- Says Zahran’s ideology was to die at the first opportunity
- Reveals IS followers are indoctrinated to believe that if they kill an unbeliever and die, they will live forever in heaven
- Claims Zahran is not Islamic but a fanatical ideology crafted by al Qaeda, IS and other terror groups
- Says if politicians do not interfere, military forces, law enforcement and intelligence services will contain, isolate and eliminate IS
- Claims officials appointed to national security structures since 2014 had no understanding of IS threat and were unwilling to listen
- Reveals Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka demonstrated that IS has stealthily seeded a network in Sri Lanka, Maldives and in South India with links to IS central
- Proposes hate speech and incitement to violence laws urgently needed in Sri Lanka
An eminent counterterrorism expert, Prof. Rohan Gunaratne, says that the Islamic State (IS) no longer has the capability to mount a large-scale attack on Sri Lanka as 95% of its network in the country has been dismantled by the security forces since the Easter Sunday carnage.
Prof. Gunaratne, confirming that the mastermind of the local affiliated IS Zahran Hashim had blown himself up at the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo on Easter Sunday, urged the Government to scrutinise and review the ideologies and practices of all Tawheed organisations while supporting and encouraging the local and traditional Islam that has been practiced in Sri Lanka to dismantle the IS ideology in the country.
Based in Singapore, he is the Professor of Security Studies at the Nanyang Technological University and has co-authored the book ‘The Three Pillars of Radicalisation: Needs, Narratives and Networks’. He wrote the blueprint for establishing the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, which is the think tank of the Ministry of Defence.
“Zahran’s goal was to break the bonds between the Muslims and non-Muslims and to create discord leading to a riot. As IS had infiltrated the Muslim community, the search operations should be conducted carefully to win over the Muslim community and not to push them into the hands of the extremists and terrorists,” he told Daily FT.
Following are excerpts:
By Shanika Sriyananda
Q: Why do you think that IS selected Sri Lanka to attack over its shrinking domination in Iraq and Syria?
IS, which has lost territory in a conventional battle in Iraq and Syria, however remains undefeated in its heartland until Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and every single IS leader and fighter is captured or killed. IS has suffered in its core but it has not been eliminated.
Prof. Rohan Gunaratne
The Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka demonstrated that IS is growing in the peripheral theatre. The appearance of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in a video on 30 April also demonstrates that the IS threat has not diminished in the core theatre. The US declaration of defeating IS in Iraq and Syria is premature. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should draw a lesson. The capturing or killing terrorists is insufficient and mainstreaming the thinking and correcting the ideology of IS members and followers after eliminating the core and penultimate leadership is the ultimate defeat.
Q: It was found that the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran blew himself up at the Shangri-La Hotel. How credible is this claim and has it been proven with a DNA test?
A: Jahran Mohamed Cassim alias Zahran Hashim was killed at Shangri-La Hotel on 21 April. Before the IS leader of the Sri Lanka branch perished, he took the customary oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-anointed caliph. No one should dispute that Zahran committed suicide and perished in the bombing.
Q: Do you think that he will kill himself in his very first attack in Sri Lanka, where he formed the National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ) from scratch?
The ideology of IS is to kill and die. IS followers are indoctrinated to believe that if they kill an unbeliever and die, they will live forever in heaven. As the leader of the IS branch in Sri Lanka, Zahran’s ideology was to die at the first opportunity. Through his writing, preaching and discussions, Zahran propagated that to Muslims if ‘you die fighting the unbelievers (Westerners and non-Muslims), god (Allah) will reward you’.
He preached to his followers saying ‘by conducting a martyrdom attack you can enter paradise, have an audience with god, be forgiven for sins and vices, take 70 relatives to heaven and be rewarded with 72 maidens’. The belief system of Zahran is not Islamic. It is a fanatical ideology crafted by al Qaeda, IS and other threat groups manipulating religion to achieve their political goals.
Zahran’s goal was to break the bonds between the Muslims and non-Muslims and to create discord leading to a riot. His actions aimed at precipitating more violence between Muslims and non-Muslims in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans should understand the ideology, aims and objectives of IS and create an even closer relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and prevent the further spread of the IS ideology.
Q: Will the multiple attacks in Sri Lanka pose a threat to regional security? Is it an indication that their terror activities have been shifted to the Asian region from the West?
Asia is one of the three epicentres of IS threat. After IS lost territorial control in Iraq and Syria, one of the four regions IS focused on was Asia. As 63% of the world’s Muslim population lives in Asia, the threat shifted to Asia. Although IS maintained a presence in the Middle East, Africa and the Caucuses, Asia is emerging as a significant theatre.
While the IS threat was tightly controlled in Central Asia and Northeast Asia, the centre of gravity of threat in Asia is in South Asia and Southeast Asia. In Afghanistan in South Asia and in the Philippines in Southeast Asia, IS controls territory. In South Asia, the IS-centric threat is dominant in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and in India. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, the IS-centric threat is dominant in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka demonstrated that IS has stealthily seeded a network in Sri Lanka, Maldives and in South India with links to IS central.
Q: Do you think if the Government acted promptly according to intelligence warnings, they would have failed in their attacks?
When the Sri Lankan security and intelligence community received the intelligence alerts, the Government was complacent. The security culture that prevailed throughout the fight against the LTTE and in the aftermath until 2015 was removed. In the post-2014 period, when IS started to expand, Sri Lankan leaders with an island mentality lacked the understanding and knowledge to protect their country and people. The security and intelligence community did not learn from the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US declared victory but violence returned because they reduced their presence and withdrew.
Q: Do you mean to say that national security was compromised?
The Sri Lankan Government that came into power compromised security by listening to Western liberal democracies, international organisations, civil society groups, and human rights bodies.
Those who were appointed to the national security structures had no understanding of the threat and were unwilling to listen. The focus was to go after those who fought terrorism – 500 intelligence officers were arrested, photographed and fingerprinted – and not to rebuild capabilities to protect the nation from LTTE remnants and emerging IS. There was no collective leadership of sharing intelligence and even more seriously acting upon intelligence.
Q: What are the capabilities that need to be improved or implemented to manage the IS threat?
To manage the IS threat, three capabilities are vital.
First, the superstructure or the laws, policies and practices to tackle the threat. 1) Hate speech and incitement to violence laws are urgently needed in Sri Lanka. 2) Sri Lanka should criminalise posting and hosting extremist content in cyberspace. 3) By law, all schools including Muslim international schools should be registered under the Education Ministry. 4) Sri Lanka should make it mandatory to teach comparative religion in all schools including in madrasa schools. 5) All those who wish to preach or teach religion should be accredited and their license renewed. 6) Foreigners wishing to teach and preach should be subjected to additional screening. 7) To produce Sri Lankan citizens, Sri Lanka should implement a National Education Policy where all schools in Sri Lanka should be national schools and not schools based on religion or ethnicity.
Second, hard power is to catch and kill terrorists and their supporters.
Third, soft power is to engage all communities through interfaith and interracial fora, counter exclusivism and extremism online and offline to prevent terrorism, and rehabilitate extremists and terrorists.
Q: Are they trained locally or abroad? According to your estimation, how powerful are they in Sri Lanka?
They were mostly trained in Sri Lanka. Although the imminent IS threat has been neutralised, Sri Lanka should take the foundation that produced the IS terrorists very seriously. The Government should dismantle the radicalisation pipeline producing the terrorists and extremists, otherwise Sri Lanka will suffer intermittent attacks. The Easter Sunday attack did not occur overnight. An environment was created by irresponsible Muslim leaders with complacent Sri Lankan politicians who did not understand security.
In the recent past, a terrorist ecosystem was built both in the physical and cyberspace in Sri Lanka. They included schools teaching exclusivism and extremism, foreign preachers Arabising and Islamising the community and proliferation of online platforms for both encrypted communication and dissemination of propaganda mostly hate and incitement against non-Muslims. Sri Lanka is a secular and a plural nation and Muslims should practice their faith accordingly.
Q: Do you think that the Muslim political leaders should also take the blame for letting NTJ to propagate IS ideology?
Because the Muslim vote was decisive, successive Government leaders ignored initiatives by Sri Lankan Muslim leaders with foreign funding to introduce the Middle Eastern brand of Islam which is inappropriate for Sri Lanka. When a foreign brand of Islam replaced local and traditional Islam, it damaged the Sri Lankan social fabric notably the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Sri Lanka’s failure to regulate the religious sphere gravely damaged the national unity of Sri Lanka.
Q: Why do you think that they used their families in their terror activities? How effective is their radicalisation process in taking their suicide missions?
IS differed from al Qaeda by institutionalising radicalisation. That is, IS recruited not only the head of the household but the wives, children, parents and siblings. With its mastery of the internet, IS support was mostly in the community and interlinked through the internet. The leadership of the Easter Sunday attackers lived in Kattankudy, a Muslim exclusive town that is influenced by Salafism and Wahhabism. Although Kattankudy is located in Eastern Sri Lanka, the town looks like a town in the Middle East. Those Zahran recruited were Muslims living among the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims but did not mix with non-Muslims and were careful even in their interaction with the Muslims.
Q: The Government has imposed a ban on NTJ and Muslim women wearing face-veil and burqa to restore national security. What are the other countermeasures that the Government should take to control the situation?
The religious sphere should be tightly regulated to prevent another Zahran emerging. Zahran emerged from a cult group that imposed a foreign ideology and practices to Sri Lanka. All the Tawheed organisations should be scrutinised and their ideologies and practices reviewed. Sri Lanka should not permit any ideologies foreign to Sri Lanka to be practiced on its soil. The local and traditional Islam that has been practiced in Sri Lanka should be supported and encouraged. If the Government and Muslim leaders do not take a firm stand, the security and stability in Sri Lanka will be disrupted forever.
Q: Do you think the Government should implement a long-term comprehensive approach to face such fatal terror attacks in the future?
The long-term strategy is to have no exclusive areas for Muslims or any community. To prevent exclusivism from leading to extremism, the Government should settle troops and their families in Kattankudy and similar villages and towns and integrate all communities. Working with responsible Muslim leaders, the Government should develop a carefully-planned integration strategy of coexistence to build long-lasting peace and harmony.
Q: What are your comments about regional security after NTJ attacks and will a regional approach help dismantle their activities?
To meet the regional IS challenge, Sri Lanka should work very closely with the international community. Sri Lankan leaders should spearhead a zero tolerance approach against not only terrorism but extremism and exclusivism. As intelligence is the first line of defence, the first step is to work together rather than getting involved in petty jealousies – personal and political – that have characterised the Sri Lankan national security machinery of the recent past.
The Government should ramp up international security cooperation and domestic security cooperation. Then the Government should shift from cooperation to collaboration by exchanging personnel, building common databases, joint training, joint operations, and sharing and exchanging expertise, experience and resources especially technology. To prevent any future build-up, the Sri Lankan security and intelligence community should start to share and exchange information within and also share with their own law enforcement authorities and the military forces. In addition to sharing and exchanging with domestic security and intelligence services, the Sri Lankan Government should share and exchange with foreign security and intelligence services.
Sri Lanka has less than half a dozen officers and men with expertise and experience on Muslim extremism and none on IS. They should be encouraged and incentivised to build their knowledge and skills in a short period of time to ensure that information is promptly disseminated and appropriate action taken. Unlike in the past, the threat information should be properly handled and operations mounted to contain, isolate and eliminate the threat. As the political leadership and the public have given the security forces the mandate to act, they should neutralise the threat and start to build a network of assets within the community that will detect current and future extremist and terrorist plans and preparations.
Q: Last week the intelligence agencies warned of a possible attack on Buddhist religious places. According to your analysis, will they launch another coordinated attack?
IS no longer has the capability to mount a large-scale attack on Sri Lankan soil. Since the Easter Sunday attack, 95% of the IS network in Sri Lanka has been dismantled by the Sri Lankan security forces. The remaining operatives and supporters will be captured or killed. Although belated, Government response on the ground has been decisive – if this momentum can be maintained IS will realise that they have made a fatal mistake by attacking Sri Lanka. The IS attack has woken a sleeping giant: the Sri Lankan security forces, known for defeating a ruthless force 10 years earlier.
Q: The majority of Sri Lankan Muslims are a peace-loving community. How vital is their contribution to prevent their younger generation from being radicalised?
Yes, the brutality of the IS attacks has shocked the Sri Lankan peace-loving Muslim community. Only a tiny minority of Muslims in Sri Lanka are politicised and radicalised. Even they have started to realise the folly of copying the Middle Eastern model of Islam. After any terrorist attack, there is a tendency to blame the entire community but as most Muslims support the Sri Lankan Government, this should not have happened.
The Government should help restore and maintain the trust between Muslims and non-Muslims. Unless the Government works with Muslim leaders, more Muslim youth and even entire families will get politicised and radicalised. The Sri Lankan Government should reach out to the Muslim leaders and help them to build a Sri Lanka Muslim Council to provide a vision, guidance and a direction to the community.
At this point, there is no secular Muslim body with intellectuals and businessman providing leadership to the community. The Government should not overreact to the threat but respond appropriately. As IS had infiltrated the Muslim community, the search operations should be conducted carefully to win over the Muslim community and not push them into the hands of the extremists and terrorists.