TWO DECADES ago al-Qaeda made its name by mounting a succession of bombings against America across the world. These included the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; an American destroyer moored in Yemen in 2000; and, most bloodily of all, the attacks of September 11th 2001 on American soil.
Though Osama bin Laden, the group’s founder, had long railed against “Jews and Crusaders”, so giving a religious sectarian dimension to his global jihad, his central target was clear: “kill the Americans and their allies”.
Twenty years on, jihadists have changed their focus, particularly under the new generation of extremists affiliated with Islamic State (IS). The Easter Sunday bombing of three churches as well as hotels in Sri Lanka—claimed by IS, albeit without clear proof—constituted the largest co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Asia in recent times, taking the lives of more than 300 people.
This reflects a broader trend in terrorism directed against religious targets. The number of people killed in attacks on mosques, churches and the like has increased sharply in the past decade—and faster than attacks on other targets.
According to an analysis by The Economist of data on worldwide terrorism compiled by the University of Maryland, there were 620 deaths in 240 attacks on religious targets in the five years between 2000 and 2004. That number has since risen sharply, to more than 4,000 deaths in 1,400 incidents between 2013 and 2017 ( the five most recent years for which data are available.) Two-thirds of these recent deaths have taken place in just four countries: Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Egypt. These numbers exclude terrorist incidents in Iraq and Syria, where the civil wars distort global figures
Why is this so? One reason may be the baleful influence of IS which, in its formative years as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), deliberately aimed to kill Shias, the country’s largest group, with the aim of polarising the population and driving Sunni Muslims into its arms.
It took up that strategy so vigorously that it alarmed al-Qaeda’s leadership. In 2005 Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Mr bin Laden’s deputy and now al-Qaeda’s leader, warned AQI that it was alienating people: “the sectarian and chauvinistic factor”, he said, “is secondary in importance to outside aggression”.
AQI paid no attention. In 2014, rebranded as Islamic State (IS), it swept through large parts of Iraq and Syria using untrammelled violence and persecution of opposing sects. It also encouraged its acolytes around the world to conduct freelance attacks—something that al-Qaeda, with its more rigid hierarchy, was more reluctant to do.
The pattern of attacks reflected IS’s preference for theatrical assaults on a wider range of targets. To be sure, IS’s European followers have not stopped attacking transport hubs and concert-goers, much as al-Qaeda did a decade ago. But its devotees have also picked out religious sites, notably in the Middle East and Asia. In part they have been incited by IS propaganda, which claims Islam will defeat Christianity and take over Rome.
IS’s Egyptian branch is responsible for an onslaught of bombings against the country’s Coptic Christian minority (as well as Sufi Muslims). Its devotees in the Gulf have attacked Shia mosques. IS has also been linked to church bombings in Indonesia last year and in the Philippines in January.
“Terrorism of course is meant to shock and terrorise. Its power is thus heightened when holy places are singled out and innocent worshippers and clerics slaughtered,” says Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University. “IS understands the outsized impact of attacking such targets.”
In a sense, IS’s tactics mark a return to the jihadists’ war against the “near enemy”, in which jihadists often treated minorities as supporters of local dictators. Coptic churches were attacked in the 1980s; monks were beheaded in Algeria in the 1990s. “You can mobilise against others if you can declare them apostates,” says Raffaello Pantucci, of the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank in London. “Once you have done that it’s easy to slaughter them en masse.”
Al-Qaeda itself has not been averse to acts against religious targets, such as the bombing of a synagogue in Djerba, in Tunisia, in 2002. Yet even al-Qaeda’s leadership is still committed to the war against the “far enemy”, ie, America and the West, and finds IS’s overt sectarianism too much to stomach. According to Paul Cruickshank, editor of CTC Sentinel, a journal focused on terrorism, a month ago al-Qaeda’s leadership instructed followers to shun attacks on places of worship.
Islamic State’s spectacular—though brief—seizure of territory and the creation of a “caliphate” in 2014 gave it worldwide cachet among extremists, who absorbed its nihilistic message and unshackled choice of targets. As the caliphate has collapsed, nearly a fifth of the 40,000-plus foreign fighters who had flocked to Iraq and Syria from more than 80 countries, have headed home—bringing with them contacts, expertise and sectarian fervour.
The latest bombings suggest that religious sites in all countries, even those with little history of anti-Christian attacks such as Sri Lanka, have become fair game for jihadists.