Counter-Terrorism: Sri Lanka And Terrorism


June 3, 2019: The massive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) attack against Christians in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, just south of India) on April 21st came as a shock to most people worldwide, and especially in Sri Lanka, where Moslems are a prosperous minority (9.5 percent of 22 million) in a nation that is 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu and 7.5 percent Christian. Religious violence had never been a major issue in Sri Lanka and the Moslem minority never faced any serious religious persecution. Yet the Easter Sunday violence involved seven suicide bomber attacks at Catholic churches filled with worshippers attending Easter services and four hotels full of tourists. Thus 46 of the 258 dead were foreigners. Over 500 people were wounded.

At first, foreign Moslems were blamed but it was soon discovered that the attack had been organized and financed by a wealthy Sri Lankan Moslem family and most of the Sri Lankans involved were middle-class or upper-class Sri Lankan Moslems. These local Moslems had accepted the ISIL call to establish worldwide Moslem rule and destroy all competing religions. Wealthy, well- educated ISIL members and supporters are not unusual. Indonesia had a local millionaire who openly supported ISIL and paid for Indonesians to travel to Syria to join the fight because, for several years, ISIL was not illegal in Indonesia. A few ISIL terror attacks in Indonesia changed that. But while Indonesia is a Moslem majority nation with a large Christian minority and problems with Islamic radicalism since the 1990s, Sri Lanka has been something of a refuge for Moslems in the region. Makes no difference because the Moslem scripture (the Koran) is quite specific about the need for violence against non-Moslems who will not convert or accept Moslem rule and death for Moslems who seek to convert to another religion or who oppose those seeking to defend Islam with violence. These aspects of scripture have always appealed to some Moslems and made possible periodic outbreaks of Islamic terrorism that, for over a thousand years, has killed mostly other Moslems. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab oil states have always produced a disproportionate number of recruits for Islamic terror groups and wealthy Moslems in those countries continue to finance ISIL and other Islamic terror groups even though their own governments now punish that sort of support.

In Sri Lanka, it was known that some of the local Moslems supported Islamic terror groups and that some Sri Lankans had gone off to fight for ISIL in Syria. Foreign intelligence agencies had even warned recently that there were indications that a major attack was being planned for Sri Lanka. But those tips never got to the right people in the security services and were not acted on, or even acknowledged, until after the attacks. The reason for this fatal lapse was some senior politicians who had been feuding. That acrimony had reached the point where they rarely communicated with each other, even in an official capacity.

Before Easter Sunday it seemed inconceivable that local Moslems would plan and carry out such major attack. All the suicide bombers were Sri Lankans and most of the 76 people arrested (or who fought to the death rather than be taken) were Sri Lankans. There were some foreign Moslems arrested as part of the local ISIL organization but the Easter attack group was funded, led and largely composed of Sri Lankans. It did not take long to discover that there were several hundred ISIL supports in Sri Lanka. The government is now willing to take and act on any tips from foreign intel agencies or local Moslems. Meanwhile, thousands of Sri Lankans will have months or years of unemployment because of the damage done to tourism. Tourism related businesses are expected to lose nearly $2 billion in the next year or so. Tourists will return if the government can convincingly crack down on Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankan Moslems agree and, in the aftermath of the Easter attack, Moslems destroyed a mosque under construction using foreign funds. This mosque was already controversial because of the conservative Moslems who were to use it. Most local Moslems back a proposal for the government to supervise Moslem religious schools as they do other schools run by religious groups. The government is also passing laws to eliminate any aspects of Sharia (Islamic) law from taking hold in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to civil strife and terrorism. The modern use of suicide bombers was invented in Sri Lanka, but by political, not religious, terrorists. Back in 2007, the Sri Lanka civil war was staggering to a finish. After 25 years, and over 70,000 dead, the rebels were fading. The cause of the war was ethnic rivalry. Hindu Tamils were always a minority (then 18 percent of the 18 million people on the island) and were originally brought in by the British as agricultural workers over a century ago. There were always some Tamils on Sri Lanka, for the Indian province of Tamil Nadu is just across the 29 kilometer wide straits. But a large number of agricultural workers settled in the north and along the coasts, where the plantations were. The Tamils formed all Tamil communities and maintained their ethnic identity.

The majority of Tamils have long felt they were discriminated against by the majority Sri Lankans (Sinhalese, who are Buddhist). Not surprisingly, the native Sri Lankans took a dim view of all these foreigners the British had imported. There were tensions. In 1972 that anger began to get organized when Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) movement. In 1976 the, TNT renamed itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This was more than a name change, for the TNT had become, as the LTTE, a very disciplined and fanatical terrorist organization. The LTTE began using suicide bombers about the same time Islamic terrorists did, and more effectively. The LTTE was the first to use women and children as suicide bombers. But the war in Sri Lanka never made the news much in the West.

The war had its ups and downs, and even an Indian intervention, with peacekeepers, in the late 1980s. Nothing worked. The LTTE wanted to partition the island, and by the late 1990s, had effectively done that. The LTTE controlled the northern tip of the island and most of the eastern coast. In response, Sri Lanka recruited more troops, bought more weapons, and kept fighting. In 2002, there was a ceasefire, and a serious effort to negotiate a peace deal. Talks dragged on for three years. In 2005 the violence resumed, triggered by growing refusal, by the Sinhalese majority, to even consider partition, and by a split inside the LTTE. One faction of the rebels wanted to settle for more autonomy, but the hardcore insisted on the partition, or a fight to the death. But too many Tamils were tired of fighting. The renewed fighting had the government helping the rebels within the LTTE, causing the LTTE to lose control of the east coast. From 2004 to 2007 LTTE lost 60 percent of its territory, and about half of its best fighters. The government had the initiative and was picking apart the remaining LTTE force.

The violence went on for a few more years since the government did not want to get a lot of its soldiers killed in order to stamp out the LTTE. Moreover, the rebels still had an edge when it came to fanaticism. Everyone remembered battles in the 1990s, where outnumbered, but more determined, LTTE fighters routed the army time and again. Until the LTTE organization on the island was taken apart, the Sinhalese majority did not rest. By 2007 the government sensed that LTTE was defeated and not enough diehard LTTE members remained to rebuild the organization. About 1,200 LTTE members escaped to India but many more were captured in Sri Lanka. After four years of efforts to rehab the remaining hardcore LTTE, most were released. Since 2010 most of the remaining 3,000 imprisoned LTTE members either agreed to work with the government to keep LTTE out of Sri Lanka or remain in prison. Efforts by the LTTE members who fled the island to revive the LTTE among Sri Lankan Tamils living elsewhere have not succeeded. Yet even as the LTTE terror threat was eliminated another, smaller but just as fanatic one arose among Moslems.




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