"What happened on September 11th is at least, theoretically, small stuff compared to what can happen.” Robert D. Kaplan
I was 16 when I witnessed the horror terrorism first hand. It was the blast I lost my father in.
When the long battle ended with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, I was relieved that what I witnessed would not be seen by my children.
I was wrong.
April 21st 2019 was when I had to cover my seven-year-old child’s eyes while my family was evacuating from the emergency exit of the Shangri La Hotel soon after the two suicide attacks which shook the entire building. The steps were soaked in blood. Lifeless bodies were carried out and many body parts blown off. Not many families made it out of the fire exit like us. My family is shocked and living in fear like many others today. I sympathize with the victims and their families who have lost loving family and friends.
Had I been 3 minutes earlier to the lift, I would not be writing this piece.
Since this day, questions raised by my six-year-old and seven-year-old are hard for me to answer. Why do people kill each other? How many bad people are there in the world? Why do people make bombs? It goes on. For my young son’s peace of mind and happiness, I painted a heroic story that life will all be better soon after a superhero saves us.
In my capacity as the Director General of the National Security think tank, I see this event as gross national security negligence.
The Easter Sunday attack stands apart from previous faces of terror. Nine extremists turned the entire nation to a state of fear by killing the innocent. The targets were Christians and foreign nationalities to get the maximum global attention.
Sri Lanka is a geo strategically blessed paradise island that lives with an 'existential threat’ (as my book further outlines). This is due to its internal disarray of politics and external geopolitics. Countries facing an existential threat for a long period of time tend to become a ‘national security state’ according to John J.Mearsheimer. Out of its 71 years of independence, Sri Lanka has fought a brutal terrorist war for almost 30 years. Today there is another phase of terrorism: violent extremism.
Certain liberal values introduced by the present government made our nation vulnerable and a soft target for terrorist to breed and function. What was seen by the West as an autocratic state under Rajapaksa was reset overnight, tagging Sri Lanka to a global liberal order. This was done at the expense of an ensured demilitarization and the complete dismantling and weakening of the country’s military apparatus.
It brought prosperity to individuals without understanding the setbacks of liberalism. The principal of liberalism was confused with nationalism. Some policy makers saw one against the other to push agendas forward.
Many extra regional nations came forward with certain agreements which had direct and indirect influences on our national security. Noncooperation with some powerful nations may lead to the assumption that certain powerful nations may have used a backdoor to enter the island using terror.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith explained at a press conference warning that “powerful nations could be behind these attacks”. It is an urgent area for Sri Lankan national security to invest in serious research and investigation. This lacuna is due to the lack of support by certain policy makers. A glance at the support extended to Sri Lanka’s national security think tank will reveal its rank on the State’s list of priorities. The ‘National Defence Policy’ is the leading document capturing all threats. It remains a classified document inside a cupboard for three years. None of the policy makers bothered to take this forward.
The National Security think tank (INSSSL) at its internal Ministry of Defence discussion held in 2017 March identified the threat of extremism that could trigger in Sri Lanka and documented in its monthly threat forecast written in March and October of 2017 and subsequently in January of 2019 after the discovery of 100 detonators and explosives in the West coast of the Island. How did such warnings go unheard?
This gross negligence was clearly due to the malfunction of processes within the government, perhaps due to political meddling within intelligence agencies and political division. The consequence is devastating and has dragged the entire nation to a “state of fear”, taking more than 350 innocent lives.
When the state cannot manage the consequence of an extremist act, extremism presents a clear threat to national security. Extremist groups can operate in emerging democracies, while also finding operational space in failed or failing states. Post war Sri Lanka was a soft target for extremist to creep in due to the political instability with two sets of instructions flowing in from the bipartisan government. I have indicated multiple times the grave danger to national security from the existing political instability of the country.
It was not even a month ago when President Trump announced, “we just took over 100% of the IS caliphate,” in a victorious speech seeing the end as the last bullet was fired in the IS held Syrian town of Baghouz, on the banks of the Euphrates River. Lina Khatib, an expert from Chatham House, UK who analyzed the victory of the U.S., British, and French-backed Kurdish and Arab coalition, said, "The group itself has not been eradicated,…The ideology of IS is still very much at large.” She states that IS will revert to its insurgent roots as it moves underground, using the territorial loss as a call to arms among its network of supporters.
Joseph Votel, the top American general in the Middle East, warned: "(The caliphate) still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”
In the same manner Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, the international terrorist expert, analyzed how this spilled over to Sri Lankan attack. He stated, “With a vengeance, the returnees from Iraq and Syria and diehard supporters and sympathizers in their homelands responded to the call by the IS leadership to avenge Baghouz, the last IS stronghold. The indoctrinated personalities and cells attacked Buddhist shrines and broke Buddha images.”
At least 41,490 international citizens traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, according to ICSR; this is at least 50 each month. A total of 41 Sri Lankan Muslims from two extended families travelled to Iraq and Syria. There were many individuals who migrated as refugees to Sri Lanka from Muslim nations in the last several years.
The members of the IS branch that staged the attacks in Sri Lanka believed in martyrdom. They were educated and mostly from upper middle-class families. This is a different scale and complexity of threat when compared to the LTTE threat. The extremist bombers were calm. One bomber even gently holds a child just before his suicide. This shows they were well trained for months and perhaps years.
Some see this as a retaliation to the Christchurch attack, which took place last month. The Christchurch footage was used for election campaigns in Turkey weeks after the attack. It was used by a political leader to win popular support, which will further divide the Christian and Muslim communities in the same way as President Trump’s Muslim ban did soon after his victory. The danger in such populist acts by politicians will further polarize and lead towards a clash among two great civilizations.
ISIS tentacles reached NTJ in Sri Lanka in 2017, among another group globally. The spillover from the Baghouz defeat affected Sri Lanka, the Island nation who was at the top of tourism, ready to participate for Belt and Road 2nd Forum and celebrate its 10 years of success in eradicating terrorism this May.
The Sri Lankan attack was the single largest killing in a day by a terrorist outfit in the Island’s history. Despite sophisticated security services the nation possessed during the three-decade battle, there were intelligence and security limitations. It was ‘a gross national security negligence’ that the entire nation fell victim to. The answer for this could be seen as intelligence information was withheld and not flowing into political decision makers. Such endemic security failures were in plain sight, even in the United States over the 9/11 attacks. The CIA found that available intelligence did not flow to political decision makers.
Despite multiple warnings from Indian intelligence before the attacks took place, the extremist cell NTJ was identified months and years before by the Islamic community leaders as a threat.
Steps to Strengthening Military Intelligence:
The Sri Lankan government will have to develop several immediate steps first to strengthen military intelligence and the handling of cross border intelligence sharing among other nations as this sort of terrorism require a multi-pronged, multi-jurisdictional approach. Secondly, it is necessary to protect our vulnerable communities who could be targeted through the spreading misinformation and disinformation in the social media, which could lead to communal riots. Religious leaders have a great role in promoting religious harmony in this environment.
Third, while operational intelligence on arresting the perpetrators will go on, the analysis of intelligence data will be an important step to understand the real root cause behind the attack. Fourth, a complete post audit of the security negligence should be done by the government to understand where the limitations had come from, and should be addressed immediately. The accountability of negligence has to be pointed out and those responsible should be charged or fired. Finally, external support from other nations should be taken only for intelligence sharing and building capacity to combat extremism, and not to sign any other security agreements that could have security implications in the long run.
In the coming months, the deradicalization of the radicalized youth will be another essential part we would need to invest in. The government and civil society will have a massive duty on managing the spreading of hatred and division among different ethnic and religious groups.
A collective effort from society will be necessary to defeat extremism.
Just as the manner in which the Sri Lankan Muslim society assisted to defeat the LTTE, they will assist to defeat extremism within the island. The simplest act of kindness and service from each one of us to reclaim unity will be an honor to respect the lives we lost in 4/21.
Sri Lanka will respond to terror with strength and hope- more unified than ever before.
(Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is Director General of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry, views expressed are authors own)