A look at the Sri Lanka terrorist attacks

An elderly Sri Lankan woman cries sitting next to the grave of her family member who died in Easter Sunday church explosion in Katuwapitiya village in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Sri Lanka's president has asked for the resignations of the defense secretary and national police chief, a dramatic internal shake-up after security forces shrugged off intelligence reports warning of possible attacks before Easter bombings that killed over 350 people, the president's office said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Last Sunday, Sri Lanka was under siege. Following a highly coordinated series of terrorist attacks targeting churches and hotels, more than 300 people were killed leaving nearly 500 injured. This is the worst terrorist attack aimed at civilians following the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.

In a span of 60 days two deadly terrorist attacks have transpired at places of worship….New Zealand and Sri Lanka, totalling hundreds of people. The striking parallel between these two attacks is the timing and location coupled with the lack of coordination between intelligence and security agencies. The perpetrators in both attacks chose a significant day for these religions to carry out their attacks. As I continue to emphasise, terrorists are elusive by intent. They are unpredictable and dangerous. They will find the means to execute their ‘mission’ in any way.

According to US intelligence agencies, more terrorist attacks are believed to follow in the near future. ISIS through their media outfit Amaq, had declared that their ‘combatants’ had successfully carried out the attacks in retaliation to the atrocities done against their ‘ummah’ elsewhere. Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez tweeted that the terror and barbarity of such attacks will never defeat us while Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pointed out that the Sri Lanka attacks is an assault on all of humanity.

Further, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had stressed that her country rejects all forms of extremism and stands for freedom of religion and the right to worship safely. She also urged the world to collectively find the will and answers to end such violence. Sources from Sri Lanka specify that a previously unknown religious outfit, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) has been implicated as the main perpetrator of these attacks.

This new group is a splinter organisation of Sri Lanka’s Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) which shares an allegiance with the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TLTJ). The creation of the NJT resulted from core religious belief disagreements. While the SLTJ and TLTJ have distanced themselves from this new group, are there further dissenters within the TLTJ which could be using their existing network to spread their ideology?

The TLTJ is a non-political religious organisation from Tamil Nadu, India and they have extended their presence to South Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East, Australia, Europe and United States of America. It is unclear if their presence has extended to Africa. It has also had been widely reported that the NTJ was influenced by a preacher who was identified as Zakir Naik by the Sri Lankan news media. Interestingly, he had also been indicted for his role as an inspirational figure for the terrorists who launched the attacks in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2016.

One again, it is evidence of the role hate preachers play in terrorist attacks. They are instrumental and their significance cannot go unheeded. The role played by Omar Bakri Muhammad, Mustafa Kamel Mustafa also known as Abu Hamza and Anjem Choudary in instigating British subjects in the United Kingdom to act against their own people and country is irrefutable. For these preachers the ideology that they have subscribed to is more important than the lives of their own civilians which includes women and children.

From our observations, there are patterns which have emerged from the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and Sri Lanka. Firstly, the failure of intelligence and security agencies to circumvent the attacks even though, as in Sri Lanka’s case, these agencies received credible information from foreign intelligence agencies.  They failed to act on the information. Secondly, the growing influence of radical preachers outside their own boundaries.  They are able to incite and encourage their supporters and sympathisers to launch a terrorist attack in any part of the world without playing an active role in the operation of these attacks. Thirdly, the effectiveness of social media in garnering more support and influencing audiences. In the Christchurch incident, the perpetrator live streamed his atrocity which was viewed by millions of the people. Most lone wolves are self-radicalised via social media.

The usage of such media becomes more effective for these groups in the recruitment and fundraising purposes. There is arguably less detection by intelligence agencies. ISIS has been notorious in its use of social media for their propaganda purposes where they recruit supporters, sympathisers, and members globally. Fourthly, the terrorist groups like NTJ, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) have shown their allegiance to ISIS but they are not part of ISIS. There is no longer a requirement to have a structured group to launch any terrorist attacks. The current attacks indicate that the terrorists want to operate as a decentralised unit to avoid detection from security and intelligence agencies. The main purpose of this strategy is to have a successful terrorist operation like what transpired in the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday attacks.

Additionally, some of the terrorists or terrorist groups are on the intelligence agencies radar but are considered a low threat. For example, NTJ from Sri Lanka and Brenton Harrison Tarrant were little known to the intelligence agencies in their respective countries. This enabled them to launch the attacks with great efficiency.

There are no clear indications of whether these terrorists in Sri Lanka are part of sleeper cells, unknown to the intelligence and security forces. This is can be a perilous circumstance for security forces to deal with.

Finally, the gap in countermeasures created inadvertently by the intelligence and security forces facilitates the terrorist groups’ successful operations. The 9/11 atrocities, Bali Bombings, London Bombings, Paris and Sri Lanka attacks show that the intelligence and security forces cannot observe suspected terrorists around the clock. Terrorists are elusive and impulsive. The failure in cooperation among the intelligence and security agencies within and outside their borders is seen as a crucial factor in preventing a terrorist attack.

An alarming development is how terrorist groups are reverting to conventional methods like suicide bombings and the detonation of explosives (like IEDs) as a way to launch a terrorist attack. Until recently, the trend was for terrorist groups to imply unconventional methods like the use of vehicles, knives and other less obvious weapons to terrorise and kill civilians as the ‘appropriate’ way to unveil their attacks. That changed with the recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

The defeat of ISIS and loss of ‘Caliphate’ as their territory, has driven terrorist groups to keep their momentum by ‘forcing’ supporters and sympathisers to launch attacks in any part of the world. While the intelligence and security forces appear to have been focusing on their unconventional methods of attack, these terror groups have reverted to their conventional methods of attack by using IEDs and suicide bombers.

For security and intelligence agencies worldwide, there is no joy or celebration in the defeat of ISIS. This terrorist group can still inspire their followers, sympathisers, and fighters implicitly. The Sri Lanka attacks may commence a ‘domino’ effect, encouraging and motivating their followers worldwide. These may include former occupants of the caliphate who have returned to their home countries to launch similar kinds of attacks on their own soil.

The question then arises: Should these returnees be accepted by their own countries?

President Trump has urged nations to accept these returnees and have them face criminal charges in their own countries rather than leaving them stateless. France and Russia have taken this stand while other countries like Denmark, the UK, and Australia are in favour of stripping these returnees of their citizenship much to the criticism of human right groups.

According to the UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid, his primary task is to protect the Crown and its citizens. He stressed that for returnees who had grossly acted against the interests of the Crown, the only option available was the stripping their citizenship as in the case of Shamima Begum.

There is a raging debate between the rights of an individual against the interests of a nation. In my opinion, the rights of all citizens in a nation must be upheld and not fall prey to extremist mind-sets. If a group or individual’s intention is to destroy the nation and kill people in order to espouse their ideology, then that person or group must be removed at all costs.

The face of terrorism has now changed. Most choose to operate as lone wolves and be part of sleeper cells. They are self-radicalised. They use social media and other apps to encrypt communications between themselves without attracting the attention of the security and intelligence agencies. Therefore, the political leaders of any country cannot be complacent or confident about the capacity of their own intelligence and security agencies in tackling issues of terrorism because terrorists evolve all the time. The eradication of extremist ideology is the biggest challenge faced by the world now. These terrorists or extremists are very difficult to reform because they fully subscribe to their ideology.

Terrorism is not exclusive to one religion or race. For them, their goals are more important than their own blood. They do not see women, innocent civilians or children who may be their own, but the accomplishment of their mission as fundamental. Therefore, what strategies and approaches can be considered appropriate to deal with these kinds of cold-hearted terrorists?

Do we treat them equally…applying the rule of law?

These terrorists denounced the rule of law and proclaimed their way of life and law as supreme. How should the authorities handle these kinds of terrorists and extremists? No religion justifies the killing of innocents. All religions preach peace and love for mankind. Therefore, governments are duty bound to protect their innocent citizens rather than weighing the rights of these terrorists who have complete contempt for the peace and security of their countries.


Paneir Selvam Rengasamy is a Senior Lecturer at Institute of Crime and Criminology located at HELP University, Malaysia and and Gerald K. Pillai is a Managing Consultant, Vestra Solutions based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.