ISIS demonstrated its continued global reach with a complex attack against Christians and Westerners in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. The attack was neither an isolated success nor a last gasp of desperation. Rather, ISIS supported the attack as part of a regular annual surge in its worldwide activity around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. ISIS has continued to wage a coordinated global campaign despite the loss of its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria as ISW warned in 2017. Sri Lanka foreshadows what will likely be a deadly campaign by ISIS during Ramadan 2019, which begins today.
ISIS (and its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq) has conducted a coordinated campaign for Ramadan every year since 2012. The scope, scale, and focus of these campaigns vary by year but generally involve a major escalation in attacks in the weeks leading up to and throughout Ramadan. They also are often used to announce major strategic inflections for the organization. Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced its annual campaigns during Ramadan. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate on the first day of Ramadan 2014. ISIS expanded to a global attack pattern during Ramadan 2015. ISIS now typically uses the month to conduct major spectacular attacks targeting foreign countries and declare the creation of new “provinces” (or wilayats) in its Caliphate. ISIS has deliberately cultivated this global footprint in order to diversify its holdings and mitigate against its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. ISIS tailors its campaigns across this footprint to support its wider operational and strategic objectives, highlighting its continued employment of professional military design at a grand strategic level.
ISIS has continued to expand its operations each year around Ramadan despite its setbacks in Iraq and Syria, proving that its loss of core terrain has not significantly disrupted its ability to design and execute global campaigns. The U.S-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition had successfully recaptured Eastern Mosul and isolated Ar-Raqqa City by February 2017, contesting ISIS’s core urban centers in Iraq and Syria. Yet ISIS’s 2017 Ramadan campaign remained incredibly active with major bombings and offensive operations in Britain, Iran, and the Philippines in May – June 2017. Its 2018 Ramadan campaign was more limited but included a coordinated suicide bombings targeting churches and law enforcement in Indonesia two days before Ramadan. ISIS likely made a strategic decision to deprioritize its global operations for Ramadan 2018 in order to focus on two superseding objectives: (1) shifting back into an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and (2) setting conditions in its provinces abroad for escalation in 2019.