Sri Lanka: Reasons for the attack

“Our battle today is a war of attrition to harm the enemy and they should know that Jihad will continue until doomsday… There will be more to come…”

by Colonel (retired) Parakrama Dissanayake

Pre-incident: The saying ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ stands true with Sri Lanka getting caught up with the sensationalised news of Namal Kumara, Makandure Madush and drugs. Sometimes people do not know whether to cry or laugh. The overall purpose of the article is to point out how much we are missing out on the more important things in national life.

It's not the gun that wins the battle, but the soldier behind it

The 1998 bomb attacks in Coimbatore, India have been the base for this research. Why? The attacks took place under similar circumstances and still holds water. Coimbatore, for some time, had been a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. The Al Ummah terror group came to be known in Tamil Nadu, after the Babri Masjid demolition in India, in 1992. February 14, 1998 saw the group killing 58 people and injuring more than 200 people by carrying out 12 bomb attacks within an area of 12 sq km. The suicide attackers, however, were said to have missed their target – Bharatiya Janatha Party stalwart L K Advani. The purpose of the attack was established to avenge the killing of 18 cadres. The authorities missed out on the intelligence. Two decades later in Sri Lanka, the pre-incident activity and the modus operandi of the terror attacks are similar. Inaction on intelligence, multiple targets at a time and ideology of the perpetrators are very conspicuous. In Sri Lanka, the motive of the attack is not yet established, other than assumptions. If any of these assumptions are believed, without rationale, substance and argument, results would be catastrophic.

A plot to kill Hindu Makkal Katchchi leader Arjun Sampath and Shakthi Sena leader Anbu Mari in November 2018 in Coimbatore was to lay bare a bigger threat. None realised it would open another chapter in the annals of global terror. That was to be Sri Lanka.

Reasons for the attack

Times changed, situations changed and technology changed, but not the extremist ideology and the will to kill. The genesis of the attack was an intelligence report from the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) on April 4. Many quarters, on different platforms, have given many different reasons for the attack and its background.

The official one was given by the State Minister of Defence, stating in Parliament that this was to avenge the killings of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand on March 15. The Minister bases his information on what he is being told by authoritative sources. Suffice to say, multiple attacks of this nature take months of preparation: Possibly six months or more, considering the planning, surveillance, logistics, training and indoctrination efforts that go into them. The period from March 15 to April 21 was just over a month.

A social media news item, which is going viral, speculates that an ambassador of a powerful nation, who happened to have served in many hot spots before Sri Lanka, is part of the plot. This opinion is gathering momentum and the culmination would be when politicians bring it out at media discussions. The danger is, at a time like this, the people believe anything and everything.

Some subscribe to the theory that it was a lesson for the Americans and anyone cooperating with them. True, some Americans, too, were killed. Going further, the attack is attributed to the defence agreement signed by the two countries. An extremely balanced view is needed in such thoughts. All Sri Lankan armed forces personnel will be happy with extended cooperation, due to the experience and exposure they gain both in the country and in the US. No national security issue could be compromised, even if logistic assistance is provided, as happens in many countries. One must not forget that the US and its citizens have been the prime target since 9/11. Thus, the US’ primary concern is to protect its borders and people. In such situations, with its counter-terror action, many countries will stand to benefit from the spillover effect. Having been on US higher training, I am of the opinion that the US has everything that it needs to know about Sri Lanka. Many other countries, too, have this capability.

Yet another topic is the weak security situation. We do not need specialists to tell us this. It would have been more convincing if the argument was put forward with evidence and facts comparing such attacks in other nations and their state of preparedness. Indian and other media were flooded with much information connected to the incident and its background. The most interesting revelation is about the appearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader of the ISIS, in a video clip released on April 29.

ISIS on the run

Baghouz, the last bastion of the ISIS in Syria, fell in March 2019. With the battle of Baghouz done and dusted, the ISIS is now on the run. When they were riding high, they controlled vast swathes of land and people. Mosul alone had about 2 million people. They have now been relegated to a withdrawing army. No more holding territory. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in the Great Mosque of Al Nuri in Mosul in 2014. The morale was high then. Public executions, people being burnt alive were shown as force multipliers. They held Mosul till 2017. He went off the radar after 2014. Suddenly, he appeared on April 29 and surprised the world. His message was loud and clear. He said: “Your brothers in Sri Lanka have healed the hearts of the monotheists, with their suicide bombings, which shook the beds of the crusaders during Easter…

“The attacks would continue… We will be everywhere, in different places…

“Our battle today is a war of attrition to harm the enemy and they should know that Jihad will continue until doomsday… There will be more to come…”

He also said the attack was to “avenge your brothers in Baghouz.” Crusaders (Christians) the world over would be targeted. The global Jihad is a fact. He didn’t make a direct claim for the attack, as one of their own (normally they would, to raise the morale of cadres). No mention of US contracts, New Zealand or weak security. After all, this comes from the horse’s mouth, to all followers and supporters. This is the latest piece of information that we can analyse. This is the real threat we are confronted with, the one to be appraised and told to the general public. The US President, however, said “mission accomplished, the war is over”. Not really.

Emerging roles

Over the years, several groups outside the Middle East have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. They have struck with devastating results. The UN in 2016, estimated them to be about 304. Therefore, in the current context, we need to think of the real threat and the role to be played in a wider dimension. The trend is self radicalised groups, from among the former, operating independent terror cells throughout the world, with adequate funding, but not directly members of the ISIS. Thus, we cannot place all mundane security matters in the hands of the armed forces and the police and sit by. Imagine how it would look, if they are to guard and protect every place of worship, hotel, bank and school for the next few years.

Specific international support

Much of the international contribution will be in the form of knowledge and technology exchange. Although our experience in fighting the LTTE is unmatched, India and the US will be looked upon to fill the critical gaps. The US involvement to raise the Mujahideen and the Indian involvement to raise the LTTE are all but similar. The damage they did to the core of society in the respective countries and the lessons learnt are difficult to ignore. In fact, Hillary Clinton admitted recently that the US was the father to the former. India has already demonstrated its ability and will to play a role on the issue.

That said, India is on record as one of the most affected countries by terrorism. Once the Indian elections are concluded, we need to be able to work more closely with the authorities. In this situation, India would be happy to have its southern border protected. It could then concentrate more on the vulnerable Pakistani and Chinese fronts. If Sri Lanka is protected and secure, India, too, will benefit and vice versa.

With regard to the US, the proposition is no different, although we are not close neighbours. In counter-terrorism today, a key weakness is that it does not address the causes. No strategy that attempts to deal with terrorism can be successful if it does not recognise the nature and seriousness of terrorism’s causes. In such a situation, a large volume of data needs to be analysed. Sourcing international platforms and initiatives aggressively will be to our advantage. The state needs to interact with countries like the US and others to strategise our response. At the moment, the political leadership implies that military response is the answer to the question. The Sri Lanka Institute of Strategic Studies, the Institute of National Security Studies, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, where art thou?

Corporate community

Long-term reliance on state resources like the military and the police will be unfair and impossible, other than for specific tasks. Some hotels have employed commandos and sniffer dogs for security. The latter will have more serious issues to deal with. Corporates will have to spend time and money to devise basic security mechanisms which go beyond the normal manpower. Developments in technology are one hope. Video auditing, motion detection on CCTV, explosives and narcotics sniffers are just some to mention.

Legal challenges

I heard over radio, some lawyers have decided not to appear for the suspects. My idiom holds. “A citizen should have trust and confidence over various institutions of the Sate,” as Justice Praba Sridevan of India has said. We remember the 9/1 and the 19/2 Detention Orders during the earlier conflict. My experience in the last conflict is that we made more enemies by remanding suspects and not putting them on trial. Innocent families were made hapless and helpless by depriving them of their sole breadwinner – in recent times, the remanding of military personnel without trial. Legal knowledge, education and literacy on basic laws to the armed forces are a must at this point.

What about the call to surrender? Hardly anything has been spoken about this aspect. Giving confidence to the wrongdoers and the indoctrinated is most important, at least, for the sake of their families. This is nothing new. We have gone through this process many years ago. The committee report on the bomb attack was handed over to the Attorney General on May 8.

Again, going back to Coimbatore, the Retired Justice Gopalkrishman Committee interviewed 1,300 witnesses. The attack took place in 1998 and the judgment was delivered in 2007. A key suspect, Madani, was acquitted. This is not taking into account the appeals. Such is the challenge for the legal fraternity. Protection of witnesses and sources of information, too, will be a need, as most of them will be from the Muslim community. Nothing will come out if their life is under threat. Already a case of killing an informant has been reported from Wathupitiwela in Nittambuwa.

As much as combating terrorism and fundamentalism is important, combating hate speech and propaganda to prevent communal clashes is extremely important. Weaknesses in State policy and lethargy in institutions will only be won over by multidisciplinary cooperation. The saying “it’s not the gun that wins the battle, but the soldier behind it”, cannot be more true. It’s not the State but the people who will be decisive in winning this battle for the nation.

(The writer can be contacted via

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