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ISIS is thriving in the unlikeliest of places while Washington ignores the threat

Easter Sunday 2019 is a day that will live in infamy, not only for Sri Lanka but for Southeast Asia as well — a day that will resonate with Christians across the planet. A series of coordinated explosions triggered by eight suicide bombers at six locations in three cities claimed at least 253 lives and injured hundreds.

The following day, Sri Lankan officials placed the blame on a local Islamist group called National Thowheed Jamaath, while conceding that the little-known (and often overlooked) organization must have had international help. Up until the attacks, the group was only known for defacing Buddhist statues. The following day, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings, which came as a surprise to all.

Sri Lanka’s moderate Muslim minority has no history of violence and has consistently chosen restraint in the face of harassment and violent attacks from local, radical Buddhist groups. In fact, security-threat assessments of Southeast Asia in the past decade probably excluded Sri Lanka as a potential hotbed of terrorist activity.

ISIS, which the White House had triumphantly declared to be “dead” just four months ago, announced to the world, in the most dramatic of ways, that it is far from destroyed. In fact, the Sri Lankan bombings clearly demonstrated how the group remains a lethal force capable of even more death and destruction, even though it no longer holds any territory. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were nearly twice as lethal as the Paris attacks in 2015, when ISIS held significant swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

Pentagon officials had cautioned the White House against making such premature declarations of victory, and also warned that the rush to end military engagements would cripple critical operations designed to keep tabs on ISIS remnants. For these officials, analysts and policy advisers, in the United States and other countries, the wresting of territories from ISIS was only the beginning.

Precedent had already shown that when waging a “war on terror,” it takes much more than boots on the ground, heavy ordnance, drone strikes and loose coordination with locals to push radical elements out. When US forces surged into Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no resultant miracle transformation and hardly any “hearts and minds” were won over. In fact, the opposite happened; in place of the peaceful, US- and Western-friendly states the White House envisioned, the region descended into years of chaos and civil war. These conditions birthed ISIS, emboldened Al-Qaeda and afforded the Taliban the veneer of legitimacy that had eluded them.

Going forward, the Easter Sunday attacks show a further unraveling of the $2.04 trillion dollar US-led War on Terror, signaling to other nations (potentially vulnerable or not) that the White House dropped the ball — and has no interest in picking it up. How can nations such as Sri Lanka, with few or no extremist groups operating locally, now take Washington’s word for it that ISIS no longer poses a threat? Such questions are important because it is not only about the lives of those who are killed or wounded; such devastating attacks also carry huge economic ramifications. Sri Lanka's $6 billion tourism industry is likely to suffer a painful slowdown, with knock-on effects on jobs and livelihoods.

Of even more concern, the Trump administration appears to have abdicated its leadership of the global coalition of nations fighting against terrorist insurgency groups. If anything, this disinterest, and the resultant intelligence failures, are likely to intensify global ire against an embattled White House distracted by domestic scandal and intrigue.

In the meantime, ISIS and other radical groups continue to evolve, reorganizing and modifying operations to fit an ever-changing transnational security landscape. Other extremist groups, in pursuit of religious, ethnic or political goals, are probably paying attention and will seek to copy what “works,” thereby transforming themselves into major threats aligned with or alongside ISIS.

ISIS is peculiar, in that even after its core was weakened and ultimately decimated, its peripheries have persisted, successfully assuming the group’s ambitions of a global caliphate. For instance, a Philippine affiliate was responsible for an attack in January that claimed 23 lives. The group has also poached Taliban fighters, despite US officials breaking bread with the Taliban to engineer a US exit from Afghanistan.

The defeats in Iraq and Syria did not hinder ISIS at all. Thousands of its fighters have gone underground, while its media arm continues to pump out propaganda and issue directives to far-flung cells and affiliates. The recent anti-Islam rhetoric from Western politicians and attacks by white extremists, such as the recent one in New Zealand, have also served to fuel radical Islamist groups and amplify their messages and recruitment.

Recently, ISIS expanded its presence in Africa beyond Boko Haram’s operations in West Africa by recruiting the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist militia rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is the group behind attacks in the DRC’s North Kivu province, which is home to resources, such as timber, gold, tin and rare earth metals, that ISIS can potentially exploit and traffic to raise funds.

The expansion of ISIS into the DRC is especially troubling given that Muslims only account for 2 percent of the population and Arabic is neither a national nor an indigenous language. There would be no reason whatsoever for ISIS to have any interest in the DRC were it not for a lack of stability and the prevalence of armed groups engaged in resource trafficking. With the group defeated in the Middle East, pockets of instability in Africa and Asia will probably play host to the group’s plans to re-emerge — or, at the very least, provide bases from which to launch further devastating attacks.

Worryingly, 10 days before an attack in the DRC for which ISIS claimed responsibility, the country’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, traveled to Washington to warn officials that the group was likely to launch attacks and attempt to relocate some of its personnel in the Northern Province. Apparently, those warnings fell on deaf ears.

ISIS attacks have even resumed in Raqqa, Syria, and in Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq, cities the group once controlled at its height. Just last week, a ISIS attack killed 35 soldiers from the Syrian Army and affiliated militias. The current chaos in Libya is also likely to once again provide a hospitable environment for groups such as ISIS. Even more dangerous is the persistent stream of radicalizing content from ISIS that is capable of inspiring lone-wolf attacks.

While the United States has chosen to retreat, ISIS has stepped up its operations and transformed itself into a global threat in even the most unlikely of places.