Imminent threats and further attacks destabilised
Need to concentrate on countering violent extremism
- Sri Lanka is one of the few countries to have fully eradicated the terrorist threat through military means
- Global influence of Islam radicalisation, collectiveness and shared kinship by on-line radicalisation played a key role in motivating these youth
- Some of the incidents in the anti-communal riots in the North-Western province, instigated by a few interested parties
Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Shantha Kottegoda says that normalcy has been restored in the country following the Easter Sunday attacks, and that imminent threats and further attacks have also been destabilized. In his first interview as Defence Secretary, Gen. Kottegoda – a former Commander of the Sri Lanka Army – asserted that with the immediate threat being contained, there is a need to focus on the challenges of preventing and countering violent extremism.
Excerpts of his interview
with the :
QThe Sri Lankan forces crushed one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world; the LTTE and is possibly the only country in the world that has eradicated terrorism in recent times through military means. Having wiped out the LTTE, what justifies the presence of foreign experts and security agencies in the current context? Won’t their continued presence further expose Sri Lanka to IS attacks in the future?
What justifies the presence of foreign experts in Sri Lanka is that even though Sri Lanka successfully eradicated terrorism by defeating the LTTE this is the first time Sri Lanka experienced attacks from a non-traditional violent extremist group. Our experience has been mainly in dealing with the traditional ideology of ‘separatism’, and Sri Lanka is one of the few countries to have fully eradicated that threat through military means physically on ground. Today we are dealing with a non-traditional ideology of radicalisation and extremism. An outfit that is not geographically limited, which is arbitrary and asymmetric in nature, and more complex than traditional threats. So sharing expertise knowledge with other countries that have already experienced these types of threats and attacks provides for bringing together and learning from each other’s special skills and knowledge on a specific topic, a job, a process or different procedures or systems. This also falls into the domain of information and intelligence sharing and subject matter expert exchange between intelligence and investigative agencies.
I don’t believe that the presences of foreign experts are a reason or criteria for groups such as ISIS to choose their targets.
QArchbishop of Colombo His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith asserted on May 10, 2019 that Islam is a religion of peace and that those behind 21/4 were not Muslims. He took up a position that it would be wrong to identify Islam with terrorism. The Cardinal also said that Western nations engineer conflicts in various parts of the world to sell their arms and ammunition. Is this an angle the defence establishment has considered?
The angles the defence or the investigative and intelligence agencies consider are the available facts that are results of investigations or intelligence that will be re-confirmed from multiple agencies. So far we have no evidence that suggests such an angle.
Hate speech and irresponsible media reporting contributes to widening the already deep social divide and mistrust between the different ethnicities
QA video footage was released on April 23, 2019, two days after the 4/21 attacks, which shows eight men including the suspected ringleader pledging their allegiance to ISIS. Has it been verified and studied? Are there any indications in that video or any other related material which indicates the motive for the brutal massacre of the innocent?
It is too early to comment on a distinctive motive for the attacks as we need more forensic and investigative evidence for this.
QIt is plausible that some of the youth were motivated to join ISIS because of the turmoil in the Middle East ever since the invasion of Iraq?
There is no evidence that directly suggests this. It could be said that the global influence of Islam radicalisation, the collectiveness and shared kinship by on-line radicalisation inspired by ISIS has played a key role in motivating these youth.
Q What is the extent of foreign involvement in the attacks? There are reports that some individuals have travelled overseas for training...
Other than the fact that some have travelled to foreign countries, and may have had connections with certain radical groups, there is still not enough evidence to support those claims. The attacks on Easter Sunday and subsequent explosions in Kattankudy were carried out by a very much home-grown outfit. However, this aspect is being looked into.
QThe President has said that Sri Lanka is 99% safe and you maintained this position in your submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks on May 29, 2019. Are you satisfied that the country is back to normal?
Yes. We have succeeded in preventing any imminent threats and taken action to destabilize further attacks in the country. We have effectively identified those who engaged directly with violent activities within a short span of time. The armed forces together with the Police that were mobilized under a state of emergency, have been successful in detecting weapons, explosives and ammunition. A large number of suspects in connection with the attacks and the National Thowheed Jamath or Ceylon Thowheed Jamath with any connection with the ISIS have been arrested, and action has been taken to proscribe those organisations as terrorist outfits. The intelligence agencies have been strengthened and further capacitated. The immediate threat has diminished while we have to concentrate on the challenges of preventing and countering violent extremism in the short, medium and long terms.
I am not aware of what transpired between the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the Field Marshal Fonseka, similarly I wonder how he got to know what was asked from me
QFrom among those arrested in connection with 21/4 attacks, are there any persons against whom there is no evidence of participating in, aiding and abetting, or financing the attacks?
I cannot outright give you an answer to this question without having the facts with me. But what I can say is that the degree of involvement of each individual will be ascertained through investigations and thereafter appropriate action will be taken. De-radicalising youth involved with extremists are under consideration and those found innocent after investigation would soon be released.
QIs the defence establishment conscious of the urgency of releasing the innocent among the arrested?
Yes. Very much. Those taken into custody are being questioned to ascertain their involvement. However, we have no intention of keeping those who are innocent for long periods and would be released after the investigation process. We are also looking into de-radicalising the youth involved with extremist groups.
Q In the context of many provocative comments aired daily over sections of the electronic and print media, as well as social media, do you foresee more and more communal confrontations? How can hate speech be tackled?
Hate speech and irresponsible media reporting contributes to widening the already deep social divide and mistrust between the different ethnicities. The result is further polarisation of the communities breaking the social fabric of Sri Lanka. Tackling the hate speech problem on social media is not the responsibility of the government alone. Apprehending wrong doers and prosecuting them is what the government can do. But the general public has the responsibility not to share hate speech on the many different social media platforms they use. It is a national disgrace that hate speech dominates the discourse on most social media disrupting the peaceful coexistence of ethnic and religious communities. The general public should put to use the social media platforms to express views on national issues. But there is an issue with regard to the government not having a procedure or official direction from the government for countering and verifying fake news, which leads to the propagation of hate speech and fear psychosis. We are in the process of ensuring a channel of communication on new media where verified news will be provided to the public in a timely manner.
Q In your submissions to the PSC, you referred to the tensions in Kurunegala and mentioned that certain powerful figures had visited the town, including a monk in a bid to create unrest. Could you elaborate?
I believe that some of the incidents in the anti-communal riots in the North-Western province instigated by a few interested parties. A few of them were arrested to prevent escalation of the situation, and one such person is absconding still, however, I do not wish to disclose any more details due to on-going investigations.
Q In the aftermath of the 4/21 suicide attacks, the security forces swiftly moved in and successfully apprehended the alleged group. But they could not avert anti-Muslim violence on May 7 in Negombo, and thereafter again on 12, 13 and 14 May, in the North Western Province. The riots took place despite an assurance by the defence establishment that forces were deployed on the ground and there was no need to fear violence or communal clashes in the country. A Muslim backlash was widely anticipated, and yet not prevented. Why?
You need to understand two things. Firstly, the security forces fully concentrated on apprehending and preventing any further terrorist attacks in the aftermath of Easter Sunday, and we were successful in that exercise. Secondly, the security forces cannot be omnipresent, but we deployed them in the troubled areas to ensure that the situation was brought under control. I myself visited Negombo on the very first day trouble started to brew to ensure that security arrangements were in place. Additional troops were deployed in suspected vulnerable areas, which prevented and in some instances pre-empted and also reacted to contain the spread of riots to other areas, therefore it cannot be said that the security forces did not prevent communal clashes in the country. Having said that, unfortunately there were isolated incidents in the country which could have ,accelerated into something worse had it not been for the intervention of the security forces.
QThe HRCSL Chairperson has said that a violent mob attacked the main mosque in Bandara Koswatte despite police and army presence. This is a very serious allegation. What is your response?
Yes, it is a serious allegation. Therefore, inquiries are being made to ascertain the truth of this allegation, and if the outcome of the inquiry identifies any person or persons responsible for such allegations, strict disciplinary action amounting to discharge from the service and criminal charges will be levelled against them.
Q How about that precise warnings by Indian intelligence did not reach the relevant persons in government?
I cannot comment on this, as I was not in this position then.What I can assure you is that it will not happen now.
Q According to the Army Commander, the Police were aware of the possible attacks, but the information was not shared with the Army. What is the factual position?
I don’t wish to comment on this as I was not in this position at the time.
Each ethnic community and each religion and the sects within them have a colossal responsibility towards bridging the gap between communities
Q Looking at the profile of the suicide bombers, it’s apparent that factors such as education, wealth or social status do not deter individuals from getting drawn to terrorist ideology. It’s also clear that one of the principal media for the transmission of violent ideas is cyberspace. What are the steps taken to detract individuals from mobilizing to violence? The perception now is that some of the responses have been based on ignorance or prejudice, and can drive more people into the arms of violent extremists. How can the State win over the hearts and minds of all communities and ensure their continued contribution to the country’s advancement?
The first step towards this is that all communities accept that Sri Lanka has a problem. This acceptance would mean that there is a public consensus to strengthen institutions responsible to maintain peace and harmony in the country. In today’s context, each ethnic community and each religion and the sects within them have a colossal responsibility towards bridging the gap between communities.
At the centre of this extremism at the higher level is not leadership, men or materials but the ideology which is an abstract element. Hence any strategy to counter the centre of gravity should address this ‘ideology’ rather than physical destruction of men and material, thereby demanding a long-term strategy combined with careful civil and military coordination. In the aftermath of the Easter attacks, Sri Lanka has become the perfect breeding ground for hatred and mistrust among communities, especially the Muslim community. We must be mindful of different factions trying to create rifts among the nationalities and religions that can only lead to more destruction and may even lead to the creation of more radicalised extremists. While we are reeling in the after effects of the brutality we all witnessed and experienced, we must advocate unity among communities. Help rebuild the now fragile relationships between the communities, and promote communal harmony.
QAccording to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, during the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in 2002-2003, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sought his views as well as yours on the possible collapse of the CFA. In Fonseka’s words, “The President inquired from me and Kottegoda what would our response be in case of resumption of hostilities. Kottegoda promised to ensure security of our bases until the resumption of talks, whereas I vowed to destroy the enemy.” Is it correct that you did not believe at that point that the armed forces could defeat the LTTE?
I am not aware of what transpired between the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the Field Marshal Fonseka, similarly I wonder how he got to know what was asked from me. However with regard to his statement, I have always maintained and had confidence that the Sri Lanka Army was fully capable of defeating the LTTE at any time. I remember that even on the eve of my relinquishment of my appointment as the Commander of the Army, I stated that the Army was well trained and we could defeat the LTTE. What was required was more man power and more military equipment for the three services and police which was subsequently provided to strengthen the capability of the security forces and defeat the LTTE.
As an officer of an Infantry Regiment, I too had been in the thick of this battle in the North and East since its inception in command position of a company, battalion, brigade, division and security forces commander. I took command of the Army during the time a ceasefire agreement was enforced by the government and the LTTE, therefore the security forces had to perform a different role to ensure the success of the peace process initiated by the government. It was a very difficult task since the soldiers were trained to fight the enemy, however they abode by the conditions of the peace accord which was commendable. The apparent statement that I “promised to ensure security of our bases until the resumption of talks” is incorrect.