“The territory once held by [the Islamic State] in Syria and Iraq is now 100 percent liberated,” President Donald Trump announced on Mar. 23, as the U.S.-led international coalition and its local Syrian partners captured the last territorial redoubt of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL) in eastern Syria. “Thanks to the defeat of the ‘caliphate,’” said Trump, “[ISIL] now lacks a territorial base to launch attacks overseas and recruit foreign fighters.”
ISIL’s rejoinder came in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Apr. 21: a set of coordinated suicide attacks on churches and hotels across the island — the group’s deadliest-ever international terrorist attack.
Even as ISIL has lost its territorial “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, it has persisted in a modified, reduced form. In both countries, ISIL has resorted to insurgent warfare and periodic terrorist attacks. It has also established “provinces” in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — mostly local militant groups that have declared allegiance to ISIL and adopted the global movement’s symbolism. In some cases, they seem to have benefited from ISIL’s expertise, even as they continue to work autonomously. Still, the Sri Lanka attacks have been ISIL’s most definitive claim to continued, post-caliphate relevance. The precise role of ISIL’s transnational organization in engineering the attacks is still unclear. But while it was Sri Lankan militants who carried out the attacks, their complexity and successful execution suggests they received at least some international support and guidance.