By Eresh Omar Jamal
April 27, 2019
The devastating series of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday that claimed at least 250 lives was noticeably well organised. The near simultaneous blasts that tore through three high-end hotels and three churches demonstrate the precision that lies behind the planning of today’s terror outfits. Meanwhile, the task of predicting or preventing acts of terror has become substantially more difficult since the problem of lone wolf attackers became prevalent.
After this attack so close to home, there are two questions that we naturally now must ask.
Are we safe from the clutches of terror? And are we prepared to stop it?
Chiran Jung Thapa, Security Adviser for Oxfam, identifies the corridor comprising of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as the foremost terrorist prone area in the world factoring in a number of reasons. While one must not forget that predicting where terrorists will strike is extremely difficult—with the mosque attack in New Zealand, considered one of the most peaceful countries in the world, being a clear example—it is incumbent upon us to remain vigilant. So that no intelligence failure, such as the one that occurred in Sri Lanka when its security services failed to heed intelligence warnings prior to the attack, happens here.
Additionally, it should perhaps be taken as a given in our globalised world that no country is fully immune from the threat of terrorism. Which has also been globalised over the years.
As for preventing extremism, there are mainly two approaches: the soft approach and the hard approach.
The soft approach focuses on preventing radicalisation, as well as de-radicalisation through rehabilitation. Individual families, society and its various institutions such as schools, universities, religious organisations, etc. and nations must all participate in this process to counter radicalisation. As proponents of extreme ideologies today have a reach beyond anything they’ve had in the past because of improved communications methods. And a variety of more ways—whether that be textual, audial or visual, and over a host of different platforms—to spread their corrupted messages as well as to dress them up to make them seem more appealing. Particularly when the conditions are just right, as they especially are in today’s quickly changing and unprecedently uncertain times.
To help individuals navigate through the confusion that has become part and parcel of our times, society must provide an alternatively appealing narrative to the ones spread by extremists. Families, schools and other organisations must pay more attention to how individuals are doing, whether they are being socially isolated or alienated and why—as that is when recruiters primarily look to prey upon people. And, very importantly, religious leaders and scholars must speak up against the misrepresentation of their religions and not shy away from opposing the distortions using their respective scriptures, when necessary.
The government also has an integral part to play here. It should make sure that the interplay between these forces can happen harmoniously. And ensure that its own policies or actions does not lead to any form of social instability, loss of individual identity, or send a message that the arbitrary use of force is either acceptable, or practical in the pursuit of achieving objectives, whatever they may be.
Here we must ask, what have we done to stop radicalisation? And have we done enough? Because some of the factors known to give rise to extremism such as intolerance, injustice, inequality, lack of space to freely express oneself, etc., still appear to be common in our society.
Another motivating factor is the thirst for revenge which drove the attack in Sri Lanka. Given how quickly news today spreads from one corner of the world to another—and the oppression of one group by another in different parts of the world—how can this be addressed? And is it even possible for us to address this on our own, given how geopolitics work?
One step that experts agree is not the answer here, is censorship. Mostly because the size of, let’s say, the Internet, or the Dark Web or the Deep Web, makes it impossible. But we should, nevertheless, look for other, more viable solutions.
Terrorism also has to be countered through intelligence and surveillance. In Bangladesh, this is done by the DGFI, NSI and three separate units of police. Unfortunately, according to counter terrorism officers, resource constraints mean that the amount of people working in this sector and the training time they receive is relatively limited compared to other countries. And some of the equipment necessary, such as for surveillance, too, are lacking—making their job more difficult.
But despite that, counter terrorism units have so far been mostly successful. And many counter terrorism operations have successfully been carried out thus far, with minimal loss of life. However, while their success remains largely under the radar, it only takes one failure for it to turn into a headline-making catastrophe.
The second approach, that is the hard approach, is essentially the use of force or military to apprehend or take down those who’ve already been radicalised. And it is the final available option when all else fails—which is why those who work in the field of counter terrorism believe that more focus should be placed on the soft approach to prevent things from spiralling on to this point.
Nevertheless, as we’ve seen from past instances, readiness in this field is essential. And proper coordination between different units and agencies, as well as the media, which can have a greatly positive or negative impact during counter terrorism operations—as according to counter terrorism officers, some aspects of its coverage of the Holey Artisan attack was harming their operation by disclosing information that were then being used by extremists—could be the factor that determines success or failure when it comes to saving lives.
Thus in the aftermath of the terror strike in Sri Lanka and an increasing number of attacks throughout the world, these are scenarios we should all together prepare for.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.