Prof. Rohan Gunaratna said one of the bombers, Abdul Lathief, the aeronautical engineer could have been radicalised during his post graduate studies in Australia. ‘The Australian intelligence was aware of him for years, but the information was not shared with the Sri Lankan counterparts which was a grave mistake,’ he said adding that Abdul had also worked with British Jihadi John, the IS executioner in Syria.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer, he said the terrorist threat in Sri Lanka has now diminished with over 95% of the operatives being rounded up and captured. Prof. Rohan Gunaratna is a Professor of Security Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He prepared the blueprint for setting up the Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka, the think-tank of the Ministry of Defence.
Q: How many Sri Lankan Islamic groups are linked to the IS?
A: In Sri Lanka, there are no other IS support groups than the NTJ and the JMI. A small number of Muslims came under the influence of the Islamic State with its declaration of a Caliphate after June 29, 2014. Until then, there was no support for the IS or its aims and objectives. Even within the NTJ and the JMI, there was no unanimous support for the IS. Sri Lankan Muslims were shocked by the graphic violence, especially the beheadings by the IS. Compared to other countries in the region, the Sri Lankan supporters and sympathisers of the IS are small. Most Sri Lankan Muslims are ideologically mainstream – they are moderate.
Q: When were these links established, according to your research?
A: IS links to Sri Lanka were established by a Sri Lankan living in the UK. This Sri Lankan, radicalised by IS ideology while in the UK, arrived in Sri Lanka and radicalised his family and the extended family. They left Sri Lanka on January 15, 2015 and entered Syria via Turkey. Subsequently other Sri Lankans too joined this group increasing the presence of Sri Lankans to 41. The group was led by Mohammad Sharhaz Nilam who was killed in Syria on July 12, 2015.
Q: Were the Lankan youth radicalised locally or overseas?
A: The pace of radicalisation was slow in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Muslims coexist with Sinhalese and Tamils. They were a model community for decades, working with the security forces to fight a common threat during the LTTE reign of terror. They lived amidst other communities. Except in a few pockets, such as Kattankudy, Sri Lankan Muslims are well integrated into the Sinhala and Tamil communities. The IS propaganda appealed only to a narrow segment of Sri Lankan Muslims. The radicalisation was both in physical and cyber space. Only a tiny minority could be radicalised. Even the Tawheed cults consisted of about two percent of the Muslim community.
Q: What is the Australian connection, one suicide bomber had acted strangely after his postgraduate studies in Australia, his sister says?
A: The failed Taj Samudra bomber and a trained aeronautics engineer Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed was known to the Australian security and intelligence since 2014. However, intelligence was not adequately shared and acted upon by the international security and intelligence community. After his study of aerospace engineering at Kingston University, UK in 2006, Abdul Lathief followed a postgraduate degree at Melbourne’s Swinburne University from 2009 to 2013. Thereafter, Lathief travelled to Turkey, the gateway to Syria where he was trained in the IS. While in Raqqa, the capital of the IS territory, Lathief worked with British Pakistani Junaid Hussain, an IS hacker, an Australian born Neil Prakash, an IS recruiter, and a British Jihadi John, an IS executioner. It is very likely that Latheef was radicalised in Australia. Upon his return from Australia, his family observed that he had withdrawn from mainstream living, but they neither reported to the authorities nor sought counseling to assist him.
Q: Sri Lankan Christians and Muslims have never been enemies. But the Easter Sunday attacks targeted Christian churches. Do you think this is only reason to believe the attacks were perpetrated by the IS?
A: There is no animosity between the Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka. The Christians are a gentle and a refined community. However, the ‘IS central’ instructed the IS Branch in Sri Lanka to strike Western and Christian targets. Although Abu Bakr al Baghdadi claimed that Sri Lanka attacks were in revenge for loss of Baghuz, the last IS stronghold in Syria, the IS had systematically attacked churches first in Iraq and Syria in the Middle East and then in Asia. In Asia where Christians and Muslims coexist, the IS mounted attacks on four churches in Indonesia in May 2018, a Cathedral in the Philippines in January 2019 and three churches in Sri Lanka in April 2019. The far-reaching response of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith prevented a riot among the Christian Sinhalese and Tamils and the Muslims. What the IS wanted to precipitate was to break Sri Lanka’s social cohesion and harmony.
Q: It took them three days to claim credit for this and the IS has a habit of claiming credit for others’ acts?
A: The IS rarely claims credit for attacks mounted by non IS groups. The IS’s modus operandi is not only attacks mounted by ‘IS central’ operatives in the Middle East, but also inspires, enables and directs groups to mount attacks. It is rare for an IS hit team from Syria and Iraq to launch attacks here. The link between the Sri Lankan suicide bombers and the attackers with ‘IS central’ is evident. The external operations wing of ‘IS central’ communicated with the IS Branch in Sri Lanka that drew its recruits from Jamiatul millatu Ibrāhīm fi Seylani (JMI), NTJ and other self-radicalised individuals on the Internet.
Q: Can the international community’s involvement aggravate the issue?
A: Sri Lanka will desperately need financial assistance to rebuild its country after the Easter Sunday attacks. To advance its national interests, Sri Lanka should work with all the powers. Sri Lanka has developed an equidistance foreign policy of working with the West (US/Europe/Canada/Australia/New Zealand), India and China. It is imperative to maintain this balance without joining any one power grouping.
Q: One of the suspects was involved in vandalising Buddhist statues in Mawanella. Does it fit in with a profile of a suicide bomber? Does it also imply that this attack was recently planned in retaliation to the Christchurch attacks?
A: The terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday had been planned several months ago. The planning had begun long before the attacks on the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand during Friday Prayer on March 15, 2019.
The suicide bombers trained in an IS training camp in Wanathawilluwa were detected on January 17 by the police. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) seized over 100kg of explosives and 100 detonators at Wanathawilluwa in Puttalam. The camp was raided after the police interrogated an IS operative who vandalised several Buddhist statues in Mawanella in December 2018. Four suspects were arrested by the CID at Lacktowatta in Wanathawilluwa.
In addition to explosives, detonators and several other equipment, which were buried, the police seized 20 litres of nitrate acid, wire codes, two firearms, a stock of ammunition, a computer, a camera and a stock of dry provisions. All these demonstrate that the churches in Sri Lanka were not attacked in retaliation to the attacks on the mosques in New Zealand. Certainly, the attack in New Zealand may be used to inspire and instigate future violence.
Q: How serious is the IS threat to Sri Lanka and is there a possibility of another coordinated attack in the country in the near future?
A: The terrorist threat has diminished. Over 95 percent of the operatives and supporters have been captured or killed. Others will be hunted down and brought to justice in the coming days. It was a fatal mistake for the IS to attack Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Forces – military, law enforcement and intelligence – have fought a worst brand of terrorism for 27 years. With the mandate to neutralise the threat, the Forces, authorities and services will deal with the threat appropriately. The severity of the IS attacks has restored the security mindset that was eroded since the LTTE was dismantled in May 2009. The government, private sector and civil society should resume normal operations but maintain a high state of vigilance and alertness.
Q: What would have contributed for the affluent youth to be radicalised? How can we dismantle the IS support groups in the country? How could this be done if they are backed by Muslim politicians?
A: Even today, Sri Lankan Muslims are peace-loving. One attack by a group of misguided Sri Lankan youth should not tarnish the reputation and image of a community that has contributed much to the security and stability of Sri Lanka during 27 years of war against terrorism. The mentor of the Sri Lankan special forces Col. Fazly Lafir and the Commanding Officer of the military intelligence corps Col. Nizam Muthalif sacrificed their lives for a united Sri Lanka. We should never allow a tiny group of misguided Sri Lankans to ruin the harmonious relations among the Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.
The Muslims should foresee the threat to their faith and to their community from imported ideologies and practices and work with the government to build initiatives to reform their schools, mosques, appearance and dress. Sri Lanka is a pluralist society, and the ideologies from the Middle East should not be brought and practised in Sri Lanka.
Q: Do we have adequate legal provision to fight the IS threat?
A: To fight the threat posed to Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday attacks, far-reaching changes are vital where the lawmakers develop immediate, mid and long term strategies. While the most effective response is to dismantle the terrorist network, the most efficient response is to disrupt the pipeline that produces the radicals. To contain, isolate and eliminate the threat, both tactical and operational measures by the security forces and strategic measures by the political leaders are equally vital.
First, an Act to criminalise hate speech especially the incitement into violence.
Second, criminalising both posting and keeping content online.
Third, a national education policy where all ethnic and religious groups are mixed together as Sri Lankans. have their curriculum approved and it should include comparative religion as a subject.
Sri Lankans travelling overseas to study should obtain a no objection certificate (NOC) from the Ministry of Education. Sri Lankans should not be permitted to study in certain schools and universities producing extremists and terrorists.
Certain educational institutions in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen produced radical preachers who in turn became extremists and terrorists. Fourth, the government should maintain a blacklist of radical preachers and deny their entry to Sri Lanka. In parallel, the government should criminalise the sale of radical books and publications.
Fifth, anyone preaching in Sri Lanka should pass a test on comparative religion and with that certification, apply for a permit to preach. The content of what Sri Lankan and foreign preachers preach should conform to the multiethnic and multi religious character of Sri Lanka.