A bomb explodes in Colombo on April 22, a day after hotels and churches were hit in a series of bomb blasts. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

In 2009, Sri Lanka defeated one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organizations, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), after three decades of carnage.

The recent terror attacks in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa mirrored the violence of the past, crippling the entire state security apparatus in just one day. The situation in Sri Lanka is dire given the nuances of the act of terrorism itself, the blame game played by members of the national unity government, and the failure of the government to act despite prior warnings.

The international community has so far failed to develop a universally agreed and legally binding definition of terrorism. The most authoritative definitions are found in local jurisdictions and vary from country to country depending on their own national security issues. Earlier definitions of terrorism, as an act, or a series of acts perpetrated by non-state actors often through violent means to achieve a political objective, were linked to territorial claims such as separatism. This no longer holds water. Lone wolf terrorists, such as the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque atrocity in New Zealand, act independently. Other acts of terrorism, such as the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, have a different modus operandi: premeditated, carefully planned and well-coordinated.

Modern terrorism is targeted at both military and non-military sites. Terrorism does not only operate on religious and ethnic fault-lines but is perpetrated to destabilize a nation, cripple its sources of authority, to instill terror in people and make them lose faith in the state as a guarantor of security. The recent terror attacks show us these acts are committed by people with mixed motives, one of which is to contest the very notion of a plural/secular state such as India and, more recently, Sri Lanka.

It is a fact that a large majority of terrorist attacks in the world have been perpetrated by groups such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Shabab, and Boko Haram. These terror groups perpetuate their ideology through activities which are attributed to religious fundamentalism, such as the internationalization of Wahhabism and Salafism. International commentator Anne Speckhard, speaking to Foreign Policy magazine, opined that the attacks have all the hallmarks of being linked to ISIS and were not wholly carried out by domestic actors. Therefore, local groups had been trained overseas in countries such as Syria. The homegrown element of National Thawheed Jamaat, according to Indian intelligence, had links with Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in India, which is a lesser-known radical Islamist group.

Our understanding of terrorism as something emanating from disgruntled and oppressed Muslim youth due to lack of education, poverty, abuse, marginalization and social circumstances have to be reassessed. The perpetrators of the Sri Lanka terrorist attacks were sons of wealthy Sri Lankan spice trader Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim. They lived a life of luxury and were highly educated in the UK and Australia. Reports have not yet revealed how, when and where these men were exposed to radical ideology and indoctrinated to carry out these attacks. This internationalization of radical ideology is like a disease that spreads and engulfs Muslims in various parts of the world and is a danger not to be underestimated.

The game game

The government of Sri Lanka failed miserably to act in a timely manner and engage in preventive measures even after receiving intelligence on a premeditated attack. The proliferation of fake news and hate speech on social media resulted in a social media blockage; however, people continue to access such media using VPNs. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, people were more digitally literate than during the March 2018 ethnic riots, with progressive voices calling out hate speech and fact-checking the credibility of false information concerning planned attacks. Emergency regulations ensued, including a curfew, but people continue to be afraid.

The government of Sri Lanka failed miserably to act in a timely manner and engage in preventive measures even after receiving intelligence on a premeditated attack

The government’s biggest failure was not coordinating a response to the initial warnings. This was especially true when the threat of radical Islamic activity was detected back in 2018. Explosives were found buried in a coconut plantation in Puttalam. A security expert from Defence Think Tank in Sri Lanka, Dr Ranga Jayasuriya, said:

“For many in the political circles and Muslim community leaders, the prospect of an armed and violent Islamic extremism was a bitter pill to swallow. Their immediate concerns led the threat being downplayed – worst still being ignored at the expense of lives of many hundreds of Sri Lankans. This tendency to soft-peddle over monstrosity was alive as of yesterday as the government, and the police repeatedly refused to identify the perpetrators, despite mounting evidence”

This insight cannot be ignored given that the incumbent government is divided on vital security issues. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president of Sri Lanka, has barred the prime minister from security council meetings and does not consult him on defense matters. There is some doubt as to whether the prime minister, even though he is able to provide counsel, could have made a difference. The prime minister and his United National Party (UNP) backers are seen as a liberal element that heavily relies on minority votes to remain in power, therefore willfully blinding themselves to a terrorist threat of great magnitude.

Besides, the security sector perceives the UNP element as detrimental to the defense dialogue of the island nation. A UNP government would rather cut military spending and focus on economic reforms and trade. The continuous pressure to de-securitize –remove the army and navy camps from the northern part of the island – instead of focusing on improving the defense of the nation from external threats rendered the security apparatus weak.

These issues have collectively enabled this terrible infestation of radical ideology, its spread and enhanced the ability of extremists to carry out well-planned and coordinated terrorist attacks. The special parliamentary sessions revealed this unfortunate conundrum of political parties blaming each other for lapses in security. It revealed that there is no “unity” in the national unity government.

On a final note, Sri Lanka is lucky to have highly a experienced military, one that was able to defeat the LTTE. The security sector banded together, received international assistance and is engaged in counter-terror operations island-wide, and will eradicate this menace once and for all.

Natasha Fernando

Natasha Fernando obtained her Bachelor of Laws from the University of London and a Bachelor of Arts in international studies in Sri Lanka. She works as a program officer at the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Colombo. Her area of research is defense and security.

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