Complex terror attacks take time to resolve | Sunday Observer
Time opportune to dispel Cardinal’s doubts

Complex terror attacks take time to resolve

5 December, 2021

The Easter Sunday massacre on April 19, 2019, attributed to the Islamic State, defined the threat landscape in Sri Lanka. To address the key questions that polarised Sri Lankan communities, the Sunday Observer spoke to Professor Rohan Gunaratna, Director-General, Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka, who is conducting in-depth research on international terrorism, the LTTE and the ISIS.

Following are excerpts of the interview.

Q.  What may have led to create a conspiracy theory and doubt that Zahran or any of the men arrested could not have been the masterminds of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, and that Zahran had a high profile-handler? Is it politically motivated?

Prof. Rohan Gunaratna

A: Conspiracy theories are created when there is an information vacuum. The Government’s failure to effectively communicate the findings of the three fact-finding reports resulted in speculation, conjecture and disinformation. A few politicians and their followers exploited the situation and engaged in online falsehoods and manipulations. 

The Easter Sunday conspiracy theories peaked, alleging that the massacre was staged by the CIA, MOSSAD, RAW, and Chinese intelligence. As Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies, I took the decision to release the farewell video of Zahran when the Sri Lankan security forces were falsely accused. In the video, Zahran said that he is mounting the attack to “please Allah and for his religion”. The release of the video debunked the political conspiracy theory.

Q.  It seems that the Catholic Church is harbouring this doubt more than anyone else; the Church has not been pacified by the fact that the US and the Australian forensic experts assisted local investigators in tracking down the backers of the eight-member suicide squad. What is your advice to the government on the best possible means to address this issue?

A: As the terrorists primarily targeted the churches, the Cardinal bears the greatest burden. In addition to reporting the progress of the investigations by holding a media conference every fortnight, the Government should have briefed the key stakeholders such as the Catholic and Christian leaders.

The Cardinal preempted a July 1983-style riot by calming the angry Christians and Catholics not to attack innocent Muslims for the acts of misguided Muslims.

He said to the mobs that if they attack Muslims, they would not go to heaven. With the Government failing to keep the Cardinal informed, the relations between government and the Cardinal became sore. It is vital to restore the relationship with him by clearing doubts, update him on the investigations, and brief him on the current and emerging threats. To clear doubts, the findings of the US, Australian and other law enforcement authorities should be shared with the Cardinal.

The Government should have explained that complex attacks such as 9/11, Bali bombing and Mumbai attack take many years to investigate and prosecute. It took 20 years to bring the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohamed before an American court of law. 

Q.  What is your opinion on the state intelligence operations being exposed during the Easter Sunday trial? 

A: During the Presidential Commission investigating the Easter Sunday attack, the Chairman of the Commission Justice Janak Silva was careful to protect the identities and testimonies of the members of the Sri Lankan security and intelligence community.

The security and intelligence services of any country are its eyes and ears. Sri Lankan services work 24/7 to protect Sri Lanka and secure Sri Lankans from domestic and foreign threats. To thwart threats, intelligence services should be working closely with law enforcement, especially with the CID and Terrorism Investigation Division (TID). 

It is the responsibility of Sri Lankan security and intelligence chiefs to protect their sources and methods. If the political leaders and intelligence chiefs fail to protect their staff and secure their tradecraft, the flow of intelligence and information will be disrupted. The cooperation, collaboration and partnership between the Sri Lankan services and foreign counterparts will suffer.

Q.  Sri Lanka’s politics is such that sensitive details of intelligence operations and names of military and police intelligence operatives are widely discussed in Parliament and elsewhere. Aren’t we putting the lives of the officers at risk while compromising national security due to these tactics of cheap politics?

A: In the national security establishment, both national leaders work closely with the security and intelligence chiefs.

The security and intelligence chiefs should educate political leaders about their roles and tasks. The political leaders and security and intelligence chiefs should work together to protect the nation-state.

If their directing figures and operators are exposed, national security will be harmed. National security was compromised in the aftermath of the Millennium City incident. Sri Lankan intelligence services and chiefs will be harmed again. One must never forget how the LTTE hunted and killed nearly a hundred informants, handlers and leaders including Col Nizam Muthalif, the then Commanding Officer of military intelligence. 

Both Government leaders and the political opposition should protect the security forces that fought a deadly terrorist movement. Today, the services are once again at the forefront of protecting the nation facing twin threats from separatism and religious extremism.

Q.   Do you think the ideology of Zahran Hashim died with him? Was he a ‘lone-wolf’? What is the threat level of another attack of that magnitude happening in the near future?

A: There are two types of threat groups, networks, cells and personalities. First, leadership-driven movements and second, God-driven movements.

In the case of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda or other entities that fight for Allah (the Arabic word for God), the death of a leader has a minimum impact on the movement. Those who believe they fight for God draw inspiration from the misinterpretation of the lives of the Prophets and religious texts. Although Zahran and his attack team perished on Easter Sunday, both the remnants of his group and followers of Salafi Wahhabism present a threat.

Q.  How can we prevent it?

A: The key strategy is to prevent the rooting exclusivist ideologies that lead to extremism and terrorism. Hitherto, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), Waqaf board and  Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs (DMRCA) failed as gatekeepers to protect the Sri Lankan Muslims from foreign ideologies. After the Easter Sunday massacre, the Government blacklisted 11 Salafi Wahhabi groups.

However, some of their ideologues continue to preach and propagate their vicious ideologies. They should be investigated, charged, prosecuted and rehabilitated. Foreign and Sri Lankan Salafi Wahhabi preachers should be banned, their books in the Teachers Guides and OL/AL Islam text should be done away with, and Muslim leaders that promote moderation, toleration and coexistence should be appointed to mosques and madrasahs.

The Muslim elite should take the lead to reform their religious sects so that the next generation of Muslims will live in amity with other communities. Government should ensure that all Muslim children study in regular schools. Working with Muslim leaders, institutions (mosques and madrasahs) and the community, the religious space should be regulated by ACJU, Waqaf board and DMRCA.

Q. What have we learnt from the three Muslims identified by the FBI, including Maulavi (Islamic preacher) Mohamad Ibrahim Mohamad Naufer, who was arrested and in custody now?

A: Mohamed Naufar, the theoretician and second emir (leader) of Islamic State Sri Lanka branch led the group’s propaganda efforts, recruited others to join, and led a series of multi-day military-type trainings in Hambantota, Nuwara Eliya, Aruppola and Kattankudi.

A trusted functionary of the Islamic State, Mohamed Anwar Mohamed Riskan helped manufacture the IEDs used in the Easter Attacks. The Islamic State military leader, Ahamed Milhan Hayathu Mohamed, killed a police officer to obtain the officer’s firearm, shot Thaslim, an informant, and scouted attack targets.

Q. Many things have come to light after the Easter Sunday attacks. Do you still believe that it could have been prevented if authorities acted on the intelligence reports?

A: I have reviewed at least 350 reports from January 2015 to April 2019 from the Sri Lankan intelligence community that refers to Zahran and his associates, Muslim radicalisation and the threat of exclusivism, extremism and terrorism.

Although they were sent to the National Security Council, neither the Secretary of Defence nor the IGP acted decisively. The President, Prime Minister, and the Minister of Law and Order neglected national security. Easter Sunday attacks are not an intelligence failure but an operational failure or a failure to act.

Q.  I heard you ring alarm bells on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. What are the implications of this development on Sri Lanka?

A: The return of the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance to Afghanistan presents a formidable threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan and its immediate neighbourhood. From 1996-2001, Al Qaeda hosted by the Taliban provided ideology, trained, armed, financed and directed 30-40 threat groups in Afghanistan. Today, over 20 threat groups including Al Qaeda have welcomed the return of the Taliban. There are early signs of Afghanistan’s descent to chaos.

Q. What is the current situation of IS in Sri Lanka?

A: There are about 120,000 Salafi Wahhabis in Sri Lanka. They challenge local and traditional Muslims. It is vital to restore the Sri Lankan Muslim heritage.

Q. Did Zahran travel to Afghanistan prior to being conscripted?

A: Zahran had never travelled to any foreign country except Japan.

According to Zahran’s travel records, he did not travel to the Middle East, South Asia and South East Asia.