Sri Lanka is passing through one of most sensitive periods of its history in the aftermath of brutal assault on the nation targeting the country’s churches and luxury hotels by a group of terrorists on Easter Sunday. In this exclusive interview I have communicated with Jonah Blank, a Principal Investigator and Senior Political Scientist for RAND Corporation, to understand his points of view on the prevailing situation in the country as well as jihad movements.
RAND was established almost 70 years ago to strengthen public policy through research and analysis. According to the available history on RAND, “On 14 May 1948, Project RAND—an organisation formed immediately after World War II to connect military planning with research and development decisions—separated from the Douglas Aircraft Company of Santa Monica, California, and became an independent, non-profit organisation.” Significantly, on the same day the State of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion. RAND, as the one of the top research centres consisted of over 1,900 staff and maintained in locations spreading across 50 countries, ‘has continuously demonstrated that rigorous research and analysis can help address some of the world’s most challenging problems’.
Graduated from Harvard, he has taught anthropology and politics at Harvard, Georgetown, and George Washington University’s Elliot School for International Affairs. Since 2003, he has been a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Before joining the RAND, Jonah Blank served as Policy Director for South and Southeast Asia on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the United States of America. At various times, his Senate portfolio also included Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
In this interview, Jonah observes two significant issues on the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. First, the attack was a result of the political negligence than its accounting as an intelligence failure by many parties. Second, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) didn’t choose Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan extremists chose ISIS.
Meanwhile, suggesting how to solve the political crisis in the country, he says: “When the nation’s two top officials are locked in open conflict, they can’t cooperate to ensure the safety of the citizens.”
Following are excerpts:
By Nilantha Ilangamuwa
Q: Jonah, thank you for joining us. First of all, let our readers know about you; your academic background, present engagements and so on?
A: I’m a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, focusing on South and Southeast Asia. I’m an anthropologist by training, currently based in Indonesia. I am the author of two books: ‘Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God,’ which retraces the epic ‘Ramayana’ through India and Sri Lanka, and ‘Mullahs on the Mainframe,’ which explores Islam and modernity.
Q: Currently you are based in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country suffering mainly from two enemies – first, natural disaster and second, jihad extremism. Therefore, Indonesia’s long-prevailing moderate Islam is slowly but surely crumbling and shattering as fundamentalists seize the popular movements, though movements such as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama oppose Wahhabism. We would like to know your findings?
A: I think this overstates the issue: Islam in Indonesia is indeed changing and becoming more globalised—but that’s true for Islam (and all religions) everywhere. Violent Islamist groups were far more active in Indonesia in the half-decade after the fall of Suharto than they are now; the main local terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah, has essentially been disbanded (or, at least, it’s just a shadow of its former self). This is not to say that extremism is itself gone – merely that its terrorist fringe is more controlled now than it was 15 years ago.
Q: Let’s talk about Sri Lanka. What is your view on the recent suicide attacks by a so-called local branch of the self-identified Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in Sri Lanka?
A: This set of attacks is unimaginably tragic – and utterly unexpected. Sri Lanka has endured a horrific civil war, and a huge amount of terrorism associated with it, but it had never before seen this type of action. That is, the terrorism it had experienced in the past was almost entirely based on politics and ethnic identity, not on religion. Christians had never before been targeted for their faith, and global terrorist groups like ISIS had never been active.
Q: Why do they choose Sri Lanka?
A: It appears that ISIS didn’t choose Sri Lanka, but that a group Sri Lankans chose ISIS. It could have happened anywhere, but in this case the terrorists happened to be Sri Lankan, and they got their skill-set and training (apparently) from ISIS.
Q: Do you think the ISIS’ lone wolf strategy was used in this attack?
A: No, this was the opposite of a ‘lone wolf’ attack: A lone wolf attack is typically when an individual (not a group) simply plans and executes an attack with no external support from ISIS apart from ideological inspiration. Usually, this is something very simple: Driving a car into a crowd, or opening fire with firearms. The Sri Lanka attacks were the opposite of this: They were very carefully planned and executed, most likely with external assistance from ISIS.
Q: What are the differences between the armed rebellions led by the LTTE ended in 2009 and the prevailing threat of jihad extremism in Sri Lanka?
A: The two are not linked. The LTTE occasionally targeted Muslims, but it did so for political rather than ideological reasons (i.e., when Muslim groups refused to advance LTTE aims). In terms of impact, the LTTE was (until 2009) a far greater threat to Sri Lanka than any Islamist group might be. But the Easter attacks do show just how much damage a small group of dedicated terrorists can cause.
Q: Many argued that a gross intelligence failure led to the success of the attacks. But if we go back in history, we can see many intelligence agencies’ warnings going unheard. What do you think?
A: It’s always easy to second-guess after the fact. But in this case it does appear as if there was a political failure which led to a poor Government response. The warnings from an external intelligence agency (almost certainly India) were reportedly relayed to the office of President Sirisena. It seems as if these warnings were not acted on sufficiently – and were not relayed to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. There are two reasons for this: First, the President does not trust the Prime Minister (he tried to have him ousted in October 2018), and there is bad blood between them. Second, the President believes that India favours the Prime Minister over him, so he may have discounted the intelligence on these grounds.
Q: There are some reports suggesting that foreign intelligence agencies did not share the important details about Sri Lankan youth who were motivated by radical thoughts during their higher studies abroad. What do you suggest?
A: There is so much raw intelligence floating around that it would be foolish to assume any particular pieces of it might have unlocked the puzzle. Yes, there was genuine and important intelligence out there – but how is one to find it in the mass of incorrect information also floating around?
Q: Do you have any suggestions to prevent such attacks in the future?
A: A few suggestions, for Sri Lanka:
1. End the political stalemate between the President and Prime Minister: When the nation’s two top officials are locked in open conflict, they can’t cooperate to ensure the safety of the citizens. If necessary, hold new elections — or just find a way of working together better.
2. Cooperate with other nations on intelligence-sharing regarding counterterrorism. India’s intelligence was not acted on, this time, and India has a lot of information to offer. The US, Britain and other nations do as well.
3. Work with the Sri Lankan Muslim communities. Sri Lanka’s previous record on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency isn’t good: The Government alienated the Tamil population through brutal actions, which served to increase support for the LTTE and strengthen this insurgent/terrorist group. The Government should not make the same mistake with its Muslim populations.
Q: Some intelligent and well-read youth are fighting for IS and turning into human bombs, leaving their lavish lifestyles. What is your reading on this social phenomenon as an anthropologist?
A: It is now widely accepted within academic and policy circles that economic deprivation is not the primary driver of terrorism: It’s quite common for terrorists (including suicide bombers) to be relatively well-educated and at least middle or lower-middle class. It is unusual for them to be wealthy, but Osama bin Laden was a billionaire.
Q: In addition to other countries, the United States too is being blamed for causing the mushrooming of the jihad terror groups. Do you think US foreign policy and its strategies need to be restructured?
A: I think there are many aspects of US foreign policy that could benefit from considerable reformulation.
Q: Thank you for your time and valuable thoughts, Jonah. Hope to talk to you again. One last query here. Please share with us your message to the general public, policymakers, and members of the law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka on curbing radicalised minds and eliminating jihad terrorism?
A: Thank you for asking me. The best way to combat terrorism (in Sri Lanka and elsewhere) is through careful intelligence sharing/gathering and close cooperation with the communities in which terrorists recruit. The Sri Lanka bombers, after all, had already been shunned by the local Muslim communities they’d come from. If the Government had been cooperating better with its own Muslim citizens, it might have known about these individuals before it was too late.