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People carried the caskets of victims during a mass burial for victims of bomb attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 23. More than 250 people were killed in a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island April 21.
People carried the caskets of victims during a mass burial for victims of bomb attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 23. More than 250 people were killed in a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island April 21.
Photo Credit: Dinuka Liyanawatte | Reuters

Experts believe threat of terrorist attacks on churches on the rise in South and Southeast Asia

Militants who fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria have gone underground and may have joined terrorist groups elsewhere

BANGKOK — Several experts believe the threat to churches in South and Southeast Asia has increased following the Easter bomb attacks that killed more than 250 people and injured 500.

Churches in those regions — which have 150 million Catholics and other Christians — have been the focus of attacks in a growing number of countries in recent years, including fatal bomb attacks on churches in the Philippines and Indonesia by Islamic radicals in the past 12 months.

Authorities in Sri Lanka and Australia have confirmed the Sri Lanka attackers had links to Islamic State, which claimed credit for the attack. Militant preacher Zahran Hashim, who authorities believe died as one of the suicide attackers at the Shangri-La Hotel, has been named the founder and leader of the now banned National Thowheeth Jama’ath group responsible for the bombings. DNA tests are being undertaken to confirm this.

“Radical Islamic groups, some affiliated with larger extremist networks, have been quietly gaining influence in an arc of countries extending from the Maldives to the Philippines archipelago, and the threat they pose can no longer be ignored,” Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, wrote for his widely distributed Project Syndicate column.

“In fact, the grisly Sri Lankan bombings are a reminder that Asia — not the Middle East — is the region most afflicted by terrorist violence.”

The prognosis comes as the so-called Islamic State has splintered and gone back underground following the defeat of its caliphates in Iraq and Syria as well as the continued operation of other terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida in the region.

“In the wake of the Sri Lanka attacks, Indonesia needs to be particularly alert to the increased role of pro-ISIS women; possibly enhanced attraction of churches as targets; and the possibility of someone with international jihad experience entering the country,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict. The group published a report on the Ongoing Problem of pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia April 29.

Jones said that while authorities in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, appeared to have the terrorist threat reasonably under control, it was possible for some groups to slip through the cracks as they had done in the May 2018 deadly church bombings at Surabaya.

But she added that it was “hard to think of any government in the region that would be as lax as Sri Lanka. Southeast Asian governments with large Muslim populations are particularly vigilant; China, of course, is turning Xinjiang into a technological state-of-the-art detention center for Uighurs.”

Church services were canceled across Sri Lanka the weekend of April 28 and churches were closed indefinitely as a precautionary measure. On April 26, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo told reporters that Church officials had seen a leaked security document describing Roman Catholic and other churches as major targets.

Chellaney noted that Muslim militants who had returned from fighting for Islamic State and other groups in Syria and other part of the Middle East are present in a range of Asian counties “from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Maldives and Uzbekistan.”

He likened the current situation to that of three decades ago when Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders emerged after cutting their teeth in the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

“This new generation of jihadi veterans could haunt the security of Asia, the Middle East and the West for years to come,” he said.

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