In November 2016, Sri Lanka’s justice minister announced to Parliament that 32 locals from four families had joined the Islamic State. Given the minister’s ties to some anti-Muslim Buddhist prelates, his claim was quickly dismissed as opportunistic—even racist. Since then, however, credible evidence has backed him up. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the deadly Easter Sunday bombings that killed around 360 people, including nearly 40 foreigners.
To be sure, the Islamic State has a reputation for taking credit for terrorist acts it had nothing to do with. Its claims must therefore be treated skeptically. At the same time, however, there is no gainsaying that Islamist terrorist groups in South Asia and elsewhere support the Islamic State’s vision for a caliphate and crave alliance with it. And these groups, in solidarity with the Islamic State, have in the past targeted Christians on Easter. One such group is Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which killed 75 people in Lahore, Pakistan, in March 2016.
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Yet the specifics of the Sri Lankan case make it unusual. For one, given the planning, sophistication, and scale, the attacks there on April 21 rank as one of the worst terrorist acts recorded. But more importantly, the relationship among the country’s Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims makes the targets the attackers picked somewhat strange. After all, why would the Islamic State or those allied with it go after the Christian minority when it is the radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who have perpetrated violence against the island’s Muslims in recent times?