Sri Lankans grapple with the aftermath of Easter Sunday attacks

Image result for Mohammed Muzammil and cardinal ranjith
Image credit: Official website of the President of Sri Lanka

By Rathindra Kuruwita 10 May 2019

The way we define a problem usually informs the way we attempt to deal with it. Moreover the narrative and approach used to tackle an issue ensures whether we are able to get the assistance of important stakeholders that are required for the success of an initiative. 

As Michael Vlahos, professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs states the lexicon we use to describe new threats has a tendency to affect how we attempt to solve a problem and if used wrong can say what the environment is not. Narratives have also been identified as key element of countering extremist propaganda.

As Sri Lankans grapple with the aftermath of Easter Sunday attacks two main narratives on the attack, which in turn would inform the approaches taken to deal with the new terrorism threat has been proposed by the two main political parties of the country.  As securitization theorists argue that different groups tend to understand and react to security related incidents differently depending on their backgrounds. They also suggests these narratives and approaches reflect their ideological leanings and give an indication as to how they might try tackling the problem. 

This article gives a brief overview of these two narratives and approaches and weighs in which one would be the most suitable given Sri Lanka’s complex ethno- religious social fabric, looking at it from the prism of similar situations faced by other nations.

The two narratives

The government, especially Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his close ally and the powerful minister of Finance, Mangala Samaraweera have posited the attacks in the context of global Islamic terrorism and have insisted that this can only be solved through cooperation with ‘principle nations’ of the world. In his speech in parliament on April 23, during a special session to discuss the terrorist attacks Wickremesinghe said that “we have become a part of global terrorism. We can consider the attackers as a part of global terrorism.” (1.) He then went on to contrast these attacks with the war with the LTTE and stated that while LTTE carried out suicide attacks it was done to supplement their armed struggle on the battle field. (2)

Meanwhile Samaraweera said in Parliament on the following day that “unlike earlier when Sri Lanka had to deal with a separatist movement based on its own soil, we are now dealing with an international terrorist network based on religious fanaticism. Therefore, we need the support and know-how of the international community who too have become victims of this plague.”  Samaraweera added that Sri Lanka’s friends in the international community have come to its assistance in the “hour of need” (3.) In what he called a triumph of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, some leaders of the “principle nations of the world has called Sri Lanka to offer their assistance” and he lists these leaders as President of the United States, Donald Trump, Prime Minister of England, Theresa May, Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzō Abe

Later in a special televised address to the nation, the Premier said that “Therefore this terror cannot be fought alone by us at a national level. The explosion might be in Sri Lanka, but the trigger might be elsewhere. The planning and training could be done in a foreign country. The brainwashing could take place anywhere. Without weeding out all these elements, we cannot eliminate this danger.” (4)

On the other hand those loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa have posited this as a domestic issue which can be solved by giving adequate powers and freedoms to the Sri Lankan security forces and by revitalizing the country’s intelligence network. In fact they cast doubts on whether the attackers in fact were connected to ISIS. (5)

Giving an interview to Indian TV station CNN-News18 on April 28 Rajapaksa said that while India should be commended for providing information on the terror attacks, Sri Lanka does not want any foreign forces, like the Indian National Security Guard, on its soil. “India has been helpful. But there is no need for the NSG to come in. We don’t need foreign soldiers. Our forces are capable enough… We just need to give them powers and freedom” (6)

His close ally Wimal Weerawansa insisted in Parliament that by positing the Easter Sunday attacks in the context of global terrorism, the Prime Minister is laying the ground work to make Sri Lanka a military base for the US. “The prime minister talks about global terrorism but he should talk about what forces propel them domestically. Just because ISIIS took responsibility of the attacks and took the credit after two days, people of Sri Lanka are not willing to accept that. You allowed radicalization to spread in Sri Lanka.” (07). Weerawansa’s lieutenant  Mohomed Muzammil asked Muslims to ensure that Sri Lanka does not become a Syria by being fooled by extremists posing as Islamic liberators. The Bishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith also insists said that those who carried out the attack might not even know who led them. For them the rhetoric of the government was a precursor to facilitate international mediation.

Local and international aspects

It is clear that the Easter Sunday bombers have travelled to a number of countries, probably either for training or to develop links with others, with at least one person travelling to Syria. The Army Commander, Lt. General Mahesh Senanayake told BBC that ‘by looking at the pattern of the attacks and where the leadership has travelled, there has to be some outside involvement and leadership. They have gone to India, Kashmir, and Bangalore etc.” (8)

It is also certain that they drew assistance and inspiration from international terrorist networks and there is still a lot more to be learned on this network. However the security forces have managed to identify the attackers, make a large number of arrests and come up with a somewhat detailed picture of the immediate planning and execution of the attacks and this information points to a locally planned and executed attack.

The last decade has been relatively peaceful and as the army commander said Sri Lankans have relaxed security measures. This allowed the terrorists to carry out the attacks despite intelligence agencies knowing of growing radicalization, the training camps and even having a large number of radicalized individuals under surveillance. On the other hand proliferation of granite quarries, to propel the construction boom, especially the Port City Project, has ensured that explosives, detonator cords and other material required for bomb making easily available and the Navy now suspects that the explosives used in the attacks were issued legally to granite quarries. (9).

Moreover as the former Defense Secretary, Hemasiri Sernando said they have had security warnings and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged that they were informed that some people who had trained/worked with ISIS in Syria had returned. Both men insist that they didn’t have adequate laws to deal with this; this has been addressed by emergency laws.

Therefore while the terrorists drew inspiration and probable initial training, it is obvious that this was a locally executed attack which the security forces could have prevented if there was better coordination and political will. 

Latest security estimates, presented to Parliament on May 07 by President Maithripala Sirisena stated that they have apprehended or killed nabbed 99 per cent of terrorists involved in the Easter Sunday carnage. And that the rest will be arrested within three more days. “According to intelligence reports the number of these extremists is lower than 150. We must have faith in our security forces and the intelligence operatives,” he said.  (11)

Most effective

So what is the most effective narrative that might help Sri Lanka deal with this? It is my belief that while sharing intelligence and expertise is important, the narrative that this is an issue that can be handled domestically, supplemented by a theory of external intervention, might be a much effective way in dealing with the present crisis.

The main concern with placing this as a conflict with international jihad, that won’t be solved even after the eradication of NTJ, is that this puts Sri Lanka in a longer war with an international enemy. Essentially putting us in a forever war footing, which would affect our economy as well as inter-ethnic relations. As Sri Lankans learned during a 30 year old bitter war the longer the war drags on, the worse inter-ethnic relations become. The longer the emergency drags on, the chances of irrational fear of Muslims growing increases and it undermines the belief of the Muslim leaders that informing on extremists and giving into certain demands, I. E. Banning the burqa, getting rid of madrasas, etc. will lead to a quick resolution.

As David Kilcullen in his book Accidental Guerilla said, when a country focuses on the international aspects of an insurgency, it tends to overlook local grievances (12).  While it is obvious that Wahhabis’ ideology was the main influence on the suicide bombers, new evidence also suggests that the attacks on Muslims in Aluthgama, in 2014, and Digana, last year, won the National Towhead Kamath (NTJ) the organization behind the attack, a number of new recruits. Mohammad Ibrahim Sadique Abdullah, an NTJ leader arrested in Gampola and was behind the attacks on Buddhist and Christian statues in Mawanella late last year (13) stated that the attacks on Muslims in several parts of the countries increased membership of the NTJ (14.) This is a clear indication that local grievances have had some effects on the radicalization of Muslim youth.  As Kilcullen says Governments tend to ignore these local grievances and reasons once the focus shifts to ‘a global war on terror.’

Another problem of joining the ‘global war on terror’ and working with US law enforcement agencies is that these actions show a willingness of the Sri Lankan government to take a side.

Speaking at an event on May 07, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 2006 to 2009, Robert O. Blake Jr said that he hopes that ‘FBI relationship in the country will blossom and become a more systematic relationship’. (15)

 As Jonah Blank, an adjunct senior political scientist of RAND Corporation said in Sri Lanka’s Easter Attacks: Dismantling Myths to Prevent the Next Attack, the ‘audience for, and ambitions of,’ the Easter Sunday bombings ‘were almost certainly global.’ Given these ambition and the audience such closer ties, as proposed by Blake, can only attract the attention of jihadists, from South Asia and other parts of the world. (16)

Moreover strong relationships with Western intelligence and security agencies and the presence of western security officials in Sri Lanka encourages narratives of occupation, imperialism and tends to create a siege mentality, not only among Muslims but also Sinhalese, who are not the greatest fans of the US. Also by excluding China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran, who were not mentioned in Mangala’s speech, and who had been critical of international community’s militarized response to Islamist terrorism and even promoted the narrative that holds the West responsible for Islamic terrorism (17,) Sri Lanka would isolate itself from its traditional allies.

These countries have been our traditional supporters and isolating these nations puts Sri Lanka at the mercy of the west in international forums. By depending on western nations in forums like the UNHRC and cosponsoring resolutions that are unpopular at home, there is a good chance that the government might lose whatever credibility it has left in the eyes of most Sri Lankans.

On the other hand, more Sri Lankans, including Muslims, will find it acceptable to buy into the narrative proposed by Rajapaksa and his associates. It appeals to Sinhala nationalists, who abhor foreign involvement and have great faith in the defense establishment, while providing a coping narrative to the Muslim community, thus allowing the state to obtain the support a of a larger part of the community for counter terror operations. This approach also is closer to addressing ‘root causes’ of terrorism that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke of at G20 summit in Ankara, that puts policies that address domestic factors that often encourage radicalization, such as a lack of economic development and social justice. A version of this was attempted by Rajapaksa at the aftermath of the May 2009 war victory when he tried to boost the Northern and the Eastern provinces through a massive infrastructure development program. Unfortunately these projects didn’t often translate into jobs and the element of social justice, vital for the success of such initiatives, was missing.

This does not mean that Sri Lanka doesn’t need international support; obtaining information from other nations is vital in dealing with terrorists who have links with terror groups and who might gain combat experience in other theatres of war. Sri Lanka also needs the assistance of countries like Singapore who have successful de-radicalization programs. Dealing with ideological motivated terrorism is a long term process but continues surveillance, community outreach and intelligence works better when done locally, which also gives appearance of normalcy.

Bio –

Rathindra Kuruwita is a journalist and researcher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has an MSc in Security Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and was a fellow at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii.

References

  1. Parliamentary Debates. Parliament of Sri Lanka 23 April 2019 (Vol 271-No. 1) Retrieved from https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1557123375026766.pdf
  2. Parliamentary Debates. Parliament of Sri Lanka 23 April 2019 (Vol 271-No. 1) Retrieved from https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1557123375026766.pdf
  3. Parliamentary Debates. Parliament of Sri Lanka 24 April 2019 (Vol 271-No.2) Retrieved from https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1556875664029622.pdf
  4. Press Release. Colombo: Prime Minister’s Office; 2019.
  5. Parliamentary Debates. Parliament of Sri Lanka 24 April 2019 (Vol 271-No.2) Retrieved from https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1556875664029622.pdf
  6. No Need for India to Send NSG Commandos, Lanka Can Tackle Terror On its Own: Mahinda Rajapaksa. https://www.news18.com/news/world/no-need-for-india-to-send-nsg-commandos-sri-lanka-can-tackle-terror-on-its-own-mahinda-rajapaksa-2120069.html
  7. Parliamentary Debates. Parliament of Sri Lanka 24 April 2019 (Vol 271-No.2) Retrieved from https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1556875664029622.pdf
  8. SL suicide bombers had travelled to Kerala, Bengaluru: Sri Lankan Army Chief. TNM Staff Follow @thenewsminute – https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/sl-suicide-bombers-had-travelled-kerala-bengaluru-sri-lankan-army-chief-101200
  9. ප්‍රහාර සඳහා භාවිත කර ඇත්තේ නිත්‍යනූකූලව දී ඇති වෙඩි බෙහෙත්දැයි සැකයක්. http://bit.ly/2VfuDqO
  10. Attacks of this magnitude were not expected: Defence Secy. http://www.dailymirror.lk/breaking_news/Attacks-of-this-magnitude-were-not-expected:-Defence-Secy-/108-165771
  11. Parliamentary Debates. Parliament of Sri Lanka 07 May 2019 (Vol 271-No. 3) Retrieved from https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1557483082057962.pdf
  12. The accidental guerrilla: fighting small wars in the midst of a big one. David Kilcullen – Oxford University Press – 2009
  13. Vandalising Buddha Statues: Suspects remanded till February 27. http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Vandalising-Buddha-Statues-Suspects-remanded-till-February–162490.html
  14. ප්‍රහාරයට දින 25කට කලින් සහරාන් නායකත්වයෙන් ඉවත් කළා. http://bit.ly/2Jvc8r5
  15. Inadequacies of the security approach to terror containment. Lankacom LTD – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=203898
  16. Sri Lanka’s Easter Attacks: Dismantling Myths to Prevent the Next Attack. Jonah – https://www.rand.org/blog/2019/05/sri-lankas-easter-attacks-dismantling-myths-to-prevent.html
  17. West’s hypocrisy over terrorism causes political instability in Middle East. Global Times – http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/965763.shtml

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