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Terrorism Expert Weighs In On ISIS Claim Of Responsibility In Sri Lanka Attacks


Sri Lanka is mourning the more than 300 people who were killed on Easter Sunday when suicide bombers targeted churches in Western hotels. We'll hear more about the Christian communities in Sri Lanka in a few minutes. First, we turn to the group claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIS. It has released a video purporting to show some of the attackers swearing allegiance to the group in front of the black ISIS flag. For more on this, we're joined by former FBI special agent Ali Soufan. He's investigated many cases of terrorism, including 9/11. Welcome back to the program.

ALI SOUFAN: Great to be with you.

CORNISH: So as we mentioned, ISIS has claimed responsibility. Do you find that claim credible?

SOUFAN: Possible - you know, there is no official evidence that support ISIS' claims so far. You know, ISIS, as we know, have a history of claiming attacks that they were not responsible for. They even claimed the Las Vegas shootings, if you remember. But the attack itself have the hallmark of a Salafi jihadi international group - at least international support.

CORNISH: In what way? What do you see that suggests that?

SOUFAN: First of all, you have multiple attacks happening at multiple locations against targets - different targets - churches and the hotels. We've seen before attacks against churches. We've seen attacks against hotels. But we didn't see this combination. The complexity of that attack indicates that it's carried out by a local group. But the complexity also indicates that this local group have international support to carry out the plot.

CORNISH: As you note, ISIS is quick to claim any mass killing that generates headlines. Is there something strategic about claiming this attack in Sri Lanka?

SOUFAN: ISIS is trying to take advantage of the sectarian tensions that exists in Sri Lanka, and that sectarian tension is not only in Sri Lanka. It's in South Asia in general. And as you're familiar, you know, Sri Lanka is an incredibly diverse country, ethnically and religiously. And it was engulfed in decades of war with the Tamil Tiger and still have significant tension along cultural and religious lines between the majority Buddhist population and the Christians and Hindu and Muslim populations. So ISIS is trying to create divisions and capitalize on these divisions to recruit more people and to find other areas to operate in after they lost Iraq and Syria.

CORNISH: Just a month ago, U.S.-backed forces announced the defeat of ISIS in Syria. And as you discussed, the group has lost all of the land it once claimed for its caliphate. If this attack in Sri Lanka is connected to ISIS, would it tell us anything about their potential strength at this point?

SOUFAN: Well, back in 2015, we did a report on the so-called Islamic State. And we said that with all its bravado, the Islamic State is going to, you know, morph down from a proto-state to an underground terrorist organization. And that's exactly what's happening. Maybe ISIS was defeated physically in Iraq and Syria, and that is a very important step. But ISIS still have the ability to inspire people to act on its behalf. And only when we defeat ISIS in the hearts and minds of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, then we can start to win the war against them.

Defeating them physically just in Iraq and Syria is not enough. Remember, we defeated al-Qaida physically in Afghanistan. But al-Qaida is growing in places like Sahel, in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen, in Syria, in Somalia. So the battle of the hearts and minds is as important - even more important than the physical battle on the streets and on the land.

CORNISH: Ali Soufan is a former FBI counterterrorism agent. He's also founder of The Soufan Group. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

SOUFAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.