Who created the so-called ‘homegrown’ terrorists?

Saturday, 31 August 2019 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The failure of government mechanisms to control the inflow of funds, goods and services and visitors into the country provided a free playing field to extremists from the Middle East to propagate their ideology in Sri Lanka and the unscrupulous could circumvent the law to get Arab funds to finance their agendas




Sri Lanka is still reeling and trying to recover after the recent terrorist attack and communal violence. These misguided people driven by religious extremism and racial hatred fanned by corrupt and power hungry politicians caused havoc in the country destroying life and property. 

They pushed Sri Lanka towards a dangerous precipice, and our country is now teetering on edge, facing the prospect of total destruction of the nation as we knew it. There is, however, a tiny silver lining in the dark clouds engulfing us. A vast majority of Sri Lankans remained calm and restrained amidst the turmoil caused by terrorists and later by organised groups, who were instigated by politicians scheming to topple the Government.

Before going any further we should understand the meaning of the word ‘terrorist’. A broad definition given to the word terrorism in the Oxford Dictionary is ‘use of violence and intimidation for political or religious purposes’.

In terms of this definition, the groups that went on a rampage attacking innocent Muslims and burning their property soon after 21 April, were politically motivated and were as destructive as the suicide bombers. Therefore they are also another brand of terrorists. The restrain shown by ordinary Sri Lankans during this period of insanity gives us a ray of hope that sanity will eventually prevail, and goodness will triumph.

Who created these so called ‘homegrown’ terrorists? This is the million dollar question that is nagging the minds of most Sri Lankans today. In the attempt to find an answer to this question, we saw how some tried to pass the blame on to others by pointing the finger at various individuals who were designated to provide security at the time. Others are still working hard to gain political mileage by provoking the Sinhala Buddhists against the Muslim leaders who supported their political rivals. 

Power hungry politicians

If one searches for an impartial, and an intelligent answer to this question, one could see that the changes that evolved during the last 50 years in our society, our political system and the economy, created the necessary conditions for terrorism and terrorists to emerge.  

Power hungry politicians played a key role in bringing about these changes and taking advantage of them to grab and remain in power, thereby contributing to create these terrorists knowingly or unknowingly. 

The actual attack on 21 April happened because of the unforgivable lapse in the security system, but even here the responsibility for the lapse can be traced to the politicians who played virulent politics during the last two decades.

First, let us examine the changes in our society during the last 50 years to understand how conditions were created for terrorism to emerge. Our society changed due to; a) the migration of rural population into urban areas, b) exposure to new technology and consumption patterns due to globalisation, c) foreign employment in the Middle East, and last but not least, the way the political system changed to concentrate power in the hands of the politician to the exclusion of all other stakeholders in society.

These other stakeholders turned to various means to gain recognition and favours from the politician. In the process some of these groups became quite militant and became supportive of the political party of their choice.The wide media coverage given to the activities of these militant groups encouraged,gave them recognition and the crowds.

Migration into urban areas took place as a result of the failure of successive governments to provide facilities in rural areas and make agriculture and fisheries more attractive to the youth in terms of income generation and social status. In selecting development policies and projects adequate attention was not paid to mitigate the negative impact of population movement into urban areas and the neglect of rural areas. 

Overlooking the social problems caused by theinflux of foreign cultural influences, exposure to new technology, increase in drug and sex related crimes, increase in destitution and the disruption of the extended family systemhas led to the degradation of the Sri Lankan society. In contrast, in developed countries government attention is paid to resolve such social problems to create a better society. 

The fortunes of those who migrated to urban areas were a mixture of good and bad. Some of them found jobs and better facilities like schools etc. while others either became destitute or victims of racketeers as well as sex predators. 

Slow economic growth and rapid population increase resulted in less and less employment opportunities and more and more people becoming destitute. They resorted to drug trafficking and underworld activities to earn their bread and butter. The unscrupulous politicians used the drug dealers and the members of the underworld to suit theiragenda. Thus conditions were created to provide fertile soil for the germ of terrorism to take root.

Effects of urbanisation

Urbanisation made us move away from our traditional lifestyles and attitudes which were based on simplicity, religion, culture, our core values and principles.As part of urbanisation we embraced the modern lifestyles, values and ideologies for reasons of necessity, peer pressure and emotional insecurity. 

To feel secure (to be on par with others) and meet the challenges in urban life, we have adopted new consumption patterns, technology (phone, TV etc.) elements of foreign cultures (dress, behaviour), without any reservations about their affordability, or suitability to our country and culture.  

The new lifestyle in urban areas evolved within the confines ofa fixed salary or wage, a fixed timetable for the day,absence of grandparents to look after the young children, monthly bills to pay, and daily commutes to work and schools or day care centre.

Take away meals, avoiding rush hour by leaving the office early or long waits on the road due to traffic jams or demonstrations, rushing to pick up the child during duty hours and worrying about the next bill to pay,struggle to cope up with spiralling cost of living became part of the new life. All this caused frustration, stress, dishonesty and anger in society. 

Ethics and honesty faded away from society due to poverty on one hand and greed for more on the other. New communication products such as the smartphone, TV, which became status symbols, changed our old values and attitudes. 

With both parents having to work due to necessity, and grandparents living elsewhere, young children were left to themselves for long hours without the presence of elders to inculcate moral values and discipline in their minds from early childhood. The smartphone, in the absence of adult supervision and regulations to prevent access to unsuitable websites by children, exposed the young minds to evil from childhood to adult life.   

Commercialisation and politicisation of media, particularly electronic media, had an evil effect on children, pushing them towards unethical behaviour and unwholesome thoughts. Frequent exposure to violent scenes on TV and print media made young minds insensitive to violence and bloodletting. 

Recent research has shown that frequent exposure to such evil influence for years, can have an unhealthy effect on the mind of a child.Such a child can easily become fanatic and be influenced by extremists or extremist ideology. Children with more money and freedom could be exposed to evil influence from sources other than the TV and the smartphone at home.    

Violent characters or extremist religious leaders could become their role models. If their minds had been hurt by the racist behaviour of others,they might try to seek an identity that defies those that hurt them. Such an individual could easily be tempted to become a martyr.

It is clear that deep frustration for some reason and a feeling of helplessness can make a person’s mind vulnerable to outside influence and can easily be brainwashed to accept any ideology as a rational to engage in violence. 

Religious extremism

Lord Buddha said the mind is foremost to all our actions(Dhammapada). A decade before, it was seen that fear and brainwashing by the LTTE leadership, the oppression caused by the caste system in Jaffna and economic hardships, helped the LTTE to create its suicide bombers. The youth in the south of Sri Lanka, who lost hope due to economic marginalisation and indifference of the Government to their woes,resorted to violence to bring about the change theydesired.

Religion has been used as a rationalefor intimidating and terrorising communitiesin many countries. In fact religion has been the cause of many wars in the world. In Sri Lanka too one could trace a connection between religious extremism and terror attacks during the last two decades.

During this periodextremist groups emerged under various banners and they used Buddhism and race to engage in violence and intimidation against minorities to win political power for their masters.These racial attacks, both verbal and physical, provoked the minds of minorities and pushed them towards intimidation and violence as a means of survival and regaining their self-respect.

The Muslim suicide bombers were fanatics and religion provided them the rationale for violence. There was no government action toeliminate these activities of extremist groups by bringing the culprits before the law, orintroduce laws to prevent hate speech andpropagation of extremist religious ideas.This shows a vested interest of some politiciansto ignore these extremist groups. Others were scared to antagonise the Sangha as some of these groups were led by extremist monks.

Globalisation broadened the horizon of all Sri Lankans and opened up opportunities to advance economically. At the same time it provided more intense exposure to foreign cultures, extremist ideology,easy access to the latest communication technology to establish connectivity to foreign ideological movements like ISIS if one had the inclination, money and the wherewithal. 

With the exposure to extremist religious teachers from abroad, it was easy for Muslim youths to join fanatics abroad or getarms training abroad if they had a tendency towards religious fanaticism. The environment within the Sri Lankan society (racism, insecurity, absence of ethics, culture of impudence, failures in governance),encouraged them to pursue such interests. 

The failure of government mechanisms to control the inflow of funds, goods and services and visitors into the country provided a free playing field to extremists from the Middle East to propagate their ideology in Sri Lanka and the unscrupulouscould circumvent the law to get Arab funds to finance their agendas.

The trend among Muslims to differentiate themselves from other Sri Lankansby adopting Arab style dress and social codes of conduct was the beginning of compartmentalisation of the Sri Lankan Muslims. Some Muslim politicians and radical Muslim clergy exploited it to their advantage to tighten their hold on the Muslim community. 

In this endeavour, existence of separate laws for Muslims, mushrooming of Madrasa schools that propagated Arab culture, availability of Arab dollars, frequentarrivals of Muslim religious teachers (invited by local Muslim leaders)from the Middle East etc. helped the extremist Moulavies to further tighten their hold on the Muslim community,particularly the youth. 

The emergence of radical Muslim sects divided the Muslim community, but it does not appear thatMuslim political leaders did anything substantial to stop the radicalisation of the Muslims by these extremist ideologists.  

Recent investigations revealed how politicians obtained huge amounts of dollars from abroad to build a university without following proper procedures, rules and regulationseither knowingly or unknowingly. The question arises whether Sinhala politicians followed the policy of ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ and facilitated the establishment of this university without following proper procedure. 

The extent to which laws, rules and regulations as well as laid down procedures have been ignored, discarded,or bent in the day-to-day governance by government departments and statutory bodies is mind-boggling.

The changes that took place in the political system were the most virulent as they contributed most to the creation of conditions for the emergence of terrorism. These changes caused the breakdown in law and order as well as the security system, emergence of extremist groups aligned to political parties, corruption in the public service, noncompliance ofrules and regulations, loss of faith in the independence of the judiciary and the Police.

Politicians and public servants

With the introduction of the proportional representation system,and the absence of a strong third politicalforce, elections became a fierce battlebetween the two main parties. For both parties, the struggle was to win a majority of the Sinhala votes. 

For some, the modus operandi for this purpose was to use extremist groups as proxies to engage indivisive politics, intimidation and violence against opponents and minorities.This is how terrorism came to the forefront of politics.Then a process started in the seventies to vest all powers of governance in the hands of the politician to overcome bureaucratic red tape.

This opened the door for the politician to interfere at every level of governance. These politically motivated administrative reforms in the Felix Dias Bandaranaike era,gave the power to appoint secretaries of ministries and other senior officials in the Government to the political authority (the Cabinet on the recommendation of the Minister concerned).

As a result, public servant serves at the whims and fancies of the politician. The independence, integrity, and dignity associated with the office of the public servantwere affected and even now one could see how political interference ties the hands of the public servant. This is why the law is not applied to some while it is strictly applied to others. It is the reason why public servants get over night transfers and the merit is not the criterion for promotion.

The policy of limiting the period of service of a public servant (below the Permanent Secretary)in one post to three years was followed prior to 1970s.The exception to this practice was when exigencies of service or special skills required a longer stay.

This limited the power of the public servant as frequent changes made it difficult to develop vested interests and manipulate things. It reducedcorruption or abuse of power to a great extent. Files and folios did not go missing. The reforms opened the door for the corrupt politicians to keep officers of their preference in one post as long as they want and interfere in decision making at every level to suit his agenda.

The public servant was forced to overlook or ignore rules and procedures and obey the orders of the powerful politician in order to avoid harassment.Thus the politician became the centre of political power as well as administrative and social power, for it is the politician who dispensed everything and held sway over every branch of Government.    

Blessings of the politician became necessary to get a job or a promotion or a transfer, admit a child to school, make the public servants solve your problems or to get electricity, roads etc. In short the politician dispensed everything and we became ‘takers’. 

One reason why terrorism grew and the terrorists managed to avoid the law can be traced to the dysfunction of the Government machinery caused by political interference in the public service over a long period. To be fair it should be mentioned that there were politicians who were honest and did not abuse their power. But they were few in number. 

To recover from the present situation,Sri Lanka has to go for changes in our political system, intelligence and security system,the administrative system and the way we manage the economy. Some of these changes require a new Constitution or support of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. 

For example,changing the electoral system, eliminating Provincial Councils which are another layer of corruption and waste, reducing the number of members in Parliament and the size of the Cabinet,making the declaration of assets and a Police record a requirement for accepting the candidature of any individual by the Elections Commissioner,need a two-thirds majority to address them.

There are other ways to limit the power of the politician by opting for administrative changes. Political power needs to be separated from the administrative system by vesting the power to appoint, transfer public servants above the clerical level, to the Public Services Commission. It will ensure the complete independence of the public service without encouraging any alignments towards any political party.

To deal with inefficiency and impunity on the part of the public servant we need to adopt new management techniques and new rules and procedures to make negligence and undue delays a punishable offence.

In regard to the economy, we need to reduce the recurrent expenditure or the cost of maintaining the Government by reducing the number of parliamentarians, the size of the Cabinet and opting for least cost ways to reduce recurrent expenditure of ministries, departments and statutory bodies. 

Press notices can easily replace grand opening ceremonies, coordinating meetings can replace expensive seminars to discuss issues and arrive at decisions. The savings from these can reduce the recurrent costs and the politician’s ego.The Government’s attention needs to be focused on developing agriculture and fisheries sectors as a means of creating employment in rural areas. 

Agro-based industries targeting exportmarkets,particularly niche markets in the west, can be developed provided the necessary capital, expertise, information about the markets and new products and processing technologies are made available to farmers. In our rush to allow new large scale industries, their capacities to discharge harmful effluents that can spoil our soil and water or the atmosphere should be considered with care.

Improving the security system for future potential threats

The most immediate danger faced by Sri Lanka is the possibility of ISIS infiltration into Sri Lanka. The alarm went off with the 21 April attack. Sri Lanka seems to have emerged as a hub for the global drug trade because of her location near the main sea route and the air routes connecting the western market and the Asian markets for drugs.

Being a popular tourist destination also has contributed to this development as drug dependent tourists broaden the local market for drugs.On the one hand, ISIS ideology is against drug use and on the other, drug trade finances terrorism.  The suicide bombersand their followers seemed to have been influenced by ISIS ideology. The next step could be that ISIS might try to get a foothold in Sri Lanka taking advantage of our poverty and unstable political and social conditions.We are not ready to meet this danger. Compared to the national security systems of more advanced countries to protect their land, the technologies they use to identify and document all visitors entering the country, management systems used by border security, the computerised coordination systems to share information about all visitors to the country with all the agencies from immigration, customs, Police, to border patrols, Sri Lanka has only the basic minimum for national security. 

It is highly important for our intelligence services, border security personnel to get the expertise and training from other countries that are more advanced in this field. Coordination between our intelligence agencies and the intelligence agencies in other countries is extremely important to get information. 

We need to adopt regulations to make the security council meet at least once a month, and make it compulsory for  all the heads of the Tri-Forces, the Police, heads of intelligence services, Minister in charge of law and order, the PM and Head of State or their representative to attend its meetings.

Coordination among all the agencies involved in security needs to be strengthened for the smooth flow of information among them and to avoid lapses and confusions. Our existing foreign exchange control mechanisms and procedures seem to have allowed customers to circumvent the law and the black markets for foreign exchange to flourish. 

The banking system, exchange control department, Customs Department and the Tax Department need to work together to plug these loop holes. It is left to individuals, society at large, religious leaders and the Government to bring about changes to create a better society. Unless these changes are made, even those who like this present situation to continue will find their waterloo within the next 10 years.   

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