A week into the serial suicide bombings carried out by Islamist extremists, targeting places across Colombo and Batticaloa, Sri Lanka security forces are carrying out search and mop up operations across the country, in combination the event and aftermath has shaken all Sri Lankans out of a ten-year slumber. The fear, political confusion, military presence, global media camps and civil society rush for community harmony are trademarks of Sri Lanka’s impending crisis.
To put things into context, the attack last Sunday, was carried out by eight suicide bombers through coordinated time slots, backed by a well-coordinated logistic network, probably months of significant intelligence gathering, bearing hallmarks of fighters who had foreign training, indoctrination and foreign battlefield experience. Thus, making Sri Lanka’s attacks potentially the most coordinated terror attack in the world, since 9/11, targeting the USA nearly two decades ago.
There is a sense of hope within the country of a quick end to the violence with the successful containment of the terror cell by Sri Lankan forces in Kalmunai. The challenges faced by the security establishment and for national security in general is unlike ones posed by the LTTE, we are encountering transnational terrorism.When such terror enters the shores of a nation the manifestations of violence and expansion of the organization is hard to trace and remains invisible making it hard to detect and deter.
Sri Lanka’s choices
This article will focus on some of the dynamics of violent extremism that has recently engulfed the world courtesy of the global appeal and flow of fighters, money and support to the various iterations of the Islamic State.
Sri Lanka needs to immediately work on first the rereading of the transforming global security landscape and working of trans boundary terrorism especially since the military defeat of Islamic State in Syria since March this year.
Sri Lanka needs to invest in significant consolidation of intelligence arms and recruitment of skilled and critical analysts into the system. Thirdly, at the policy level come up with a national security strategy that has the adaptability to work with such threats, create global networking with counter-terrorism advancements, understand the importance of force modernization. Finally, the political establishment needs to win back the narrative if to successfully communicate a clear message to the Sri Lankan public on national security initiatives.
Understanding the global security landscape
One does not need to venture far,the mood in the worlds largest security conference this year was sober, at the Munich security conference, the theme of report of the conference was titled as “The Great Puzzle: Who will Pick Up the Pieces?”. The central understanding to make such a framing was the conviction among the stakeholders that the entire liberal international order appears to be falling apart and as a result nothing will we be as it once was. The Moscow security conference 2019, just concluded a few days back, yet the mood was not too optimistic, China proposed to establish a new centre for coordination of counter terrorism which was unilaterally accepted by participating member states.
The above comparison between the two key security conferences of this year were highlighted to bring out the failure of global governance and as a result the identification that such failures would lead to emergence of more terrorist threats as signified by the Chinese proposition. Thus, Sri Lanka is a case where this new threat of terrorism has quickly surfaced and manifested.
Importance of intelligence in countering violent extremism
There are serious debates about the plight of our intelligence services and the consequences of political tampering of intelligence processes and personnel. While acknowledging the importance of that conversation the focus here is what needs to be done.
Intelligence services in any country have an important division of labour. The role played by analysts and the work carried out by operatives who are mainly handling the ground operations. Sri Lanka’s operatives have been doing a stellar job given the expertise developed in countering LTTE and neutralizing critical assets and targets of the organization. Yet when it comes to dealing with a trans boundary terror outfit, which has real or no command and control structure, has regional, local religious figures as operators the work becomes challenging.
To counter a global ideological terror movement takes significant research, analysis and projection capabilities backed by a combination of human skills and computational data analysis skills. This is an area the country needs to seriously invest in both in human capital and technological advancement.
ISIS in its former glory had a unique appeal to foreign fighters, using enticing social media campaigns and generating social media hashtags such as #AlleyesonISIS, capturing the heart and soul of many disillusioned young Muslims. European intelligence reports alone state that nearly 5000 Europeans joined ISIS to fight in Iraq and Syria in the last few years. Many more from Africa and Asia, the largest number of foreign fighters who joined ISIS are from Maldives, the total number of foreign fighters involved are estimated at nearly 45,000.
Thus, for Asian states to monitor the out flows and returning fighters and how they settle into domestic life are all work of intelligence gathering. The mushrooming of non-traditional Islamic groups such as the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) in Sri Lanka needs focus not just from the forms of operations but tracing how they mobilize members and looking at paper trails for where their funding comes in takes significant intelligence resourced mainly investment in analysts.
War for Political Narrative
The focus of this analysis is not to add to the already abundant critiques of the dysfunctional governance in Sri Lanka, such critiques are important and are emanating from the tragic political farce all Sri Lankans have inherited since October, 2018. This has led to a major political crisis, if which not rectified immediately will make it hard for any political establishment to contain the spiralling extremism.
What all extremist groups especially religious extremism do is subvert the secular state political narrative and unleash a religious, divisive narrative of hate that can easily condole violence and easily become the default narrative especially in ethnically and religiously diverse societies. Sri Lanka has become a victim to this polarization of narrative coming from both hardliner Sinhala nationalists generating counterattacks by Islamic radicals. The bomb attacks have already brought the debate into main stream.
The government totally has lost the control to manage this and has been subject to committing grave political miscalculations such as banning social media and going after independent news providers. These moves are creating space for the already polarized external hate narratives to be internalized, classic example is the shocking amount of hate coming from right-wing Indian groups and counter attacks coming from pro ISIS media. Both these seriously affect the way how Sri Lankan political opinion is shaped.
The attacks in Sri Lanka have opened multiple options for foreign interference into our domestic affairs, new forms of terror assemblages to set up shop, serial bombings by battle-hardened foreign fighters may become an inspiration for locally radicalized individuals thus leading to future threats coming from ‘lone wolf’ or ‘wolf packs’. Thus, emergency counter measures to stem the immediate attacks need to be followed by solid national security strategy and intelligence reforms if for the State to be ahead of the threat if not even the thought of conceiving the long-term repercussions set an eerie chill. All in all, its not just winter fell as in the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy that is about to experience the long winter it maybe Sri Lanka’s too.