Despite President Trump heralding the destruction of ISIS at the hands of US and Syrian forces, one of the justifications he cited for ordering US troops to leave Syria (though the administration quietly pivoted and decided to keep some troops on the ground after all), in the wake of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, the group has made its presence felt once again - this time as a decentralized guerilla organization similar to Al Qaeda.
On Monday, the group released a video of its founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who delivered a call-to-arms and declared the Sri Lankan bombings to be vengeance for the fall of the caliphate. Al-Baghdadi had reportedly been killed several times over the past few years, but intelligence officials were never able to confirm his demise, and apparently, those reports were all premature.
And as Sri Lanka remains in a state of high alert following a gun-battle with terrorists on Friday that left 15 terrorists dead, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday afternoon that investigators have determined that at least one of the suicide bombers who carried out the Easter attacks had trained with ISIS in Syria. Others may have traveled to Syria, but are still being investigated.
At least one suicide bomber in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka trained with Islamic State in Syria, people with knowledge of the investigations said, reflecting the extremist group’s continued reach even after the collapse of its self-declared caliphate.
Investigators said Jameel Mohammed Abdul Latheef had planned to blow himself up at a luxury hotel, Taj Samudra, in the capital Colombo around the same time Easter morning that other attackers detonated explosives strapped to their bodies at three other top-end hotels and three churches.
But they believe Mr. Latheef’s device malfunctioned. He blew himself up outside a small inn, killing himself and two other people.
As many as four bombers are being investigated for travels to Turkey, Syria or Iraq, where they are believed to have come into contact with Islamic State operatives, an adviser to the government who was briefed on the investigations said. They learned bomb-making and communications skills and were sent home to Sri Lanka to start local operations for the group, this person said.
Latheef is believed to have traveled to Syria in 2014, at the height of ISIS's power. He is said to have trained with Mohammed Emwazi, the terrorist known as "Jihadi John" (before he was killed in a drone strike). But most unusually, Latheef is said to have studied abroad in the UK and Australia, and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. He trained with ISIS for 3-6 months.
Mr. Latheef, who studied in the U.K. and Australia, earning a degree in aeronautical engineering, is believed to have trained with Islamic State for three to six months, the person said. He was then dispatched to Sri Lanka, his home country, to recruit others and carry out attacks.
Meanwhile, WSJ reported that the bombers had used encrypted chat apps to communicate with each other.
Investigators have found that the Sri Lanka bombers used encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Threema to communicate with one another and with their Islamic State points of contact, the adviser and an intelligence official in Sri Lanka said. They also used explosives made from TATP, or Triacetone Triperoxide, which Islamic State often utilizes and can be prepared with easily available substances like drain-cleaning liquid, nail-polish remover and ball bearings.
The determination of Latheef's involvement is the latest in a troubling trend of wealthy young people in Sri Lanka joining jihadi groups. For example, two of the bombers were sons of a wealthy spice merchant. When police showed up at the family's compound to detain their father, one of their wives blew herself, and two of her children, up, rather than surrender.
The bottom line: ISIS might have lost its territory in Syria, but it's still recruiting and building cells around the world.