Terror Outrage in Sri Lanka The Global and Regional Connotations

Sub Title : Is it the Islamic State's peripheral approach to India?

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 2 May/June 2019

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM ** (Retd)

Page No. : 18

Category : Geostrategy

: May 25, 2019

The recent events in Sri Lanka involving the Islamic State (IS) sponsored bombings have global and regional connotations. However, considering that India was one of the nations where a large Muslim population hardly responded to the call of the IS, makes it doubly vulnerable for future IS targeting. With General Elections and a new government in place this is one of the major security challenges facing the new government. Without being alarmist, this could well be the first National Security issue facing the NDA-3

My mindset is much like rest of the people of India; we associate Sri Lanka only with the LTTE, the Tamil separatist terrorist group that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) encountered and battled for over two years (1987-90). Many also consider the Sri Lankan Army’s kinetic victory over the LTTE in 2009 as the best means of defeating a terror organization. Those who know Sri Lanka are however skeptical about the Sri Lankan government and the people’s attitude towards the post war situation. Instead of attempting to integrate the Tamils and put an end to the long festering negative sentiments they carry against the Sinhala majority they were treated as losers and shunned in terms of political concessions and emotional integration. None of this has much to do with the title of this essay; it’s only a brief explanation of why some devious planners of the Islamic State (IS) probably considered Sri Lanka the best territory to start Global Terror 2.0 after loss of the self-styled Caliphate’s core territory in the Levant in the Middle East.

The IS was roundly defeated in a conventional sense by a combination of different entities in Iraq and Syria. Anyone who understands terror, irregular warfare and hybrid threats can appreciate that a conventional victory means eviction of the enemy from physical territory, heavy attrition of its manpower, war fighting material, finances and motivation plus morale. That is not the end of capability to wage war by different means. The ability to exist in virtual state and command the information waves in the modern world with the world wide web and social media freely available, has been demonstrated by the IS as one of its core strengths. “We should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate with that of the virtual caliphate. It’s a movement and it, as we’ve seen, can take hold around the world,” said an American security official.

The initial IS strategy when territory was eroding under its feet after the loss of Fallujah and the impending loss of Mosul in Iraq, was to send back many of its foreign fighters (estimated 40,000) to their original lands and commence scouting for situations through which the IS could develop its own distinct footprint. One of the earliest locations where the IS could develop its footprint was the Philippines, in Marawi in conjunction with the long existing insurgency of the Abu Sayyaf group. An extended standoff with the Philippines Army at Marawi, however finally led to one more physical defeat of the IS. Potential locations for more Marawi like situations could arise in Indonesia or Malaysia. The IS footprint in South East Asia visible through the Marawi episode has been feared very largely by Singapore too which has a 15 percent Muslim population. It’s well wired society and modern policing system have managed to secure it reasonably well, at least thus far. However, big terrorist acts to message capability and attract radicals may yet be possible.

The IS had already considered Somalia and Nigeria as two other potential locations to move its major activities. Surrogate terror groups such as Al Shabab and Boko Haram had been doing its bidding to spread the dragnet into Africa. No doubt Africa offers potential for success with some large Islamic populations but the paralysis effect that IS seeks and was achieving in Iraq and Syria would remain largely elusive. More than a year ago there were enough indicators of the IS intent to seek its fortunes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A couple of high profile terror acts were executed and claimed, especially against the minority Shia community and Sufi shrines. However, a year on it was evident that terrorist spaces in Afghanistan and Pakistan were already full and with little room for compromise to have an organization such as IS attempting to muscle its way to domination.

Why the IS Chose Sri Lanka?

The IS realized that it had little time on its hands to regain relevance as a potent terror entity after eviction from the territories of the Middle East, and inability to make headway in Philippines, Afghanistan or Pakistan. It chose Sri Lanka to make its interim statement before Global Terror 2.0 and not to incubate the movement. Sri Lanka is just too far away from mainstream to nurture an international terror movement with any global impact. It was fine for a local movement such as the LTTE but to expect it to be the headquarters for the IS for the future would be incorrect reading. An impact is what the IS sought and that is what it got.

There are further reasons why IS probably chose Sri Lanka for its statement act. The Muslim issue in the island is not given much focus. The eight percent population of about 1.5 million Muslims has been subjected to social pressure by the majority Sinhala Buddhist community and the LTTE but there has been little history of any major communal violence involving Muslims. Secondly Sri Lankan Muslims have deep contacts in Southern India, good networks and are also frequent travelers to the Middle East. The mainland of Southern India could therefore be exploited to some extent besides the reverse capability of targeting India itself. Essentially surprise was the key factor for choosing Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority is about 1.5 million in numbers; an undetermined number are from the Wahabi sect and others are Sufis. However, in that country’s majority and hard boiled nationalism all other than Sinhala Buddhists are suspects of being anti-national. A severe trust deficit exists based upon years of internal civil war and internecine violence between various faiths and groups. On the international map of Islamist violence or counter violence Sri Lanka has been just a dot; as an island nation under the larger shadow of India where 190 million Muslims reside, its sectarian issues have remained overshadowed. It is just the kind of situation tailor made for two things; first, a demonstration of international radical extremist capability; second to send home a message that these terror networks exist across the world and mother organizations still control them.

There can be little doubt from the post event claims and announcements of the IS that what it actually seeks is an entry into the Indian mainland through a peripheral approach instead of getting to it directly. However, before examining that potential and what needs to be done to counter the IS efforts it will be useful to examine the modus operandi employed for the suicide attacks in Sri Lanka which shook the world and why this succeeded.

The Modus Operandi

The IS chose suicide mode for the terror acts instead of what’s been largely experienced in India, the placement of unmanned improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at crowded places or means of transport such as trains and buses. In the last couple of years this seems to have become the mode of terrorist action especially after the spate of irregular warfare in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The expertise gained by ISIS in suicide bombing is also largely due to its very successful below the radar motivation of a large array of people who are led to believe in salvation through these acts. The eight or nine suicide bombers at the various target locations in Sri Lanka were probably the largest concentration of such bombers for a single connected series of terror acts after 9/11 when many went to their deaths in the fiery crashes of four aircraft. The agony of this entire operation by IS is most felt from the fact that one of the richest Muslim families of Sri Lanka chose to become a pawn for the IS. This helped escape intelligence although Sri Lanka had enough intelligence warnings about it from both the US and India; warnings of even the names of suicide bombers. Obviously detailed specifics are obtained by local operatives and agencies but the pointers had been given. It was smart thinking on part of the IS to recruit some Muslim families after radicalizing them completely. Thus in Jan 2019 when a huge cache of 100 kg of explosives and 100 detonators, hidden in a coconut grove near the Wilpattu National Park, was discovered investigations probably led elsewhere. A mission of this kind would have required detailed planning, safe houses, an extensive network of planners and handlers, expertise on bomb-making and significant funding. That is where the genius of harnessing families worked wonders. Instead of individuals whose reliability becomes suspect, harnessing families reduces the number of danger points. Investigations into church bombings in Indonesia a year ago also revealed a similar modus operandi of family networks.

Well-heeled and apparently well to do people acting as suicide bombers makes the task of security agencies that much more challenging. In my experience most star quality hotels in the world have no checks at entry points and just rely on cameras. In an interaction with security officials in Singapore I brought this to their notice as also about restricting access points just as it is done in Indian hotels. There is no guarantee that a suicide bomber will yet be discovered but security is all about maximizing the chances of discovery. In the instant case in Colombo entry to a breakfast restaurant of a high-end hotel was easily gained by a bomber leading to the mayhem that followed. The speed with which subsequent actions were taken by the security agencies revealed that information about the network was available but not acted upon. The New York Times wrote – “the history of bitter infighting between Sri Lanka’s leaders appears to have contributed to a spectacular security breakdown that led to one of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks”. There is no doubt that when political instability sets in security is a huge casualty because intelligence agencies who should be monitoring such inputs get involved with political intelligence to the detriment of national security.

Sri Lanka is now reeling under the impact of the carnage with night curfew and on a few days even day curfew. Religious gatherings have been banned and social turbulence has been witnessed in many areas with Muslims as victims. The IS aim is thus achieved because this creates the kind of antipathy among innocents who then become sympathizers of the perpetrators. Officials are many times reluctant to act upon obvious signals of impending turbulence choosing to ignore hate speeches, videos with inciting content and even clerics giving sermons which are laced with vitriol. This is the beginning of radicalization of individuals.

Data follow up duly merged with information from past practice reveals that the very large network which probably supported the execution of this carnage has not been entirely neutralized by the spate of arrests and follow up suicide bombings carried out while some were under threat of arrest.  Some have gone underground and many have probably escaped into Southern India.

The Indian Scenario : How Vulnerable is it to the IS Aim?

The IS probably found India’s southern region as one with potential for exploitation. Presence of Muslims in India is not concentrated; it is actually fairly evenly distributed around the country. Historically it is believed that Islam which came to the southern region did so mostly by the direct sea route from the Arab world, along with the Arab traders. A large number of Muslims from the region have sought their fortunes in the Gulf countries and are Arab influenced in their religious leanings. Despite this the ratio of fighters from India who joined the IS has been miniscule as compared to a nation such as Maldives which has the highest per capita ratio of IS fighters. Yet an Indian connection to the IS was revealed very early when Shami Witness (code name), an Indian youth handled the IS propaganda through a twitter account while living in Bangalore for eight months before he was discovered and arrested.

India does not present the ideal grounds for exploitation for various reasons. Indian Muslims are actually different. They are among the few who have had an opportunity to rub shoulders and share lunches with people of every faith. They participate in different religious festivals. There are cities where Hindus and Muslims sit together to decide the routes and timings of processions on days when festivals clash; such inter faith bonhomie can rarely be witnessed anywhere in the world. Yet with all that there are maverick elements on both sides who cannot rest in peace or stop gloating about the preeminence of their respective religions. An organization such as the IS thrives on the divisiveness created by both these segments by promoting mutual fears.

Merely the presence of Muslims is not an invitation for terrorism to establish root; such belief is as bad as labeling all Muslims as potential terrorists. It must also be remembered that vilifying any one segment of Muslims too is counterproductive. Radicals are those who believe in the right of existence of only their ideology and sanction the use of violence to convert all others to their belief. This is best illustrated by a captured Pakistani suicide bomber    interviewed on Geo TV who was questioned on why he believed he was doing something for Islam when all the people killed by his potential act were also fellow Muslims.   His answer sums it in the best way. He stated that none of the people who would be killed were actually Muslims because true Muslims were only those who thought and followed the faith the way he and his colleagues did. That is an actual hard core radical of the IS variety which the world is battling. There are enough Muslims who are battling them too but there are also enough confused Muslims around the world and probably in India who incorrectly think that the IS Caliphate is a true Caliphate and that they are duty bound to support it and fight for it. That is how this entire problem needs to be viewed in India. The success of the Indian intelligence agencies in quelling radical networks is praiseworthy but what is required to be remembered is that the IS is not any ordinary terrorist entity as has been exhibited time and again through its innovative methods, choice of targets and modus operandi.

While the Indian Muslim may be politically disaffected by divisive overtones prevalent in today’s politics in India he is not anti-national and never was. Progressive mainstreaming has occurred over time and created greater confidence. What need to be looked for are maverick and misled people who have been drafted under the radar, as it happened in Sri Lanka. IS will look for people done under by local politics, and those unsure of achieving aspirations. Replicating Sri Lanka it could also look for better heeled and well to do Muslims who seek leadership roles in their sub society.  In a world beset by social media and internet, people living in isolated closed communities have great scope for brooding. Given this phenomenon any part of India can be vulnerable. In its devious way IS will seek to execute one or two heinous acts and await the social impact of these on society before proceeding to exploit those inevitably affected by the negative impact of investigations, arrests and detentions. That’s an issue which security agencies cannot ignore and must find solutions against. Fake news and disinformation will be the mantra for those looking to spread disaffection. In India we are struggling with the fake news phenomenon which has been rampant even in the political environment.

The intelligence agencies must keep on the scanner the Rohingya issue, politics of West Bengal, the communal tensions of west UP and the reported rise of radicalism in Southern India; all should be treated equally as potential pre trigger situations. The known IS strategy of riding on established surrogate networks is another aspect to keep in mind. Intelligence agencies are mostly aware of such things but it’s a question of drawing attention with requisite focus at the appropriate time. Done once too often gives rise to ‘cry wolf’ syndrome. Ignoring and postponing leads to situations as witnessed in Sri Lanka. It’s the compromise which is essential. Dissemination and check back on the ground of intelligence having reached the right quarter must be a part of the Intelligence Cycle, something not even included in the Indian Army’s intelligence manuals; the Intelligence Cycle usually ends with ‘dissemination’ whereas it should with ‘feedback’.

The IS riding surrogate capability in J&K is an issue which comes to mind. Having penetrated an island state such as Sri Lanka we should not discount too early a potential capability to exploit Kashmir. There have been decoys galore so far. Conventional understanding points to muscling for space but since Pakistan thus far does not support IS, finding a footing in Kashmir is going to be difficult. However, one major spectacular act could be sufficient to trigger more. That is why the trend of denying IS presence and capability in a turbulent zone does nothing to secure us better.

Extending this to the Red Corridor may sound ridiculous because ideological differences with the Maoists are far too distinct. However, terror organizations are known to align for tactical reasons and not only due to ideological convergence. South Asia has huge networks of syndicates involved in transnational crime, terror and ideological wars. In the past these networks have worked in favour of the LTTE which could keep a supply line running even to the island state and probably remain linked to Maoists. The complexity of such networks which extend even into SE Asia is the challenge that Indian intelligence will encounter and it’s the same complexity that the IS will wish to exploit.

Finally what is necessary is a non-alarmist attitude of accepting that despite India’s strong secular, tolerant and plural culture there are cracks which remain and will widen with efforts of organizations such as IS. Preventing the first act is as important as ensuring all-pervading counter measures to avoid trends which could translate into any advantage for the IS. That is where the work is cut out for the new government which in large measure is already familiar with the situation. However, if the IS is truly serious about the Indian heartland then one can expect it to approach from different directions to force diversion of intelligence effort. Getting segments of the minority population restive on radical grounds could also be a ploy.

The one way of tackling the impending danger is to read the riot act to central and state intelligence agencies  as an early entry into the tenure of the new government may just be sought by the wily IS.