ISIS, LTTE threats far from over, says international terrorism expert
Rohan Gunaratna, security and political analyst, widely known as an international terrorism expert is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore. He received his Masters from the University of Notre Dame in the US, where he was Hesburgh Scholar. He obtained his PhD from the University of St Andrews in the UK, where he was a British Chevening Scholar. A former Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the United States Military Academy at West Point and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Gunaratna was invited to testify on the structure of al Qaeda before the 9/11 Commission.
The author of 16 books including Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (University of Columbia Press), Prof. Gunaratna edited the Insurgency and Terrorism Series of the Imperial College Press, London. He is a trainer for national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counter terrorism units, interviewed terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other conflict zones.
Prof. Gunaratne served as a counterterrorism instructor for GIGN, CTSO, D88, US NAVY SEALS, Swiss Federal Police, NYPD, and the Australian Federal Police, and conducted field research in conflict zones including Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Colombia. He is the co-author of Three Pillars of Radicalization (Oxford University Press).
Prof Gunaratna is also the lead author of Jane’s Counter Terrorism, a handbook for counter-terrorism practitioners. He also serves on the editorial boards of the journals Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Terrorism and Political Violence.
As far back as 2016, Gunaratna assessed the number of IS supporters and warned the government leaders that there would be an IS attack and precautions had to be taken. As they were unresponsive, he spoke to the media about the growing IS threat and even proposed how to neutralize the threat.
He said: “Government should not wait until the formation of another extremist group which is influenced by the ideology of the ISIS and any form of attacks take place. Rajapaksa regime destroyed Tamil extremism in the north, which caused 30 years suffering. It was up to the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena government to avoid the formation of another conflict like that, between the Muslims and the Sinhalese and between the Muslims and the Tamils. They should not wait until a group is formed in Sri Lanka by those who are driven and influenced by the ISIS ideology, and should not wait for attacks to take place,” Prof Gunaratne said in an interview with Counterpoint.
Q: National security has taken precedence over everything else in Sri Lanka since the Easter Sunday terror strikes. National security is widely thought to be a country’s military preparedness to counter threats, both internal and external. How would you define national security?
A: National security is the security of a nation-state – its citizens, economy, and institutions. Securing the nation is the primary duty of government and increasingly that of its citizens and residents. To safeguard the security of a nation state, government may use its diplomatic, information/Intelligence, economic, and military power. With the domains of warfare expanding from the classic territorial military operations to air, space, cyberspace, and psychological operations, governments need to build capabilities to operate, and, if necessary, dominate these domains.
Q: What is the price a state has to pay for not concentrating on the non-military dimensions such as food security, energy security, environmental security and health security when we attempt to ensure national security of Sri Lanka?
A: To secure a nation, a comprehensive national security policy, plan and strategy should be there. The security dimensions beyond military security are economic security, political security, cyber security, energy security, personal security, community security, environmental security, food security and health security. At the heart of national security decision making is visionary, collective and decisive leadership.
Q: The Easter Sunday carnage has necessitated a rethink on national security. How would you view this situation?
A: The Easter Sunday attack on April 21, 2019 led to a paradigm shift in the Sri Lankan security landscape. The terrorist attack disrupted the relationship between the Muslims and other communities living in Sri Lanka. The affected Sinhalese and Tamils will always view the Muslims suspiciously. Unless national and community leaders work hard to restore the trust between the communities, it will take one generation to rebuild the damaged relationships. An entire generation of Sri Lankans suffered by the actions of a regime that compromised national security.
Q: At many fora including parliamentary select committee on Easter attacks, the presidential committee that investigated those incidents, it was pointed out that there had been serious lapses on the part of the defence establishment. There is another presidential committee investigating the issue at the moment. Would you comment on this?
A: The Easter Sunday attacks resulted from the erosion of the national security mindset and the dismantling of the national security structures of Sri Lanka under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. It was not the mere neglect of national security but diluting the role of the National Security Council harming the Military Intelligence Directorate. The actions of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime disrupted national security. The primary missions of intelligence community – information gathering and analysis, counterintelligence, and covert action – were crippled.
The Easter Sunday attacks were the manifestation of a failure in governance. The political leadership from 2015-2019 failed to sustain the elements of national power: Diplomacy, Information and Intelligence, Security forces and Economy. Only by developing a holistic approach and preserving these four pillars, can a government sustain as a nation state.
The politicization of the above key elements had a spillover effect. Although the dysfunctionality was reflected everywhere, it was most pronounced in the security sector. Every government needs to create an environment of security to foster social harmony, political stability, economic growth and foreign relations.
Q: You warned of the possibility of an IS attack way back in 2016. Could you explain why that warning went unheeded?
A: Sri Lanka is a society that all communities must stay together. So the ethnic and religious harmony is essential for the unity and the security of the country. ISIS’s aim is to disrupt the harmony among the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities and also to divide the Muslim community between Shia and Sunni sects. Ninety-nine per cent of Sri Lankan Muslims are moderate and mainstream. ISIS wants to radicalize, politicize and militarize them. The ISIS also wants to create disharmony within the Muslim community by saying that the ISIS-type of Islam, not the local and traditional Islam, is the correct version of the religion.
In Sri Lanka there has developed a local and traditional form of Islam for generations. It is the most ideal form of Islam for a country like Sri Lanka. It helps Muslims and non-Muslims to live as brothers and sisters. The version of Islam coming from the Middle East is very brutal. That version of Islam promotes attacks on non-Muslims and even the destruction of their places of worship and monuments. Therefore, such a version threatens the maintenance of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in the Sri Lankan context.
Sri Lankan Muslims and non-Muslims have been living as brothers and sisters for ages. For centuries Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims lived in harmony. Because of the ultra-nationalism of Tamils in Tamil Nadu, the relationship between the Tamils and the Sinhalese and between the Tamils and the Muslims was disturbed. Because of it we had problems in the North. It also led to a war. We can’t afford another conflict like that between Muslims and Sinhalese, and between Muslims and Tamils.
The extremist ideologies coming to Sri Lanka exist in both physical space and cyberspace. Such ideologies must be detected and neutralized. If we cannot do that then there will be disharmony among communities.
The government should not wait until the formation of another extremist group influenced by the ideology of the ISIS and any form of attacks to take place. The Rajapaksa administration defeated the LTTE. It was up to the Wickremesinghe and Sirisena Government to prevent the formation of another conflict like that between the Muslims and the Sinhalese and between the Muslims and the Tamils. It should not have waited until a group was formed in Sri Lanka by those influenced by the ISIS ideology and attacks took place.
Q Do you blame the political leadership for the failure leading to Easter Sunday attacks? If so, on what grounds?
A: National security came into focus during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government due to the visionary leadership of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Naturally, the subject of national security became the brand of the Rajapaksa administration. Identifying the military with the Rajapaksa regime, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime attempted to erase the national security brand image from the minds of the people. Without realization, it dug its own grave.
The responsibility for the Easter Sunday attack should be taken by both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. They did not give the first, second and third priority to national security. As President and Prime Minister their first job was to protect the country and the people from threats and harm respectively. When they were in office, I informed them that they should accept the responsibility for the Easter Sunday attack without blaming senior, middle level and junior officers. (Watch: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=I1MwwKYeED8)
The Presidential Commission of inquiry to investigate and inquire into and report or take necessary action on the bomb attacks on 21st April, 2019 should investigate the top leaders and determine if they compromised national security for personal and political gain.
Q: You met Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Beijing 2017. Did you mention of those warnings and possible IS attacks to him then?
A: Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a good understanding of security after having served as a frontline military officer. After he stepped down as the Secretary of defence, he watched with concern how the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime weakened the national security system he had painstakingly built to protect Sri Lanka. At every meeting we had, both in Sri Lanka and overseas, we would start our conversation after a review of the threat landscape. He was very much oriented to the threat posed by IS. Even when not in office, he received several briefings by foreign governments on the current and emerging threat. He listened intently, made notes and asked intelligent questions. Three aspects concerned him mostly. First, removal of highly trained and competent officers from Intelligence, law enforcement, military and defence. When we met in Beijing at a conference, Mr Rajapaksa personally asked the then Secretary of Defence, Mr. Karunasena Hettiarachchi, who was also present why a bright officer was being moved out of the Ministry of Defence into the Treasury and explained to him the achievements of that officer. Second, withdrawal of the military to the barracks disrupting the engagement with the civilians in the north and east. Third, directing Military Intelligence to stop conducting operations. Fourth, incarceration of military, law enforcement and intelligence officers who had fought to protect Sri Lanka from a cruel terrorist group angered him. The impact of the arrests and questioning nearly 500 members, associates and family was cascading throughout the rank and file was that no one wanted to take a risk and hunt terrorists. Fifth, delisting of the LTTE front, cover and sympathetic organisations overseas proscribed under UNSCR 1373 for providing funds, procuring weapons and shipping. Listed by the Rajapaksa regime and delisted by the Wickremesinghe regime, the LTTE affiliates overseas rekindled separatism. The LTTE reemerged in Geneva faking as human rights activists and starting to openly commemorate the terrorists that committed suicide or were killed on Nov 26. Playing with security for votes prompted Sri Lanka face twin threats both from the LTTE and IS.
Q: You have a close relationship with India security experts such as former National Security Advisors of India MK Narayan and Shiv Shankar Menon. What were their assessments or responses for your warnings?
A: After having witnessed the assassinations of two Indian Prime Ministers both MK Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon took the threats very seriously. Mr Rajapaksa and I met these Indian security leaders to discuss common threats and how we could work together for greater security of our nations.
The national security establishment in India evolved after the border war with China, war with Pakistan, and Mumbai attacks. With the change in the threat environment, Indian leaders understood that the security architecture should change. That dynamism was lacking throughout the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime. Even after the Easter Sunday attacks, the government failed to a) proscribe IS, c) criminalise both fake news and hate speech inciting violence, d) proscribe ethnic and religious entities that insult other faiths and communities, seize their assets and investigate and prosecute their directing figures, e) disrupt the radicalization pipeline by regulating the religious space.
Q: What are the lessons that we should learn from the Easter Sunday disaster?
A: Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attack, the worst terrorist attack in 2019, offers many lessons. First, government should develop a bipartisan approach to national security and foreign policy. Second, create a national education policy where Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim children study together. Third, integrate the communities to prevent ethnic and religious segregation. Fourth, regulate foreign preachers. Fifth, regulate Sri Lankans studying in Muslim countries where other religions are denigrated. Sixth, develop a common syllabus for madrasah and Arabic Colleges. Seventh, impart knowledge of religions and teach Sinhala and Sri Lankan history as mandatory subjects. Eight, issue a renewable government certificate for all religious teachers and preachers after they sit for an exam. Ninth, ensure that religious sermons are approved by the ministry of religious and cultural affairs, and tenth, promote moderation, tolerance and coexistence through harmony centres, clubs and committees.
Q: Sine the last presidential election, there have been changes in security establishment. For example, country’s premier intelligence agency State Intelligence Service is now being restructured under a new Director Suresh Sallay, who was former Director of Military Intelligence. How do you view these changes?
A: The Rajapaksa government has appointed highly competent persons to the top posts in the Ministry of Defence and the specialist agencies. As the Secretary of Defence, the President appointed General Kamal Gunaratna, and as the Chief of National Intelligence, a highly capable general and General Jagath Alwis, a respected Intelligence veteran, and as the Director of SIS, Brigadier Suresh Sally, the most brilliant Intelligence officer the nation has ever produced. During the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime, the government appointed three civilians as the secretaries of defence – Basnayake, Hettiarachchi and Waidyratne were good men but lacked a solid understanding of national security. Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime took such terrible decisions to please the West, NGOs, human rights bodies and civil libertarians.
Q: Sallay has solid military background. He is the first director to come from a military intelligence instead of police. There is a huge difference between military intelligence and national intelligence. Do you think Sallay could live up to the people’s expectations?
A: Brigadier Sally understands security and Intelligence more than any other serving officer. He represents the finest of a generation of intelligence officers groomed and trained both in Sri Lanka and overseas. Brigadier Sally had rightly identified IS as a preeminent threat and created the capabilities to monitor it. However, these specialist capabilities were dismantled and disrupted by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime. The damage inflicted was so grave that Sri Lankan Intelligence with 7,000 men and women failed to generate the Intelligence to neutralise the IS threat. Eventually, India had to warn Sri Lanka of an IS threat in Sri Lanka. Today, Brigadier Sally is creating the deep expertise within SIS to monitor and fight IS, a preeminent and a persistent threat.
Q: What are the security challenges the country may face in the coming years?
A: Sri Lanka will face twin threats in the coming decades. With IS spreading in South Asia and Afghanistan emerging as an alternative HQ to Iraq and Syria, the Sri Lankan government should build cooperation, collaboration and partnerships with neighboring countries and beyond to contain, isolate and eliminate IS. With the LTTE building support groups in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia and the West, government should work with their foreign counterparts to engage and encourage members of the diaspora communities to participate in rebuilding Sri Lanka. To prevent the emergence of the IS and the LTTE, government should develop programmes in community engagement and rehabilitation. The government should identify those radicalized in the community and custodial settings and rehabilitate them. Working with the religious, education and information ministries, government should develop an Eastern strategy to reform the Muslim institutions – Mosques, madrasah, and Islamic associations producing exclusivists, extremists and terrorists. As the radicalization pipeline is still intact, the IS threat is far from over and should be addressed with the help of Muslim leaders, elders, and elite.
Q: Anything else?
A: The key to mitigating and managing national security threats is to invest in the economic development of Sri Lanka. In keeping with the vision of the new government, Sri Lanka should attract tech and high tech investment. By declaring itself a neutral state, Sri Lanka also should keep away from geopolitical and superpower rivalry.
(This is the first in a series of interviews, reports, commentaries and reviews on national security. )