Easter terrorist carnage and counter terrorism in Sri Lanka

Thursday, 2 May 2019 01:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, which prided itself as the only country in the contemporary world to completely defeat terrorism in its soil, is bleeding again – Pic by Chamila Karunarathne

The day of horror 

Dust is settling down in Sri Lanka after one of the most devastating and heinous terrorist attacks against Christians and foreign visitors (civilians) on 21 April. It was supposed to be a day of glory and celebrations for Christians world over. However, it turned out to be a day of horror and repugnance for Sri Lankans as well as many others. 

The security forces and the police are doing a commendable job taking follow up action and are in the process of arresting a large number of radicalised persons, criminals and recovering large quantities of illegal weapons, explosives, detonators, communication equipment, forge passports, National Identity Cards and vehicles. There were even a few gun battles and explosions triggered by suicide bombers. 

There is a country wide fear psychosis with many people staying at home unless it is really essential for them to go out. Schools and other educational institutions have been closed and all types of fanfare, musical shows, and festivities have been stopped. The print and electronic media is trying their best to keep the civilian population informed of the developing situation, as well as advising them on precautions to be taken. 

Religious leaders of all denominations led by Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, are sending message after message appealing to their followers to practice tolerance and requesting them not to take law in to their hands, which has prevented escalation of violence against the innocent Muslim population. 

Terrorism and Terrorist

The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, described terrorism as any action that is ‘intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act’.  

In short, terrorism could be described as indiscriminate violence against non-combatants to achieve political, religious or some other objective. While terrorism is a tactic that cannot be entirely eradicated, steps can be taken to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat organisations that use terrorism as a tool to achieve their objectives. 

Counterterrorism is defined in the US Army Field Manual as ‘Operations that include offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, pre-empt, and respond to terrorism’. This definition is more concrete but has its strengths and weaknesses. First, it correctly states that counterterrorism is an all-inclusive doctrine including prevention, deterrence, pre-emption, and responses, which would require bringing to bear all aspects of a nation’s power both domestically and internationally. Second, this definition includes everything but essentially differentiates nothing, which is a shortcoming. 

Counterterrorism is a difficult concept to define. There is no universally applicable counter-terrorism policy for democracies. Every conflict involving terrorism has its own unique characteristics. Democracies should respect civil liberties and the rule of law, a staple in their counterterrorism strategies. Counter-terrorism (also called anti-terrorism) incorporates practices, military tactics, techniques, and strategies that governments, military, police and other organisations use to combat or prevent terrorism. 

It must be remembered that human rights and individual freedoms are important while the right to life is more important. Easter bombings took away the right to life of nearly 250 innocent civilians.

The Easter bombings have created a major dilemma in Sri Lanka. A person, who uses indiscriminate violence against civilians, in the pursuit of political or religious objectives, is considered a terrorist. Hitherto, such an individual was seen as a person, who is from an underprivileged community, has been victimised or motivated for a cause. However, some of those involved in the Easter Sunday bombings are reported to be highly educated, both locally and abroad and hailing from affluent families. They were a highly motivated group and fighting for a cause even against the mainstream religion of their own. This showcases the degree of their indoctrination either locally or abroad. 

Lessons to be learnt from the Easter bombings

The Easter bombings have clearly displayed the vulnerability of Sri Lanka, its population and other installations to terrorist attacks. The attacks demonstrated that any target could have been selected and succeeded. These incidents also demonstrate that national security has been quite at the bottom of the country’s agenda, despite the fact it had experienced a protracted conflict against a formidable terrorist organisation for nearly three decades. In simple words, there was a lack of ‘security culture’ in the country.

Sri Lanka has not been able to take effective, timely counter action to prevent, deter or detect the perpetrators despite receiving credible intelligence warnings. The deduction is that sufficient attention was not given to the intelligence warnings, as there was no security culture prevailed in the country. Sri Lanka is located at a geo-strategically critical location in the Indian Ocean among spheres of influence of major players. Furthermore, the country has come out of a prolonged conflict. Therefore, national security should be given priority, when decisions are taken on major initiatives such as foreign relations, development of infrastructure and economy. 

Intelligence is not information

It must be remembered that intelligence is not mere information. Strands of information need to be gathered, collated and evaluated in order to derive effective actionable intelligence. Thereafter, it should be disseminated to the appropriate agencies and authorities concerned. It is like a jigsaw puzzle children play. Only when all the pieces are combined together, one gets the full picture. 

However, we need to look even beyond that picture and evaluate and identify trends, both locally and internationally, which would enable related agencies to predict with certain accuracy, which can be translated in to operational intelligence. It must be remembered that intelligence mean differently to different agencies, based on their own expertise and the domain they focus. There are multiple intelligence organisations in the country. These need to be strengthened and integrated, a practice Sri Lanka developed and effectively used toward the end of the separatist conflict. 

Sharing of intelligence, taking prompt action and thereafter follow up action, are key to successful counter terrorism operations. Even then, unless there is a sound national security culture, actionable intelligence will not be acted upon by the decision makers. 

Way forward

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, which prided itself as the only country in the contemporary world to completely defeat terrorism in its soil, is bleeding again. It is believed that with a proper national security culture, the Easter Sunday carnage could have been prevented or its impact minimised. Unfortunately, it was not the case. Terrorists achieved what they wanted; to create a fear psychosis by mayhem and death of a large number of innocent civilians, thereby getting worldwide media coverage for their cause. This dastardly act will not fade away for a long time as the sufferings of victims have been immense. 

We need to move on. We need to keep the national security as our top most priority and create a culture of security. Countering terrorist activities cannot be done by government forces alone. It has to be a comprehensive effort involving all stakeholders, similar to what we had towards the end of the separatist conflict. Not only did Sri Lanka overcome the most ruthless terrorist organisation in May 2009, but we were not caught in the conflict tarp, as no major terrorist event took place for nearly 10 years until the Easter Sunday bombings. 

(The writer is Director, Pathfinder Foundation.)

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