ast week Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi acknowledged that ‘at least 36 Sri Lankans have gone to Syria’and that ‘some of them have joined the ISIS’. That was after the Sunday Times reported in the previous week, that State Intelligence Service (SIS) has alerted the government that 45 Sri Lankans from nine families have gone to Syria so far to join the Islamic terrorist group.
Later the Ministry of Defence assured in a media statement that, “the security forces and all intelligence wings are on full alert to the possibilities of such links or emergence of ISIS groups round the clock, as it is the prime responsibility of the security forces and intelligence agencies.”
Earlier in July last year, one Sri Lankan national Mohammad Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam alias Abu Shuraih Sailani, a 37-year-old karate instructor from Galewela was killed in Syria while fighting for the ISIS.
Those reports of Islamic radicalization are not unexpected, nor are they unique to Sri Lanka. From ethnic ghettos in Brussels to the tiny Maldives; disillusioned Muslims (or their most religiously austere ones) are trekking their way to join the ranks of the nihilistic terrorists in Syria and Iraq.
Our problem, however, is whether our government has taken the emerging threat seriously. Its lackadaisical response to intelligence reports raises concerns.
In the first place, if one thinks exporting our rot to Syria or Iraq would spare us from potential troubles at home, that is patently misleading. They, or at least those who would not perish there, would one day come back, further radicalized and weapon-trained, ready to unleash mayhem at our amidst. What is already happening in Europe is a case in point. Therefore such an ‘Ostrich head in the sand’ strategy would leave us nowhere.
Second: The government’s sensitivity on Muslim sentiments is apparently downplaying the threat. By doing so, the government is letting down the very community it is trying to defend. The community leaders of Muslims are kept in the dark about the extremists amidst them, when the government chooses to sit on intelligence reports. From Paris to London to Canberra, the political leadership spoke out when it emerged that their citizens were heading for the Middle East to take up arms, and called on community leaders to help fix the mess in their communities. Therefore, one would have expected our political leaders to speak up, meet with Muslim community leaders and devise a national plan to counter radicalization. Islamic radicalization in Sri Lanka is latent at the moment, but, it would not remain so for ever. The danger is that when our leaders decide to act, it could well be too little, too late.
“Our problem, however, is whether our government has taken the emerging threat seriously. Its lackadaisical response to intelligence reports raises concerns.”
We have seen that in the past. The two monstrous terrorist groups that devastated this country in the last three decades grew into their monstrous proportions, partly due to the initial indifference of the government at the time. If the JVP and the LTTE were confronted at their initial stages, when they were breeding in university dormitories and in not- so- secrete hideouts in Jaffna, this country could have been spared from a great tragedy. Terrorists, extremists and so called revolutionaries exploit freedoms of our systems and our societies to destroy those very systems and rebuild their own. Wahabist preachers who visit this country to preach to devout Muslims and Salafi Maulavis who run mushrooming Islamic madrasas in this country have the same goal – their ideal society is no less gruesome, though they differ from Wijerweera’s killing fields or Prabhakaran’s Tamil Eelam.
Third: Islamic radicalization in Sri Lanka is at its initial stage and can successfully be confronted and defeated by an effective intelligence operation coupled with a public awareness campaign led by the Muslim community leadership about the un-holiness of the ISIS. However, when the nascent extremist cells overgrow, they surpass the ability of the intelligence agencies to effectively tackle them through legitimate means. Then, if the State is to survive, though unwillingly, it has to adopt other less salubrious means to fight extremism, as we have seen in the past. Therefore, the hard won civil peace would not survive unless the government acted now.
Fourth: If the government political leadership does not speak out about the latent radicalization, no one with political authority will do it now, except the rabble-rousers of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa clique in Parliament, whose pronouncements are, unfortunately though, ethnically polarizing rather than unifying. National Security does not rank top in the list of priorities of the TNA, given the nature of its principle constituency. That would help the ultra-nationalist segments led by the BBS to fish in troubled waters. Those groups are certified bigots and far more dangerous to Sri Lanka than a few dozen Islamic fanatics. However, the government’s wavering on Islamic radicalization would embolden the former, providing legitimacy to their myopic claims. The modern Sinhala Buddhist nationalism isa reactive phenomenon which has historically sought to give an expression to the insecurities of the Sinhala majority; its first emergence in the late 19th century was as a response to the growing Christian proselytizing and missionary schools.
Fifth: The government is now cozying up with the West, which may be the right thing in terms of foreign policy. However, Islamic terrorists loathe the West and their allies. When Sri Lanka becomes a better ally of the USA, it also becomes a more tempting target (And in our current case, a soft target) of Islamic terrorists. That requires us not to lower down our defence and intelligence activities.
“The security forces and all intelligence wings are on full alert to the possibilities of such links or emergence of ISIS groups round the clock, as it is the prime responsibility of the security forces and intelligence agencies. – Defence Ministry”
Finally: The Defence Secretary tells the media to report responsibly about the ISIS. His good intentions are appreciated. However, every Tom, Dick and Harry in this country has developed a habit of telling media how they ought to do their job. The most responsible way for media to cover ISIS is let the public know about what is actually happening. Glossing over the things would not help. On this count, recent allegations that were levelled against German media after the mass sexual attacks in Cologne blamed on groups of young men of North African and Arab appearance, that the press being too politically correct did not report previous incidents of similar nature rings a bell. Terrorists are not politically correct, they loath and snub everything that is politically correct. The best way to confront radicalization is to openly debate its evil and the danger it portends to us and discourage potential recruits from joining that nihilistic ideology. And since not everyone would be swayed by those measures alone, the government has to devise laws and means to keep a track on them, and better still, to lock them up.
Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on twitter.
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