The Future of Security - Sri Lanka: Causes and Consequences

With the Sri Lankan presidential poll likely to be held in late 2019, and PM Modi's foreign policy thrust on "Neighborhood First", the attacks are a matter of considerable significance for Sri Lanka and India.

On Wednesday, 19th June, the Synergia Foundation hosted a roundtable conference titled “ Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka: Causes and Consequences”. This conference is a follow up to the Synergia series on the ‘Future of Security: A Deeper Look at the Lanka Blasts'.

The roundtable discussion featured a keynote address given by Prabha Rao, Former Special Secretary Government of India - Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW ) and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). Mrs. Rao helped unravel what the Easter blasts mean for Sri Lanka, India, and the global community. Here are the insights.

BACKGROUND

On Easter Sunday (21 April 2019), between 8:25 am and 9:05 am, three churches in Sri Lanka (in Negombo, Batticaloa, and Colombo) were attacked by suicide bombers. The bombers entered the churches during mass, mingled with the congregation and set off their deadly explosives. Soon after, between 9:15 am and 9:20 am, three more suicide bombers attacked restaurants in three high-end waterfront hotels (the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand, and Kingsbury). Reports suggest that the bombers carried IEDs in their backpacks and used steel-ball bearings to increase lethality. So far, the reported death toll is 258, including 46 foreigners, with more than 500 injured.

Sri Lankan authorities claim the attacks were carried out by two little known fundamentalist organizations; National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). All nine suicide bombers have been identified as Sri Lankan nationals. The suicide bombers led by Zahran Hashim were well educated Muslims belonging to well-off families. The Islamic State (IS) has claimed association to the attacks, and released a video with the eight suspected suicide bombers- seven men and a pregnant woman. The timely execution of the attack and the sophistication of the bomb suggest that the attacks were well-planned and were in the works for months. The most glaring questions that arise now are “Why?” and “What Next?”

ANALYSIS

The 2019 Easter morning blasts in Sri Lanka could be considered to be the most devastating terror attack since 9/11 in 2001. The attacks left a trail of destruction, but also shed some light on existing political and social fault lines in Sri Lanka. The attacks invoked  a sense of panic, both domestically and internationally, primarily because there were no visible signs of an Islamic insurgency in Sri Lanka. George Freedman called the attack a ‘Black Swan attack’, but Mrs. Rao feels as though it is more of a 'Dirty Grey Swan attack'. This is because the attack was not an isolated event. It was meticulously planned over months and involved several proponents who had ties to fundamentalist organizations in the middle east.

It is important to take a look at the circumstances surrounding the Easter morning attacks to understand why and how the attack took place. On April 9th, the government of India contacted Sisira Mendis, the Sri Lankan Head of National Intelligence, providing him with specific details about the attacks including the name of the bombers, and the targeted areas. On the same day, Mendis sent out a circular to the Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara, advising him to check all hotels and churches, especially the St. Anthony’s Church.

There is presently  an inept government in Sri Lanka where President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are “completely at odds with one and other”. Here the military, security and police forces come under the command of the President while others come under the Prime Minister. In times of security crisis, this divide becomes conspicuous and the security forces often fail to act in a cogent manner, as there is neither a free flow of intelligence nor clarity on the chain of command.  

The timing of the attack is also important to note. Easter Sunday is a very important Christian holiday and just before Easter, Sri Lanka celebrated Aluth Avurudda, the Sinhalese New Year. This meant that there were a number of senior security personnel on leave at the time. Incidentally, President Sirisena was on leave, and in Singapore. He was  warned about the imminent attacks and responded that he would come back and take care of the matter. Of course, by then it would have been too late.

One question that keeps coming up with regards to the Sri Lanka blasts is, why did the Muslim perpetrators target Christians (another minority community) and as a minority themselves, why were they not concerned about the backlash towards the Muslim community? In order to answer these questions, we need to take a more holistic world view and try to contextualize the attacks amidst international events. In March, American President Donald Trump had declared the total elimination of the Islamic caliphate. Following this, ISIS undertook several attacks in Libya and the Maghreb area, presumably to send the world a message that they were still a force to reckon with and had sleeper cells, which could be activated at any time. On the 20th of April, an ISIS magazine published a unique photograph. It was unique because it featured a woman in the back – Fatima, the sole female bomber in the Lanka blasts. It was for the first time, that during bayat pledge (an oath to ISIS), a female was photographed. This suggests a change in what is to come and how we must consider the position of the female jihadi’s potential for terror. Additionally, the fact that churches were chosen as a target might reflect the modus operandi of the ISIS. There is a pattern of ISIS operatives attacking churches. Easter Sunday has been a favorite time for ISIS to attack – a fact that the Lankan government should have been aware of, in light of the intelligence they received. Thus, it is not necessarily a question of Muslims against Christians. The perpetrators were part of a global network of radicalized individuals who had an organizational agenda to promote.

Another factor which contributed to the attack is Sri Lanka’s institutional callousness. There has been a perceptible rise in Salafism in Sri Lanka since 1973 with a large and steady influx of funds from Saudi and Qatar. In fact, there was a range of Muslim politicians that were financially supported by these middle eastern benefactors via Hawala transactions. Within the span of two years, in a country with a minority Muslim population, approvals were granted for the construction of over 500 mosques. It is not improbable that radicalization in Sri Lanka took place under the noses of such politicians. The Sri Lankan Minister of Industry and Commerce was actually related to one of the suicide bombers. A Sri Lankan governor Dr. Hizbullah had reportedly called for the release of arrested individuals who were associated with an explosives laboratory. It was later discovered that the same lab was used to manage the suicide jackets used in the bombings. Part of the problem in Sri Lanka seems to be the extent to which radicalized individuals are in bed with politicians.

COUNTERPOINT

Despite the fact that the Sri Lankan government was criticized for its failure to act on intelligence reports, it must be noted that the intelligence community is constantly bombarded with false positives. Information overload could make it very difficult for authorities to discern credible threats from the phony ones. It is not necessarily true that Sri Lanka outright ignored the information that was shared with them. Lankan authorities apprehended a couple of unmarked minivans that were purchased using cash, presumably to use in a vehicle-borne IED attack. In doing so, they were able to prevent catastrophic attacks elsewhere. 

ASSESSMENT

The ethnic and political fault lines in Sri Lanka might have created a groundswell  for the terror attacks. Although the attacks were carried out by a relatively obscure terror organization, one must not lose focus of the fact that  smaller Sri Lankan organizations are linked to  much larger organizations like the  ISIS with far greater resources. One way to look at it would be that the ISIS took advantage of Sri Lanka’s internal fault lines to act out their agenda. It will not be prudent to ignore terror threats made by new claimants as it is difficult to ascertain whether such groups are working autonomously or under the umbrella of a larger group.

The increase in the number of female jihadis is also a serious concern. The Sri Lankan Defense Minister said they would take the decision to ban the niqab irrespective of the political fallout. This is something that is being discussed the world over, and India should consider joining the conversation. There are a number of female jihadis involved and it would be difficult to get conclusive results via facial recognition -  a red flag for security forces.

It is also difficult to predict patterns of radicalization because the process occurs across classes. In this context, it is not unusual to have family ties among key blast perpetrators. Organized terror activity requires the development of strong networks that fly under the radar. The “family unit” is where such networks exist and thrive. We should look at family connections when investigating terrorism here in India as well.

The widespread use of social media in the radicalization process opens up a contentious debate regarding the trade-off between national security and individual privacy. We need more sophisticated algorithms to be able to effectively detect red flags on social media and take appropriate action.

Finally, the political climate in Sri Lanka is relatively fluid as a result of the upcoming November elections. Public opinion can sway in any direction based on the political winds, and it is possible that potential candidates are trying to utilize the messy aftermath of the Sri Lanka blasts to their own advantage.

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