For two different reasons, both Sri Lanka and the USA (including its allies) should be concerned about the latest terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. For the USA, it was yet another warning that it’s time it changed its strategies.
Some political analysts believe that the major reason why these attacks keep taking place is that the US-led global war on terrorism has failed. It is because the US has focused on eliminating terrorists and their networks, not on defeating the jihadi ideology that inspires suicide attacks around the world. The basic lessons have been the same in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and throughout the Islamic world.
The US may be politically correct when it says that the struggle against the global terrorists can be a long drawn affair. But reality tells us something different. The real threat is not the attacks but Islamic extremism.
At the same time, Sri Lanka too should make its own moves. The terrorist attacks in Colombo have resulted in a political debate on how to strengthen our security and intelligence organisations
Where Sri Lanka is concerned, we have a problem with Islamic extremism because it is driven by a particular interpretation of Islam that believes Islamic law or sharia, is an all-encompassing religious-political system. And sharia must be enforced in the public sphere by a global Islamic state.
As such, Islamic extremists consider it to be the only truly legitimate form of governance and reject democracy and the values of human rights. Islamic extremists also believe they are obligated to install this form of governance in Muslim-majority areas, countries and eventually, the entire world.
This is indeed a serious issue for a Buddhist-dominated country like Sri Lanka. Recognizing and focusing on this fact, is critical to any hope of winning the real “war on terrorism.” The “war” we are encountering is religious and ideological and not military. It is a type of struggle for the future of Islam and is not generic, global or focused on political systems. Therefore, the real war on terrorism can be won only with the support of the Islam community and at a religious and ideological level.
However, this does not mean that improving every aspect of counter-terrorism at the national and global level is not relevant. It is very important. But it does mean that no amount of outside action by the US and allies or non-Islamic countries can do more than partially contain the violence. It is only the religious, political and intellectual leaders of Islamic countries and communities, particularly in the Arab world, that can successfully engage and defeat Islamic extremism at a religious, political and cultural level. Taking all these facts into consideration, what Sri Lanka needs today is a new counter-terrorism strategy to combat the extremist ideologies, perpetrated by actors often sponsored from abroad Those have proven to be a decisive factor in promoting radicalisation and a driving force behind terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.
We thought Sri Lanka was a country unlikely to be attacked by Muslim extremists. The country does not have any history of radical Islamist terrorism. Muslims were recognised and well-treated within the country. But it happened and the event underscored how far Islam militaristic theology can spread and why we need to tackle it at its roots.
If we analyse this matter a little deeper into radical Islamist terrorism, we find that the ideological roots can be traced back to Wahhabism. It is an extreme form of Sunni Islampromoted by Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism advocates that nonbelievers are “to be hated, to be persecuted and even killed.” Such is the power of this deceptively attractive ideology.
Wahhabism was founded in the 18th century by a cleric named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism remained a fringe form of Islam. At one stage, it was highly funded by the USA. Saudi Arabia, too, heavily promoted it. Gradually, Wahhabism has been snuffing out the more liberal Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries having Muslim communities, thus creating a toxic environment in which extremism can thrive. Sri Lanka is one of the victims.
Against this scenario, if we are to fight Islamic terrorism effectively, the main role needs to be taken by the USA. Its counter-terrorism policy should be re-oriented and focused not merely on enemies like IS but also by exerting pressure on Arab and Gulf countries and charities which are pushing a jihadi agenda. Their funding for Islamist militancy around the world needs to be contained. US President Trump, a few months ago, called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” He acknowledged, “Saudi is a safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” Yet, when US listed some countries as “state sponsors of terrorism,” Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea were included but not Saudi Arabia. The US Government continues, to this day, to protect the royal Saud family, which owns and controls Saudi Arabia
and its Government.
If the US genuinely wants to eradicate jihad terrorism and help non-Muslim countries, such politicization must end. Then only a concerted and sustained international onslaught on the perverted ideology of radical Islam can begin. Such an offensive is essential because, as long as violent jihadism is perceived as a credible ideology, suicide bombers will be motivated to carry out horrific attacks.
While working to systematically bring into disrepute the jihadi ideology, punitive sanctions should be slapped on Saudi and other Persian Gulf terrorist financiers as well as charities still funding overseas Islamist seminaries, clerics, and groups.
Role by the State
At the same time, Sri Lanka too should make its own moves. The terrorist attacks in Colombo have resulted in a political debate on how to strengthen our security and intelligence organisations. But this is only one side of the story. What is missing from the debate is a better understanding of how prevention works and why we need it.
It may be worthwhile if we look at some of the existing models that were developed to prevent radicalisation and violent extremism. Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Britain, among others, are classic examples of reasonable success. Let us review briefly the English model.
It is known as CONTEST strategy and currently counter-terrorism strategy of Britain. CONTEST is split into four work streams that are known as the ‘four P’s’: Prevent, Pursue, Protect, and Prepare. Prevent: To stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Pursue: To stop terrorist attacks. Protect: To strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack and Prepare: To mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.
In an article written for The Observer, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that the strategy was “recognized by our allies to be world-leading in its wide-ranging nature, and leaves us better prepared and strengthened in our ability to ensure all peace-loving people of this country can live normally, with confidence and free from fear.”
Maybe, a thorough study of this programme by our intelligence personnel might be worthwhile.
As an ending note, let me stress that terrorism is only a tactic, and we should be wise to recognize that we cannot wage war against it. Instead, we need to focus on the social and emotional reasons for extremist behaviour. We need a human-centred approach, one that starts from within.
Implementing a “winning” strategy in this struggle does require mutual cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. And the key lies in the ability of those who are part of the Islamic world to exploit the specific limitations and capabilities of the enemy and defeat them at the heart of their ideological arguments -- in mosques, in classrooms, on the television screens and at all levels of civil society. This is the job of Muslim religious leaders, government officials, business bosses and intellectuals.