Two weeks ago, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) arrested the Judicial Medical Officer of Palai Hospital, Sinniah Sivaruban for allegedly trying to revive the LTTE. Later, allegedly based on information provided by the suspect, TID discovered a cache of firearms, and explosives concealed in a palmyrah grove in Karandiya in Palai. Subsequent police investigations led to the arrest of six former LTTE cadres, some of whom were also army informants.
These are troubling and indeed politically inconvenient findings. Many, especially in Tamil politics and NGO circuits, would be tempted to discredit these findings. The government might expect these troubling disclosures to be washed away. Supporters of Pohottuwa have already sought to capitalize on them, alleging that the main suspect had confessed of plotting to kill the presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Police Spokesman has rebuffed these claims.
If the history is any guide, findings such as in Palai are indeed the early warning signs of impending troubles; the making of an insurgency, terrorism or extremism.
Every time Sri Lanka ignored these early alerts, the country had paid with lives, limb and property.
In the late 60s, it was public knowledge within the Police Department that a nascent left-wing insurgent group led by a Lumumba University drop out was recruiting from the universities and villages. Some senior cops warned of an impending revolution as early as 1968.
In Sri Lanka, neither the political leadership nor the security apparatus grappled the full extent of the threat, and the first JVP insurgency in 1971 took everyone by surprise and cost an estimated 25,000 lives. It became clear by the mid-70s, that Tamil Separatism was dabbling with military adventurism. The LTTE killed Alfred Duraiappah in July 1975.
Once bitten in the South, authorities should have acted with a sense of urgency. Military, intelligence and political measures should have been taken accordingly. When the Tamil armed terrorism exploded in all its virulence in 1983, the Sri Lankan Army was still a ceremonial army. From Latin America to Spain to Israel, expertise was readily available. Whenever Sri Lanka borrowed that knowledge, it did so half-heartedly.When the JVP mobilized for a second insurgency in the mid-80s, there was little room for the pro-active response as the country was trapped between two insurgencies in the South and the North.
Then, January this year, the discovery of a cache of explosives, 100 detonators, 75 kgs of ammonium nitrate and potassium chlorate and cans of nitric acid in a plantation in Wanathavilluwa only made a momentary blip in the security circles before withering away. Police were on the lookout for a group of Islamist extremists who vandalized the Buddhist statues in Mawanella on Christmas day. What they found was a lot more incriminating than they were looking for.
Even after the looming evidence that Islamist extremists were plotting for a major attack, investigations progressed lukewarmly. Military intelligence which has a proven track record in counter-terrorism was excluded from investigations.
Even before the incriminating discovery in Wanathavilluwa, Islamic radicalization in Sri Lanka was known to security officials. A number of Sri Lankan Muslims, an estimated 40 of them, made ‘Hijra’ to the short-lived caliphate of the Islamic State. Some later returned. There was not even a debriefing, let alone legal actions.
- Even before the incriminating discovery in Wanathavilluwa, Islamic radicalization in SL was known to security officials
Finally, on the Easter Sunday, Islamic terrorists attacked with full force, killing 259 worshippers and tourists in a series of coordinated attacks on churches and hotels. Historically, Sri Lanka’s response to terrorism and insurgency has proved to be inadequate for two main reasons.
First, the Police Department which is generally assigned to law and order duties in the peacetime is not the most competent institution to combat violent extremism and terrorism.
In the general academic and policy discourse, it is often recommended that violent extremism is fought with mechanisms of criminal justice. However, the world is not an ideal place and terrorists are also rational cost-benefit conscious actors, who know very well how to exploit the inadequacies in this arrangement. That requires the deployment of intelligence assets of the military forces. However, until the Easter attacks, military intelligence was excluded from much of intelligence gathering. Lack of coordination between the Police and the Military was cited by the former commander of army Gen. Mahesh Senanayake as well. Emergency Regulations enabled the military to engage in law and order duties.
After the expiration of Emergency regulations, the President has ordered the security forces to maintain law and order under a Special Gazette Notification.
Such measures could fill a lacuna that would have created if only the Police were assigned to fight extremism.
However, such powers granted to the security forces are also a double-edged sword, and abuse of which could cause inconvenience to the public. The emphasis on military deployment should be on the former.
Second, though one would expect the security forces to have a degree of operational independence, Police and Security Forces operate under the ultimate civilian political command.
However, successive Governments have been reactive, rather being pro-active towards terrorism and extremism. Political vacillation has often blurred the security environment. Many have sought to contain the threat rather than eradicate it. This has effectively played right into the hands of the classic terrorist strategy of attrition of will of its opponents.
The exception to this norm was observed during the Rajapaksa regime. However, its emphasis on the security after the defeat of the LTTE was directed at the regime legitimization and nurturing of fear psychosis. The politicization of intelligence agencies has also been a concern. The Presidential Commission appointed to probe the Easter Sunday Attacks has recommended the converting of the State Intelligence Services into an independent agency.
Sri Lanka was without a commander of the army for over 24 hours as the president kept pondering over. There are concerns as to whether the expiration of emergency regulations would mean the return of burqa and niqab to the street.
The earlier ban on the full-face veil was imposed under the Emergency Regulations.
A Cabinet Paper that sought to reinforce the ban was set aside for future deliberations due to the concerns raised by Muslim political parties.
The burqa is not a matter of freedom of expression, but is the signature garment of a hate-filled ideology, and is one of the most conspicuous symbols of Wahhabi expansion in Sri Lanka.
Vacillation to confront these various manifestations of extremism is also part of the age-old problem of the absence of initiative in Sri Lankan politics.
Elsewhere in the North, reviving of the armed struggle of the LTTE is just a touch and go. Training, foot soldiers, a hidden weapon, and real and perceived grievances are plenty.
What is lacking is someone willing to exploit this opportunity. If one is to have a dispassionate look into various facets of terrorism and extremism in this country- JVP, LTTE, and Islamic extremism- it was not grievances but, the opportunity that was the primary driver of terrorism.
That opportunity is created by half-hearted responses by successive governments. Dedicated terrorists, separatists and Islamists have exploited that vacuum.
Developments related to the arrest of the Palai JMO is troubling, for it takes only a few determined extremists to put Jaffna on fire. The government should neither politicize nor overlook, these findings. A more commonsensical approach on the part of the government is to proactively nip the threat in the bud.
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