After Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, should Asia-Pacific region be concerned about terrorism?

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 24 Apr 2019

This week’s bombings in Sri Lanka and similar ones in the rest of the Asia-Pacific in recent years have established counter-terrorism as a top priority in the region

Sri Lanka
A Sri Lankan police officer announces security warnings urging people to be cautious over abandoned vehicles and parcels in a street outside a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019 (Photo: AP)

The Asia-Pacific countries are facing critical times concerning their internal security, something that hit home this week when Sri Lanka was hit by a number of explosions in churches and hotels on Sunday, leading to the deaths of 290 people and injury of 500 others.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the bombings. In a statement released by its Amaq propaganda agency, the group said it was targeting Christians and citizens of countries that had attacked its territories.

One month earlier, 50 people lost their lives and 50 others were wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, described at the time by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as “well planned” and could “only be described as a terrorist attacks”.

Even Australia had its share of terrorist attacks between 2014 and 2017, raising the question of whether there is a pattern of terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region.

There has been a wave of “global terrorism” influenced by Middle Eastern groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS, argued Jacinta Carroll, a senior research fellow in counter-terrorism at the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Security College.

“The Asia-Pacific has a mixed experience of terrorism, but many countries are feeling the impact of the spread of Islamist extremism from the Middle East, particularly through the success of Al-Qaeda and IS. Countries including Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Thailand and the Philippines, amongst others, had home-grown insurgencies of various types, but many of these movements had been either defeated or placated through peace processes,” Carroll told Ahram Online.

“The Arab Spring and in particular the rise of the IS terrorist group and its occupation of territory in Iraq and Syria has provided renewed opportunities for individuals and groups in the region to develop networks, skills, gain new recruits and even obtain planning and financial support,” she said.

The tragic attacks that targeted the Christian minority and tourists in Sri Lanka this Easter were followed by quick measures by the Buddhist-majority country’s government. They included a nationwide curfew, lifted on early Monday, a two-day holiday, the closure of schools and the Colombo stock exchange, and the arrest of 24 suspects.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said a probe would be launched to examine “why adequate precautions were not taken,” while President Maithripala Sirisena returned from a foreign trip to head a security council meeting.

In a press briefing in the capital Colombo, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne blamed the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), widely described by the international media as a “small radical Muslim group,” for the blasts, stressing that “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

The government also said that it would seek the support of others to collect information about the perpetrators of the attacks.

Many governments and international organisations have issued statements condemning the attacks, including Egypt, the United States, Britain, Russia, the European Union, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE and Pakistan.

Some statements came from other Asia-Pacific states, with New Zealand’s Ardern described the attacks as “devastating.”

“New Zealand condemns all acts of terrorism, and our resolve has only been strengthened by the attack on our soil on 15 March. To see an attack in Sri Lanka while people were in churches and at hotels is devastating,” she said.

“New Zealand rejects all forms of extremism and stands for freedom of religion and the right to worship safely. Collectively, we must find the will and the answers to end such violence.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent his condolences to the “beautiful people of Sri Lanka,” expressing his desire to “do whatever we can to support you in this terrible time of need.”

Dalbir Ahlawat, a lecturer at Macquarie University’s department of security studies and criminology in Australia, said the attacks “appear to be more an intelligence operational failure than the state’s capacity to contain such threats.”

“Four years back the NTJ started vandalising statues and even attacking Buddhist monks. However, the government, fearing a backlash, took limited or no action. Even a 25-page report submitted to the government received limited attention.”

“Even ten days before these ghastly attacks, Sri Lanka’s Police Chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued a nation-wide intelligence alert that ‘prominent churches’ may be targeted by the suicide bombers. However, not much in the way of operational sensitivities were demonstrated by the enforcement agencies in a coordinated way,” he said.

Ahlawat warned that the attacks raised concerns throughout the Asian-Pacific region, as the “perpetrators escaped the radar of several agencies, both domestic and regional, and this raises concerns about their links, networks, operational guidelines and broader goals.”

The failure of the island country to protect itself against terrorist operations is considered a particularly serious issue because Sri Lanka has extensive experience of fighting militant groups.

State forces fought a civil war against the Tamil minority in the north and east for more than 25 years, a conflict that ended in May 2009 following the capture of the last territory under the control of the Tamil Tiger militants.

Almost 100,000 people were killed in this war, and the army then launched a “rehabilitation” process for thousands of Tamil militants.

“The total defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 probably led many people in Sri Lanka to assume that the terrorist threat had receded and not think about the possibility of terrorism coming from other sources. Over the past ten years, there has been no threat from Tamil separatists, but they are not the only possible terrorists, even in Sri Lanka,” noted Justin Hastings, a professor at the University of Sydney’s department of international relations and comparative politics.

Hastings emphasised that the threat of terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region “is the same now as before,” especially as Sri Lanka, though has not traditionally targeted by Islamist extremism, has always had that potential.

He recommended waiting to see “where the terrorists actually came from” since “if they are in fact IS returnees, a number of countries could have problems in the future.”

He praised Sri Lanka for having “one of the most robust and capable militaries in terms of asymmetric threats in the developing world” due to its “30-year battle with the Tamil Tigers.”

“The news that the Sri Lankan intelligence services apparently knew that there might be an attack on major churches last week suggests that capacity isn’t really the issue so much as policy and how to deal with the intelligence that does come through about terrorist plots,” he added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: After  the Sri Lanka bombings

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