By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo,August 7: Internationally known terrorism expert, Dr.Rohan Gunaratna, believes that preventive measures such as de-radicalisation of ideology work better than post-terror actions, no matter how thorough and muscular the latter may be.
De-radicalization of Islamic ideology is a must if Islamic terrorism is to be mitigated. And the process should be continuous because ideologies survive even after the physical manifestations of ideologies like terrorist attacks have been stamped out.
In his data-rich work Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre: Lessons for the International community (Penguin 2023), Gunaratna says that Islamic terrorism is but an outgrowth of Wahhabism or Salafism, which is spreading rapidly across the world using modern tools of communication. It will be futile to try combating Islamic terrorism if nothing is done to destroy its ideological roots, he emphasizes.
Gunaratna, who is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore, says that the April 21, 2019 bomb blasts which claimed more than 200 lives, could recur if Sri Lanka continues to lack a legal and policy framework to curb radicalization and to promote moderation, tolerance, and coexistence in its place.
Typically, governments look to arresting the perpetrators after blasts but do not take steps to prevent the blasts, he points out.
Governments should also build and constantly maintain capabilities in the military, law enforcement, and the intelligence agencies to prevent and pre-empt terrorist attacks, he adds.
For a de-radicalization process to succeed, Sri Lanka has to develop a common approach by eschewing confrontational politics and forging consensus on a national security agenda. Security lies in social and religious harmony. Therefore, there should be no partisanship in these matters.
Religious extremism fostered by Wahhabi and Salafi Islam and their institutions is reflected in “religious exclusivism” Gunaratna says. Therefore, any tendency towards religious exclusivism should be combated both by State and community action.
The exclusivist tendency is manifested in the Wahhabis’ avoidance of the company of moderate Sufi Muslims and those following other religions. Such avoidance reinforces negative feelings about persons following other religions. Gunaratna says that Sufi Muslims did not get radicalized partly because they were not exclusivists avoiding the company of people of other faiths.
The April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday attacks demonstrated a number of gaps, loopholes and weaknesses in the Sri Lankan national security framework. On whether there could be similar attacks in the future, Gunaratna says that it would be suicidal to ignore the potential for a repetition.
With enhanced globalization, ease of travel, migration, and advances in communication technology, ideas travel fast, with few restrictions. And action follows.
The Easter Sunday attacks were inspired by events in the Middle East and the ISIS’s counter actions there. Inspiration from Islamic extremists in South India such as P.Jainulabdeen (PJ) also contributed to the radicalisation of bomber cum ideologue Zahran Hashim and his bunch of desperados.
Although terrorism is not new to Sri Lanka, the emergence of Islamic religious exclusivism, extremism, and terrorism presents a new set of problems.
Unlike Tamil terrorism which was open, and which stemmed from long-standing and well-publicized grievances, Islamic radicalism was clandestine and insidious, growing underground without being noticed by the powers-that-be as well as the public.
“ Three decades preceding the Easter massacre, radical Salafi-Wahhabi and Jamaat-e-Islami ideologies separated Muslims from non-Muslims. Foreign ideologies supplanted the inclusive Sri Lankan Muslim heritage. These virulent ideologies crystallized in operational cells, networks, and groups that gravely damaged national unity,” Gunaratna notes.
The political and intelligence community noticed this development but did not see them as a “threat”. The most regrettable part is that even after the Easter blasts, the appreciation of the underling threat from Islamic radicalism is weak. Many of the banned Wahhabi groups continued to operate either clandestinely or by infiltrating like-minded entities.
“Although the ring leader of the terrorists Zahran Hashim committed suicide, his ideology endues. And as long as the ideology of hatred against traditional Muslims and other faiths persists, it is likely that Sri Lanka will suffer other copycat fanatics. Dismantling the ideological foundation is the apex challenge,” Gunaratna says.
But that was not done during the Yahapalnaya (Good governance) regime headed by President Sirisena between 2015 and 2019. According to Gunaratna the security and intelligence platforms were systematically dismantled. The architect of the security structure, Brig.Suresh Salley, was posted to Malaysia and politicians were allegedly under pressure from the human rights lobby to direct the police to arrest and imprison intelligence officers.
The very effective “Operation Blind Eye” of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in the Western Province was called off. Sgt.Khaleel, who was familiar with Zahran’s activities in the Eastern Province, was put in jail from 2016 to 2021.
“Intelligence personnel knew all the Easter Sunday attackers but they lacked political patronage and legal support, to keep the threat under check,” Gunaratna says.
However, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had raised the radicalism issue with the President of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) Mufthi MCM Rizwe. The ACJU chief promised to address the issue but failed to deliver. “Harmony Centres” were to be set up to reduce the animosity between the Wahhabis and the Sufis. But few such centres came up. This was the situation even after the 2019 blasts, Gunaratna points out.
A number reports had come out after the blasts which had valuable suggestions. Among the suggestions were: screening and certifying local and foreign clerics; blacklisting hate speakers; developing a wholesome curriculum for clerics to bring out commonalities among various religions; regularly reviewing what is taught to the clerics to remove objectionable material like justification of violence; setting up a Council of Religious Harmony at the national level as in Singapore.
There has been no effort to work out a political consensus on the national security threat from fundamentalism. When Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe told parliament that more than 30 Sri Lankans had gone to Syria to fight for the ISIS, he came in for heavy flak though he was only basing his statement on intelligence reports.
Gunaratna regrets that there is no awareness among political leaders about security. Such awareness needs to be created. Intelligence agencies must keep their political bosses informed and updated. Intelligence agencies must also acquire greater competencies by recruiting specialists in a variety of fields from technology to the social sciences.
There should be inter-agency collaboration. One way of doing this will be to interchange personnel. The head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence and State Intelligence Service must be equal in rank with the chiefs of the three armed forces, the army, navy and air force. There should be a National Security Council and a National Security Advisor of cabinet rank. To back up security-related action, there should be a National Security Act, Gunaratna suggests.
How Islamic Countries tackle radicalism
To counter radical Islamists, Islamic countries also formulate and execute suitable policies. The Saudi government has adopted a two pronged approach says Dr.Abdullah Ansary in a paper published by the Middle East Policy Council. The first prong is ruthless action against those who commit terrorist acts (on April 23, 2019, 37 terrorists were executed). The second prong is re-education and re-indoctrination of detainees, the pool of supporters and fellow travellers.
The goal of the latter is to encourage prisoners to renounce their radical ideology by providing them with psychological and sociological counselling and by engaging them in intensive religious dialogue. It is estimated that only 10% of terror-related prisoners are hardcore with entrenched deviant beliefs. The rest are followers and sympathizers, who can be remoulded.
The Psychological and Social Subcommittee includes more than 30 psychiatrists and psychologists, and 160 Muslim clerics, scholars and university professors.
The Ministry of Education has conducted an audit of school textbooks and curricula to ensure that teachers do not espouse intolerance and extremism.
In Turkey the “Imam Hatip” schools are part of the State’s “social engineering.” They are designed to produce ‘enlightened’ religious functionaries and foster an understanding of Islam that is compatible with the needs of a modern State.
“Diyanet” is the State religious organization which controls the country’s mosques. The Diyanet also dictates what is preached in the mosques. Turkish President Erdogan is a supporter of Turkey’s brand of secularism called Laiklik . The Shariah is not a source of legislation. Government retains its monopoly over religious education and outreach. Religious congregations called Cemaats are tightly controlled.
But taking into account the fact that the Turkish people are innately conservative, Erdogan’s government endorses conservative values, such as teetotalism and female veiling.