Sri Lanka: Easter Sunday attack was ideological – US Army Col. Sellin

Primarily, I recommend heightened national vigilance, maintaining contact with responsible members of the Sri Lankan Muslim community and close cooperation with international partners dedicated to the reduction of Islamic extremism.

by Nilantha Ilangamuwa

The most sophisticated coordinated terror attack in the history of Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday kills over 250 unarmed innocents while leaving hundreds more of people with life-changing wounds. This was the first assault on the nation by the Islamic Terrorism. The so-called Islamic State has taken the responsibility of the heinous crimes while local as well as foreign intelligence agencies warned further attack by the members of Islamic extremism.

Lawrence Sellin who is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel with branch qualifications and assignments in Special Forces, Infantry, Chemical and Medical Services talked with Nilantha Ilangamuwa in an exclusive interview on prevailing threats by the extremists and Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka.

Col. Sellin served in Afghanistan and Iraq and participated in a humanitarian mission to West Africa. Sellin holds a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College and received training in Arabic, Kurdish and French from the Defense Language Institute. He has a distinguished civilian career in medical research and international business after completing a Ph.D. in physiology.


Question: Col. Sellin, thank you for joining us. I believe this is the very first interview you are giving to the Sri Lankan press. Tell us about you and your service as one of the senior military officers deployed in Middle East!

Answer: Yes, this is my first interview with the Sri Lankan press.

I served 29 years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Unlike active duty personnel, Reservists have parallel civilian careers, which, in my case, was in the international information technology business after approximately 15 years in medical research for which I obtained a Ph.D. in physiology.

I am a graduate of the U.S. Army Special Warfare School, commonly known as the Green Berets, and I have branch qualifications and assignment experience in Infantry, Chemical and the Medical Services Corps.

I served two tours in Afghanistan, the first as an embedded trainer with the Afghan Army, which took me all along the Afghan-Pakistan border from Nuristan to Helmand Provinces. For the second tour, I was a staff officer at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters in Kabul.

I was deployed to northern Iraq in 2008-2009, where I was involved efforts to improve counterinsurgency command and control and defensive measures against, for example, attacks using anti-armor grenades (RKG-3) and various types of improvised explosive devices whether fixed or vehicle-borne.

I was also responsible for the humanitarian component of a special operations mission to West Africa in 2007, where we delivered medical, dental and veterinary services to rural villages.

Q. You are a member of the Citizens Commission of National Security. Tell us about the role of this initiative.

A. The Citizens Commission on National Security is one group of which I am a member. It is composed of individuals with experience in the military, intelligence, diplomacy, legislation, and the media to exert an impact on the strength and security of America by holding both politicians and the media accountable for policy formulation and accurate reporting.

Q. Do you think US foreign policy on Middle East and elsewhere did not address the root causes of the problems but caused towards further worsening?

A. Like all countries, the U.S. has had both successes and failures in foreign policy. The root causes of problems are not always obvious at the time a decision is required, they vary by local conditions and they often evolve over time. It is, therefore, only in retrospect can we most effectively analyze and learn from both successes and failures in national policies. In some cases, I think U.S. involvement improved the situation, in some cases not.

Q. What are the positive achievements of the US’s military interventions in Middle East?

A. Because it is too early in a strategic sense to evaluate them, I would not describe them as achievements, but certain courses of actions, I think, were necessary, like the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

On the other hand, I think there has been too much eagerness on the part of recent U.S. administrations to intervene when it shouldn’t or to intervene appropriately, but then employ strategies that proved counterproductive. Obama’s Arab Spring policies were a total disaster. The removal of Saddam Hussein was beneficial to the Iraqi people, but the invasion and the methods implemented subsequently ended up destabilizing and disrupting a balance of power in the region, unnecessarilybenefiting Iran. Although the 2001 removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was the correct course of action, the counterinsurgency and nation-building approach did not address the problems created by Pakistan, which has ultimately led to a failure after an initial success.

Q. Islamic extremists group are mushrooming around the globe. Their latest testing ground is South Asia. Why is the US and its alliance unable to vanquish this problem, though adequate resources have been allocated to implement the strategies?

A. Although based on the select interpretation of religious tenets, Islamic extremism is an international problem not substantially different from other totalitarian threats such as fascism or communism. At this stage, Islamists use the techniques of subversion i.e. radicalization, infiltration of target societies and anarchist-like violence to achieve its aims of a global caliphate and the implementation of sharia.

The instigators of that extremism and operating continuously in the background are the global promoters of austere and often intolerant forms of Islam such as Wahhabism-Salafism, financed either by wealthy individuals or nation-states that offer forums for radicalization and sources for potential jihadi recruits.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, for example, are brands or franchises more than specific entities, who exploit local and regional grievances or power vacuums and provide the operational arm for radicalized jihadis in terms of terrorist training and support.

Combating the terrorist network requires a coordinated international effort addressing the radicalization process, stopping the international financing, often involving the narcotics trade, and, in particular, sanctioning the nation states acting as facilitators.

Q. Some reports have been published saying that the USA is funding the Islamic Extremists. In fact, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria known ISIS is nothing but their creation. What do you think?

A. The Islamic State as a U.S. creation is total nonsense. Such a claim is misinformation or classical Freudian projection, accusing others of what you yourself are doing. There are, however, cases where the U.S. badly misjudged the groups it supported, a good example being Obama’s disastrous Arab Spring policy and the U.S. interventions associated with it.

Q. You were highly critical about Pakistan. In many of your writings, you have pointed that Pakistan, especially its state spy agency known as Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), is sponsoring the Islamic extremists. However, the US has a long history of maintaining a goodwill relationship with Pakistan. Don’t you think the US has the responsibility for course correction in Pakistan?

A. The Trump Administration may have turned the corner on U.S. relations with Pakistan, finally recognizing Pakistan’s duplicity regarding its relationship with the U.S. in the Afghanistan war. While accepting U.S. aid, Pakistan has been conducting a proxy war against Afghanistan and the U.S. through its support of the Taliban. Pakistan is an ally of China and its aims in Afghanistan have never coincided with those of the U.S. I believe we will see a further U.S. alignment with India and an increased U.S. propensity to support sanctions against Pakistan for its facilitation of Islamic extremism. In all those respects, Pakistan has chosen to make itself an enemy of the U.S.

Q. In your recent article about Jihad’s infiltration to South Asia, you have discussed Easter Sunday Bombings in Sri Lanka. That was paradigm shift in the Island nation. Do you think Sri Lanka’s War on Drugs caused this move of Islamic Extremists who are getting large funds out of selling drugs?

A. There is no doubt that Islamic extremists use drug trafficking and other criminal activities to support their violent operations. It is a means to an end. The Easter Sunday attack was ideological, not a response to Sri Lanka’s actions to prevent illicit drug sales. If anything, the bombings should motivate the Sri Lankan authorities to undertake greater efforts to block that source of terrorist financing.

Q. Many conspiracy theories are popping up over the Easter Sunday Bombings in Sri Lanka. Some of them are arguing it is an act of Saudi Arabia with the help of US intelligence agency to dismantle the Chinese involvement in the Island nation. In fact, leaked alleged classified letter by Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry to its embassy in Colombo warned of such attack days ahead. How do you look at them as a military veteran who fought some of the most difficult wars in the century?

A. I think Sri Lanka is aware and increasingly wary of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. Of course, the U.S. does not wish Sri Lanka to become overly dependent upon or obligated to China. Any concerns that the U.S. may harbor, however, could be easily resolved through normal discourse within the context of the decades of friendly relations between the U.S. and Sri Lanka.

It is truly absurd and delusional to believe that the U.S. would involve itself or even be privy to such a heinous crime that took place in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Serious suggestions of that nature can only originate from a deliberate disinformation campaign.

There are now widely published reports that India provided warnings several times starting weeks before the attack. It is said that alerts came from the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself and alarm bells should have been set off by the January seizure of explosives by Sri Lankan security forces.

It is possible that Saudi Arabia might have suspected a possible attack given the connections between the bombers and a variety of Saudi-funded Wahhabi/Salafist organizations and feedback obtained from them. But it all remains speculation at this point.

Q. Sri Lanka is fresh ground for ISIS terrorism, though extremist thoughts started spreading in the Island since the mid-80s. What is your advice to the people in the governing system and law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka on conquering this new threat?

A. Primarily, I recommend heightened national vigilance, maintaining contact with responsible members of the Sri Lankan Muslim community and close cooperation with international partners dedicated to the reduction of Islamic extremism. Radicalization is the first step in the recruitment of violent jihadis, where the monitoring of social media has an important preventative function as well as the adjudication of local grievances. International connections and the movement of suspects involving terrorist financing, training or links to the intelligence services of facilitating nation-states are of equal importance.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian


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