It is more than a week now since a string of well coordinated and planned bombings in several churches and popular hotels shook Sri Lanka instilling fear and insecurity amongst the people, specially the Christian minority who were worst hit with 253 lives lost.
The happenings were especially shocking as the government establishment and the security agencies were literally caught napping and are still struggling to come to terms with the trauma. The government seems to be in panic and clueless as to how to move ahead. In that confusion, the number of casualties kept changing and now the figures stand at 253 from an initial announcement of 353.
Possibly, after the extermination of LTTE in 2009, the government became complacent and its intelligence and security machinery started rusting. They thought that LTTE was perhaps the only threat and once it was decimated, it stopped assessing threat perceptions emanating from the ISIS or their affiliates or for that matter turned a blind eye to homegrown terrorists or ISIS-inspired groups that were planning to strike at an opportune moment .
This said, the government took the advice of the visiting FBI and some other foreign investigation teams which are currently in Sri Lanka and on April 26 raided an ISIS hideout in Sainthamarathu in Ampara, engaging combatants in fierce gunfire and a series of explosions resulting in 15 deaths including of six children and three suicide bombers. The attack was swift and an intelligence-led operation.
A huge cache of explosives and firearms was seized from the site. Here, it is imperative to find out as to how over all these years explosives were stockpiled and ISIS local rank and file flourished without any whiff to the government? Isn’t it a very serious lapse? Explosives and weaponry must have found their way through the coastal route or stealthily through local procurers, while custodians of law continued to suffer from inertia. Anyway, now that the government has woken up, it is expected that there will be crackdowns on multiple hideouts and the island nation will breathe easier .
On its part, the ISIS has proved President Trump utterly wrong on his statement that it had been defeated and was no longer a power to reckon with. It is very much alive and perhaps trying to expand its support base in South Asia. In its crackdown on ISIS supporters, Sri Lanka has so far arrested 76 people including some from Egypt and Syria and according to their intelligence sources, 140 people are confirmed as having links with ISIS.
It can also be argued that ISIS is growing stronger in Asia as seen from the number of sympathisers going to Syria because of allegience to ISIS chief Baghdadi. It is not that Sri Lanka or any neighbouring country has only ISIS activists from the Baghdadi stock. The radicalisation level and Wahabbi /Salafi indoctrination is so high that youth are getting romanticised and detonating themselves so easily.
The venom of Wahabbism has gone inside them making them more intolerant. Meanwhile, Western security experts say ISIS has in its possession anything between USD 50 and 300 million. And this is in hard cash. This is most likely being used for motivating misguided youth and for procurement of arms and for propaganda. The money is colossal and is capable of destroying peace by different violent means.
The extent of ISIS indoctrination is so intense that well educated youth are also drawn towards the ‘cause’ indulging in feedayeen attacks as seen in the churches and hotels in Sri Lanka last week. Another disturbing factor is that members of affluent class are enlisted so there are no mercenaries. Also, there is a possibility that those returning from the ISIS strongholds are briefing the vulnerable youth adding to a rapid expansion of homegrown terrorist affiliates. This is what must have happened in Sri Lanka.
The two suicide bombers (Ibrahim brothers) were educated in elite educational institutions and were the sons of a wealthy Sri Lankan businessman with high level political contacts. A hitherto not so well known Islamic outfit Nation Tawheed Jammat ( NTJ) , has come to notice for its complicity in the Easter Sunday attacks.
It is now thought to be a close ally of the ISIS, not only drawing ideological inspiration but also ready to carry out its violent diktats. Its fanaticism needs to be curbed by dismantling the entity. Amongst the Muslim population in Sri Lanka, there are thousands who arrived from Pakistan and enjoy refugee status probably under the aegis of UNHCR.
This lot also calls for a close watch. It would be interesting to note that the perpetrators of the Dhaka bakery attacks of 2016 had also received best of education and came from affluent backgrounds. So it appears a myth to say that only madrassa-educated children are turning out to be fanatics. Also, hate speeches delivered by communalists like Zakir Naik added fuel to fire in the Dhaka terror strikes and Naik has visited Sri Lanka in the past and delivered harmful speeches.
Naik is now safely ensconced in Malaysia enjoying a residency status . After the Sri Lanka killings he stated that in Islam such killings were justified if for tactical reasons. He cannot be condoned for that. He has damaged communal harmony in India by his acrimonious rhetoric. After his relocation in Saudi Arabia and then Malaysia, his statements are acerbic and emit tenets of Wahabbism.
Dr Mahatir Mohammad is a renowned statesman and known for his political maturity. He should now meet the repeated Indian requests of repatriating Naik to India as he continues to be wanted here. His links with Sri Lankan outfits with extremist leanings must be thoroughly probed. Dr Mahatir would really do well if he reins in Zakir Naik. Another critical factor is that Sri Lankan intelligence goofed up. Reliable sources confirm that specific, pin-pointed and actionable intelligence was shared on April 11 by a friendly country but it was not acted upon.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe has denied having received any intelligence input. This sounds bizarre as no sovereign country can afford to ignore intelligence specially when the the entire world is afflicted with worst kind of terrorism. No doubt intelligence collection is a difficult job but when it is served on a platter, it cannot be ignored.
Similarly, President Maitriphala Sirisena was in denial mode about seeing any intelligence report. The discord between the two is making the country vulnerable. After the Easter Sunday attacks, the Muslim minority who form less than 10 per cent of the Sri Lankan population are fleeing to safer places fearing a backlash by the Sinhala majority.
While police protection is being given to Muslims, majority outrage can go beyond control. Hence allout vigil needs to be exercised to prevent any violent reprisal. Budhists in Sri Lanka cannot be underestimated. In Myanmar, as reports said, several monks took to arms against a section of the Muslims in 2012 and subsequently in 2017, and about 7 million Muslims fled to Bangladesh.
One hopes this situation does not come to pass in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, political heat is generated in the aftermath of the development as elections are not far away. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, ex army officer, was the defence minister when LTTE was being finished off. In a statement, he has vowed to contest the next elections and has assured the Sri Lankans he will exterminate Islamic militancy.
Crucially, he also said that once in power, he would revamp the intelligence network and introduce a new system of surveillance with public collaboration. What is certain is that Sri Lanka will have to quickly tone up its security and intelligence apparatus to avoid recurrence of such attacks. If the Friday raid on the ISIS hideouts is any indication, there must be many indoctrinated Muslim youth in the island with the material and the means to hit soft targets.
From the Indian perspective, it would perhaps be advisable to look into NTJ links with Indian sympathisers particularly in the southern part of India. Intelligence cooperation with India and other friendly countries also needs to be made fool-proof so that the alerts originating from India do not get routine treatment but are reported immediately to the President and the Prime Minister for achieving the best results.
(The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. The views expressed are personal)