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Sri Lankan attacks underscore continued threat of jihadist groups

interior of a church after the bomb blast
Sri Lankan military officers inspecting damage from the bomb blast at St. Sebastian's Church, in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22, 2019. Photo: Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The terrorist attack Sunday in Sri Lanka that killed 290 — including several U.S. citizens — and wounded another 500 was among the top 5 deadliest attacks outside of a war zone since 9/11. The group blamed by the Sri Lankan government for the attack, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, was not publicly known in the West.

Why it matters: The Sri Lankan attacks are an important reminder that jihadist terrorism remains a significant threat, especially in the region spanning West Africa to Southeast Asia. There are at least 3 times as many Islamic extremists in the world today as there were on 9/11. This form of terrorism could persist for generations.

Between the lines: The Easter Sunday attacks underscores how quickly a group can move from a limited capability to an ability to kill hundreds. Prior to the attack, the State Department had not provided any terrorist-related warnings to U.S. citizens traveling to Sri Lanka — a reflection of how quickly the group emerged.

What to watch: The backgrounds of the attackers remain unknown. It is possible that at least some were among the tens of thousands who traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS from 2014 to 2017, only to come home as the caliphate crumbled. The threat posed by these “returnees” to dozens of countries will continue to worry security and intelligence officials.

Michael Morell is global chairman of geopolitical risk at Beacon Global Strategies, a former deputy director of the CIA and host of the podcast "Intelligence Matters."