When a Tamil Tiger female suicide bomber detonated her strapped suicide vest on 23 September 1994 which killed my father and many others it was an act seen as brutal for some. It was also an act of courage to some others. I was born to a country engulfed by ethnic and religious tension and disharmony due to hard-line ultra-nationalist and failed policies taken by the State. Terrorism or extremism stems from social agitation and frustration from multiple systemic failures in our society. The many ills that afflict nations generate extremism which contributes to economic and political failure.
The ISIS, NTJ and Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan military was never part of the ‘global war on terror’; internally, they were fighting a protracted conflict for almost three decades ending April 2009. The military was getting ready to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the operation they carried out to defeat the Tamil separatist. Instead, they had to face another form of terrorism breeding in the post-war context – the Islamic terror. Many Islamic leaders saw this happening and from 2015 complained to the authorities of the growing threat. However, authorities did not take any serious action against the ringleader Zaharan Hashim of the National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ). The NTJ was a group with no prior history of terror nor did they demonstrated capability to mount such an intricately planned, ruthlessly well-executed act of mass-murder. But it happened.
Sri Lanka became the target of the ISIS influenced terror attack. Some experts claimed it was “staged”. Jonah Blank from the RAND says: “There aren’t a lot of groups with the expertise to carry out an operation like this. ISIS has a history of taking credit for attacks which it has merely inspired—but in this case, there was almost certainly a highly professional external sponsor. ISIS may have selected Sri Lanka this time, but it can be counted on to choose any target of opportunity.”
While geopolitical high table and power politics breed terrorism and extremism due to multiple axes of power alignment, terrorism requires funding and some needs to benefit from coordinated attacks. The 3000 innocent lives lost in the US on 9/11 and in Sri Lanka were due to revenge and grievances of the terrorist.
The key element in terrorism is that although its beginnings point to social and systemic failures, once it reaches a certain proportion, there is hardly any turning back. Radical Islamic ideology did not emerge in a vacuum. Terrorist groups grow from feelings of political, cultural and social humiliation. For Bruce Hoffman, “ISIS was able to deliver what Bin Laden only promised… alarmingly, ISIS has been able to have it both ways: On the one hand, they’re very effective at inspiring, motivating, animating ‘lone wolves’ or lone actors… But at the same time, they’ve also been very good at creating an infrastructure – a network to support terrorist attacks.”
It was clear from a video that Zaharan Hashim the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday attack ringleader pledge his allegiance and support to ISIS. What were the thoughts that influenced Zaharan Hashim to give leadership and carry out the brutal 4/21 attacks? What were the external factors? Were their internal facilitators?
On an almost empty Cathedral during Easter mass this year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith the Archbishop of Sri Lanka expressed that instead of retaliating, the nation’s Catholic minority had contemplated Jesus’s message of hope and reduced tensions. In a well-documented documentary, published a few days ago by the BBC, a mother who lost her entire family including her child says: I will not forgive the perpetrators. A year has gone but the pain has not vanished. The most lethal terrorist incident that took place in the country’s history is not forgotten.
Having narrowly escaped from the bomb blast one year ago at the Shangri La hotel in Colombo, I vividly recall the brutal killings by two bombers including the ringleader Zahran Hashim. The image of the blood-soaked exit stairway lined with dead bodies which my wife and two young children had to witness has not gone away. For months, my younger child was drawing pictures of dead bodies and bombs.
The search for Justice
One year has passed, and justice for victims is not clear. The authorities who are responsible, are not brought to justice despite their negligence to heed multiple warnings by the Indian authorities. There was a phone call to a Sri Lankan intelligence officer by the Indian officer saying “today is the day” at 6.30 am on the day of the bombing. Such precise information went unheard. How did such vital information go unheard? What prevented them from taking action despite multiple warnings? Why did no one share prior warnings received by India with the national security think tank which I was heading? Was it because it was seen as some unimportant entity under the Ministry of defence. The authorities did not act on available intelligence. Had we acted timely, we would have prevented the attack and neutralized the threat.
On 17th February 2020, I submitted a 13-page statement to the Presidential Commission appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for Easter Sunday terror attack. The statement included several attachments including the Presidential Monthly Threat Forecast (MTF) written in January 2019 and compiled by me to the President through the Secretary Defence. The document indicated a significant threat from the extremist group after 100 detonators were found. The reports went unheard by the previous Government. Former President Sirisena blamed the Secretary Defence for not sharing the valuable reports sometime after the attack. “No one shared these reports to me,” said President Sirisena when I presented the reports to him. The documents were sent on an official channel through Secretary Defence office. There are two clear assumptions here. Either, someone did not want to chase behind the available information and the prior warnings, or it was a willful suppression of information by the bureaucratic inertia at the Ministry of Defence.
After meeting His Eminence Cardinal Malcom Cardinal Ranjith last month, I learned the pain and sorrow he is going through. He asked me: “Who will speak on behalf of my people? Why were you not called by the previous Government PSC on Easter Sunday? I want truth and justice.”
The Cardinal was absolutely on the correct path demanding for justice for the innocent lives lost. Present Secretary Defence General Kamal Gunaratna has assured that he will punish the perpetrators and the facilitators who were involved and justice will be done. Since last year, the police have arrested more than 190 people in connection with the bombings connected to National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ) extremist group. The police chief and former secretary to the Ministry of Defence have been charged with murder for allegedly not acting on intelligence about the attacks. The recent arrest a few days ago was a brother of a former powerful cabinet Minister suspected in connection with the bombing. The second wave of a possible coordinated attack was revealed from these arrests and investigations held by the police.
The public voted the previous Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government out due to serious incompetence, acknowledgement of negligence from their own PSC report responsible for soft-pedalling a national security threat. With a new Government in power and with one of the former military officers at the helm as the President, there is no doubt of bringing justice and closure to the inflicted wound. President Rajapaksa addressing Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) said “The lackadaisical attitude towards national security prevailed during the previous administration led to the gradual collapse of the intelligence mechanism. As a result, the spread of Islamic extremism could not be contained.” So far, the authorities have proven displayed an inclusive approach with the commission and effective process in place than the previous which scratched the surface.
There is hope from the victims that justice will be done to those who are directly and indirectly connected. Sometimes it is easy to forget the spate of terrorism that occurred a year ago with the present crisis such as the Pandemic taking precedence. The conversation could shift from terrorism to pandemics to financial crisis. Still, Sri Lanka remains as a dormant volcano erupting at various intervals threatening national security. If the internal processes are weak, national security will be threatened and terrorists will take advantage.
The BBC rightly documents: “Islamic State group will exploit weak states, flowed systems that fail to act on intelligence where ever they may be.”
On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured.
One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on “One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka” is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security, and justice.