by the logic of retaliation for the New Zealand massacre that killed dozens of Muslims. This line of argument has also arisen on account of comments made by a Sri Lankan government official.
This line of argument is wrong-headed in multiple ways. To begin with, some have noted the speech Islamic State spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir made last month in which he partly discussed the New Zealand massacre. However, in that speech, Muhajir did not call for the Islamic State and its supporters to carry out attacks in any place or time in order to avenge the Muslims killed in the New Zealand massacre. What he said was the following:
“And this massacre in the two mosques [in New Zealand] is but one of the catastrophes that have come and are to come, to be followed by scenes of despair that will come upon all who have been deceived by living among the backs of the idolaters, and what they claim and assert in their creed from rights and immoral freedom. And the scene of killing in the two mosques should awaken the negligent and incite the supporters of the Caliphate dwelling there [emphasis my own] to take revenge for their religion and the sons of their Ummah who are being slaughtered in every place of the land under the oversight and blessing of the states of the Cross and the governments of apostasy and collaboration.”
I emphasize ‘dwelling there’ (the implication being New Zealand in particular, but could also be extended to other Western states and ‘apostate’ Muslim nations) because that phrase seems to have been missed in some media coverage of al-Muhajir’s speech at the time.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s own claims regarding the Sri Lanka attacks have not framed them as revenge for New Zealand. Instead, a consistent logic has been followed. The foreigners killed in the hotels are citizens of Western countries that are largely part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. That fits in with the Islamic State’s constant calls since 2014 to target citizens of the ‘Crusader coalition’ against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the native Sri Lankan Christians are portrayed as ‘muharibeen’ (lit. ‘at war’).
For reference, here are the relevant parts of the article from Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba’ on the Sri Lanka attacks:
“A group of the soldiers of the Caliphate in Sri Lanka carried out on Sunday morning (16 Sha’aban) 7 martyrdom and inghiasi attacks that targeted a number of churches of the Christians at war and groupings of the citizens of the Crusader states in a number of Sri Lankan cities during the Christians’ celebration of one of their kufr [disbelief] occasions [Easter Sunday].
More than 350 fell slain and up to 650 were wounded in the blessed attacks, among them more than 45 from the states of America, Britain, Holland, Spain, France, China and India.
Specifically, according to the security source, the inghimasi [commando] brothers…headed to a number of the churches and hotels frequented by citizens of the Crusader alliance, while all the martyrdom operatives conducted their operations in a similar time frame. For the brother Abu Hamza al-Silani attacked the Antoni church in the city of Colombo and came into the middle of groups of the muharibeen Christians, and he detonated his explosive belt upon them, so he killed and wounded a number of them….while the brother Abu Muhammad al-Silani headd towards the Zion church in the city of Batikalwa and blew up his explosive belt upon them, so he killed and wounded many of the muharibeen Christians, and the brothers Abu Obeida al-Silani and Abu al-Bara’ al-Silani and Abu al-Mukhtar al-Silani headed towards gatherings of the Crusaders in the hotels…in the middle of Colombo city and they blew up a number of explosives and then blew up their explosive belts on the Crusaders, taking down many of the citizens of the Crusader alliance among killed and wounded.”
An al-Naba’ infographic on the Sri Lanka attacks (see above photo) features the following quotation from Islamic State spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir:
“Whenever the Crusaders think they have spread their influence and usurped an abode of the Muslims, the conquerors appear in another region, in a war the builders of the Caliphate and its leadership have desired- after God granted success to them- should be characterized by challenging the enemy and vying with him in very place and inch of the earth, and bleeding his powers and capabilities. And this is what requires the sons of the Caliphate to work persistently and do all they can.”
Thus, through this quotation, the attacks are framed as part of a grand global struggle against the ‘Crusaders’.
But what of the description of native Sri Lankan Christians as ‘muharibeen’? Simply put, the meaning is Christians who do not have some pact with the Islamic State (and the meaning of ‘pact’ in this context is one of submission to its authority): thus they are deemed to be ‘at war’ with the Islamic State. This description applies regardless of time and place. Indeed, the concept of ‘muharibeen’ is usefully illustrated in a section of an article in this week’s al-Naba’ on Islamic State operations in West Africa:
“Burning of the homes of the muharibeen Christians at war as an appropriate reward.
And in another operation, the soldiers of the Caliphate assaulted a locality of the muharibeen Christians in Nigeria on Wednesday 12 Sha’aban and they inflicted by God’s grace- great damage among the idolaters. And a special security source clarified to al-Naba’ that the mujahideen of the Islamic State managed by the grace of God Almighty- after assaulting the locality of Chibok in the Borno region- to destroy the church of the locality, and burn the homes of the muharibeen Christians in it, before retreating to their own positions safe and sound, praise be to God alone.
And the source clarified that the inhabitants of the village of the muharibeen Christians evacuated it before the mujahideen reached them, in fear they would be killed and taken prisoner. And the brother noted that the attacks of the mujahideen on the muharibeen Christians in the West Africa wilaya will continue- by the permission of God Almighty- until they submit to God Almighty, or pay the jizya by hand, being submissive [emphasis my own].”
The reference here is to Qur’an 9:29, which stipulates that the disbelievers, even if Jews or Christians, should be fought until they pay the jizya taxation to the Muslim authority with willing submission. The same al-Naba’ article does also assert that the ‘muharibeen Christians’ in Nigeria have “attacked the regions of the Muslims in north and south Nigeria, as they have entered the villages and wiped out all their people.” However, mere revenge and self-defence are not presented as the driving logic for characterizing the Christians as being ‘muharibeen’. Instead, the logic is one of offence against the Christians until they convert or submit to the Islamic State’s authority, paying jizya and becoming second-class dhimmi citizens. The same logic is applied to Sri Lanka’s Christians and everywhere else.
In sum then, the Islamic State’s Sri Lanka attacks follow the logic of targeting citizens of countries in the coalition against the Islamic State in particular and targeting more generally Christians and other disbelievers in the world who do not submit to the Islamic State’s authority. Indeed the ideological logic has parallels with Nazism in the pursuit of global conflict and ultimately world domination.
Commenting on the Sri Lanka attacks and other Islamic State operations, this week’s al-Naba’ editorial features a familiar Qur’anic quotation, the last part of which reads: “If you turn away, He will replaced you with another people, then they will not be the likes of you” (Muhammad 38). The message of the editorial is that the attacks in Sri Lanka and elsewhere prove the delusion of the disbelievers and apostates in thinking they have destroyed the Islamic State, and even if some turn away from the cause of supporting the Islamic State, there will always be better people to take their place. The editorial elaborates:
“And we have seen the truth of this matter a lot in this blessed jihad, as God Almighty sends in every occasion groups of His servants who support His religion and work to establish it in the land, and the time in which the hearts of servants for whom years have passed in the path of jihad deviate, whether for worldly desires…or religious doubts…the happy one is the one God has made happy through steadfastness on the path after guidance has come to him, until he has obtained the reward God Almighty has prepared for the one who has concluded his life with going upon it: Paradise as wide as the sky and the earth, prepared for the pious.
And our Almighty Lord has shown us in the past days blessed deeds undertaken by youth who have believed in their Lord, so He guided them to undertake the most beloved of deeds to Him and that is jihad in His path, and He concluded it for them with martyrdom….after they beautified those just deeds by entering into the group of the Muslims with their allegiance to its Imam the mujahid Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (may God Almighty protect him) in the time in which the disbelievers and apostates thought they had destroyed the Islmaic State by destroying the abode of Islam, killing its inhabitants and taking prisoner some of its mujahideen.
And the blessed operations in Sri Lanka and the Arabian Peninsula are but a part of the victory that we are witnessing these days in the east and west of the land….and whoso follows the words of the experts of the Crusaders and their leaders realizes that the mujahideen- in Sri Lanka and the Arabian Peninsula in particular, and the rest of the mujahideen of the Islamic State in general- have demonstrated the failure of the Crusader campaign that has continued for 5 years in its attempts to end the threat of the soldiers of the Caliphate to them and block the spread of its influence and the spread of its da’wa in the land. This is by far a stronger wound for the disbelievers and apostates than the great damage that the mujahideen have inflicted in their ranks during the past days.
And the Muslims’ help for their Dawla [the Islamic State] will not be cut off- by God Almighty’s permission- however much the idolaters try to cut. And its banner will remain raised and lofty, for which the monotheists will fight in every place…whenever a group of them is extinguished, its sister generation follows it with ihsan, and whenever a people turns away from supporting it, God Almighty replaces them with a people better than they. And all that is merely the grace of God- Almighty and Exalted is He- upon the group of the Muslims, as the Exalted has said “Oh you who have believed, whoso of you turns away from his religion, God will bring a people He loves and who love him: humble to the believers, mighty against the disbelievers, waging jihad in God’s path and not fearing the blame of a blamer. That is the grace of God that He brings to the one He wills. And God is encompassing, knowing” (al-Ma’ida 54).”
To sum up, portraying the Islamic State’s logic as one of ‘revenge for New Zealand’, therefore, is unsupported by what the Islamic State itself has said about the Sri Lanka attacks. Instead, the logic completely fits in with prior attacks in that the Islamic State wants to hurt citizens of countries that fought it in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, and its ultimate aspirations of world conquest and making disbelievers submit to its authority.