May 30, 2019 Reading Time: 8 minutes
As Sri Lanka continues to make sense of the horrific Easter Sunday terror attacks,1 questions regarding the intelligence and state capacity issues that lead to this catastrophic event are being raised. It is now broadly accepted—including by the Sri Lankan government—that capacity and coordination gaps that lead to the failure to act on the intelligence that was provided by various domestic and international agencies.2 While a proper review of the mechanisms that lead to this failure must be conducted, it is critical to examine ways in which Sri Lanka can prepare itself against future attacks.
Since the Easter Sunday attacks, the Sri Lankan military and the police have done a commendable job of preventing further attacks, and have apprehended several terror suspects.3 While the technique of apprehending suspects using a snowball method initially proved to be a success, the apprehension rate seems to have slowed somewhat. To achieve lasting peace and prevent future attacks of terror, a long-term, comprehensive security and intelligence framework is essential. To aid this long-term goal, Sri Lanka could look at a 3C (Capacity, Coordination, and Communication) strategy to develop a more robust counterterrorism framework. A practical ‘3C’ security strategy could entail the improvement of the following four avenues to help revitalise the security architecture in Sri Lanka; (1) widening international cooperation on global terror networks, (2) community focused counter-terror policing, (3) establishing a behavioural analysis unit, and (4) maintaining Effective Command, Control and Communication.
The transnational—rather than the international—nature of modern Islamist-inspired terrorism means that disrupting terrorist networks has become more complicated. However, Sri Lanka should seek greater cooperation with and engage in greater intelligence sharing networks tracking global hotspots that provide terror financing, training and ideological support. This requires a multi-pronged effort that includes diplomatic, military, and political engagement with a wide variety of actors and agencies. The age of compartmentalising security issues to specific government agencies and ministries is obsolete. In this respect, the department of immigration and emigration need to be reformed to strengthen Sri Lanka’s border security needs. This can be done by utilising emerging technologies such as facial recognition, and increased international cooperation to access Interpol’s terror and criminal no-fly list databases. In addition, significant capacity-building with international support to train airport security and border management officials is necessary.
The challenge in introducing such initiatives would be the harmonising of Sri Lanka’s security needs with its economic interests, such as safeguarding the tourism sector. At Birmingham Airport in the UK, there is an emphasis on training of, not only regular border guard officials, but also clerks working in the commercial sphere such as vehicle rental agencies, to spot suspicious behaviour.4 This is done in manner so as to not inconvenience tourists and travellers. Furthermore, in order to decrease the levels of intrusion and passenger discomfort, plain-clothed police officers and technology could be utilised to increase security in a non-disruptive manner.
Instituting a credible security architecture that does not violate individual freedoms and civil liberties will continue to be a challenge for all democratic governments across the world. Therefore, it is vital that government measures taken to eradicate violent extremism are done in a manner that is efficient, targeted, and supported by evidenced-based policy making—as opposed to ad-hoc activities. In light of how the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ)—the group behind the Easter Sunday Attack—was able to blend in their religious community,5 there have been calls to monitor communities, their places of worship, and religious schools in the future. Monitoring extremist ideology requires a sophisticated level of community policing, but it is important to draw a distinction between community-targeted policing versus community-focused policing.
The key difference between the two concepts is the partnering of the community in focus with law enforcement. Community-focused policing could lead to a greater amount of information sharing and establish a positive relationship between the community and law enforcement. This approach would be particularly useful when implementing surveillance programs. Frequent consultations with community leaders, in addition to understanding the complicated histories that pertain to ethnic, socio-economic, and political history, could arguably reap greater rewards than through the use of community-targeted policing. Community-targeted policing that eschews trust, consent and confidence, on the other hand, may exacerbate the situation, and any potential grievances could be exploited by individuals that harbour extremist ideologies. Studies conducted in Australia, and the United Kingdom indicate that community-focused policing methods that are embedded with a strong sense of procedural justice (an emphasis on neutrality, fairness, and respect) stand a higher chance of Muslim communities’ willingness to cooperate with police on counterterror activities.6
An example of a successful community-focused counterterror policing initiative is the ‘Strategy to Reach, Empower and Educate Teenagers (STREET) in the UK. Launched in 2006, it aims to reach youth particularly, those who are at risk of involvement in antisocial behaviour such as gang violence, or violent extremism.7 While the organisation works closely with different government agencies including law enforcement, STREET is administered by Muslims, thus increasing its legitimacy as a neutral and trustworthy organisation. Further evidence that community focused initiatives such as STREET work is attested by the number of individuals that reach out to STREET’s mentors and counsellors through self-referrals, apart from police and social services.8 After the end of the conflict with the LTTE in 2009, Sri Lanka’s deradicalisation efforts had a narrow focus aimed at rehabilitating ex-LTTE youth cadres. However, Sri Lanka lacked a strategy to effectively counter radicalisation borne out of global violent extremist ideologies and movements such as ISIS.9 Therefore, it is vital that Sri Lanka looks to implement prevention programs in partnership with community members and organisations of good standing to curb radicalisation, particularly among youth.
The Easter Sunday Terror attack showed that, when it comes to Islamist inspired terrorism, potential terror suspects can come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds. In contrast to the leftist insurrections that occurred in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and the 1980s, several suspects of the April attacks were financially secure and well-educated.10 These revelations made it difficult for people to understand the factors that lead to radicalisation, and why such risk factors were not readily identified. It also makes it harder to predict the make-up of a potential terrorist, as non-state violent extremists continue to evolve their behaviour and activities to avoid the detection of conventional law enforcement agencies. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Behavioural Analysis Unit could be a model that the Sri Lankan government looks to adapt and seek assistance from in training and developing capable home-grown behavioural analysts.11
The Sri Lankan government could look into developing an advanced behavioural unit that employs not only the service of military officials, but psychologists and other academics as well, to help determine the psychological make-up of violent deviant behaviour to forecast early warning signs of radicalisation. Instituting a competent behavioural analysis unit will also require analysts who are proficient in the Tamil language and familiar with Islamic teachings and the modern currents of religious sectarianism. Developing this capacity is not only beneficial when surveying future threat perceptions, but it could also help build confidence between the state and moderate leaders within religious and cultural groups. The unit’s analysis could also be augmented through greater availability of technology to analyse the data and achieve better results within the intelligence cycle. To ensure the success of such an initiative, Sri Lanka should look to attract the most competent individuals and adequately reward such professionals to build a culture of deep expertise and professionalism.
The Easter Sunday attacks demonstrated that even a country like Sri Lanka with decades of successful counterterror experience can be vulnerable to such an attack. To manage and prepare adequate responses in a similar scenario requires careful coordination and collaboration between high level key decision makers and those responsible at the ground level across the political and security nexus. During an incident, it is imperative that all state military and civilian agencies are able to operate under a unified command structure to maintain stability and increase the response effectiveness during a crisis. As with other principal forums on national security such as the White House National Security Council (NSC) in the US, or the National Security Committee in Australia, Sri Lanka’s apex body on all matters pertaining to national security, the National Security Council (NSC), needs to function with the participation and inclusion of all key decision makers, as mandated in Sri Lanka’s constitution. The need for cooperation and inclusivity between the President and the Prime Minister, and regular attendance of other statutory attendees’ of NSC meetings was also echoed in a recent Sri Lankan Parliamentary Select Committee’s declaration (Diywanna Declaration), which proposed a ten-point plan to achieve lasting peace and security.12 Although this particular declaration is not legally binding, the declaration can be seen as a positive normative stance on how to improve effective command and control at the highest level of political decision making.
In addition to an effective command and control structure, there is a need for a cohesive framework at the operational level to manage and resolve potential crises. In the US, this framework is known as an Incident Command System (ICS). Implementing a similar contingency ICS framework in Sri Lanka can help keep the public informed at all times to reduce panic and mitigate social unrest at a time of a national crisis, while delivering all essential security and humanitarian needs.13 Other examples include the ICS framework proposed in Australia known as ICCS plus (Incident Command and Control System), which is particularly focused on improving the interoperability functions of national and state police services. These models should be reviewed, and a localised framework could be introduced in Sri Lanka.14
To ensure such a system is kept up-to-date with the evolving security needs of a country, it is vital that joint training is conducted to ensure the goals of close coordination are met during an actual incident. Any ICS framework naturally needs to be linked and harmonised with the decision-making process of the NSC. The main benefit of having an effective ICS in Sri Lanka would be that, once key decisions are made at the NSC in a timely and efficient manner, it would enable the various command levels in both law enforcement, the military, and other civilian agencies to execute all necessary plans, while minimising uncertainty on issues such as jurisdiction and agency role in times of a national emergency.
In an age where even a vehicle can be weaponised to stage acts of terror, it is difficult for any government to guarantee that acts of terrorism can be prevented. Despite the existence of the most sophisticated and vigilant security expertise, terrorists only need one opportunity to create the kind of horror Sri Lanka experienced during the Easter Sunday attacks. Therefore, more needs to be done in developing countries like Sri Lanka to prevent future attacks and build capacity. To this end, it would be prudent to further explore the 3C Security Strategy through more research and dialogue, with the aim of implementing a more effective, robust counterterrorism framework.
1Al Jazeera. (2019). Sri Lanka bombings: All the latest updates. [Online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/sri-lanka-bombings-latest-updates-190421092621543.html [Accessed 15 May 2019].
2New York Times. (2019). Sri Lanka Was Warned of Possible Attacks. Why Didn’t It Stop Them? [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/world/asia/ntj-warning-sri-lanka-government.html [Accessed 15 May 2019].
3Ministry of Defence. (2019). All measures taken to ensure public security. [Online] Available at: http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=All_measures_taken_to_ensure_public_security_20190512_02 [Accessed 15 May 2019].
4Sky News. (2019). Special Report: Inside Counter Terror. [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beokaNZTgHA [Accessed 14 May 2019].
5Al Jazeera. (2019). Sri Lanka bombings: Who are the National Thowheed Jamath? [Online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/sri-lanka-bombings-national-thowheed-jamaath-190424211451933.html [Accessed 15 May 2019].
6Cherney, A. & Murphy, K. (2013). Policing terrorism with procedural justice: The role of police legitimacy and law legitimacy. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 403-421
7Huq, A. and Tyle, T. (2011). Mechanisms for Eliciting Cooperation in Counterterrorism Policing: Evidence from the United Kingdom. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. pp 728-761
8Barclay, J. (2011). Strategy to Reach, Empower, and Educate Teenagers (STREET): A Case Study in Government-Community Partnership and Direct Intervention to Counter Violent Extremism. Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. [Online] Available at: https://www.counterextremism.org/download_file/92/134/332/ [Accessed 21 Mary 2019]
9De Zylva, A. (2019). International Engagement in Countering Youth Radicalisation: Sri Lanka’s Untapped Opportunities. Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute. [Online] Available at: https://www.lki.lk/publication/sri-lankas-international-engagement-counter-youth-radicalisation-untapped-opportunities/ [ Accessed 22 May 2019]
10Pant, H. and Taneja, K. (2019). ISIS’s New Target: South Asia. [Online] Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/02/isiss-new-target-south-asia/ [Accessed 12 May 2019].
11Mueller, R. (2004). Report to The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States The FBI’s Counterterrorism Program. United States Government Publishing Office (GPO) [Online] Available at: http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/hearings/hearing10/mueller_fbi_report.pdf#page=48 [Accessed 14 May 2019].
12Parliament of Sri Lanka. (2019). “Diyawanna Declaration” Launched. [Online] Available at: https://www.parliament.lk/en/committee-news/view/1701?category=33 [Accessed 23 Mary 2019]
13Department of Homeland Security. (2018). Planning Considerations: Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attacks. [Online] Available at: https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1532550673102-c4846f270150682decbda99b37524ca6/Planning_Considerations-Complex_Coordinated_Terrorist_Attacks.pdf#page=8 [Accessed 14 May 2019].
14Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency. (2012). A Common Approach to Incident Management: ICCS PLUS. [ Online]. Available at: http://www.anzpaa.org.au/publications/general/a-common-approach-to-incident-management-iccs-plus-iccs-plus. [ Accessed 22 May 2019].
*Malinda Meegoda is a Research Associate at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, nor do they necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated. This article has also been published in the Daily News.