Those who spread terror need to be destroyed

Terrorism has conti­nued to spread its presence through an osmotic process. It had touched Dhaka nearly three years ago through the Holy Artisan Bakery incident. There had been fundamentalist and communal attacks at different times earlier but the Holy Artisan incident and the alleged association of the IS in this equation generated a strong and determined response from our government. This was consistent with their belief that there should be zero tolerance in matters related to terrorism. 

The world has similarly witnessed the tragic outcome of a number of coordinated and organized terrorist attacks recently on Easter Sunday on churches and hotels in different areas in Sri Lanka. That killed at least 250 people and injured hundreds. That included many visitors who were staying in hotels as tourists. Most unfortunately it also included visitors from Bangladesh. Tears and troops now occupy the streets of several areas in Sri Lanka.

Various dimensions have also emerged from the recent Sri Lankan massacre. Analysts from different parts of the world have expressed their opinion not only in the print but also in the electronic media. They have pointed out that Sri Lanka is in a state of shock and confusion, trying to understand how a little-known Islamist group could have unleashed such a wave of co-ordinated suicide bombings that resulted in the Easter Sunday carnage - the worst since the end of the civil war a decade ago.

The ruthlessness of the new atrocities has stunned the nation anew. Violence is not new to Sri Lanka. It went through turbulent times during a left-wing insurrection in the 1970s followed by a nearly three-decade bloody war with the Tamil Tiger rebels. Tens of thousands of people were killed. However the ruthlessness and sophistication of the latest atrocities indicate that it will be a challenge for the Sri Lankan security forces to deal with those behind the bombings. The last thing the Sri Lankan public wants is more violence and recrimination.

Some analysts have termed the events in Sri Lanka as clearly a security and political failure. Many have also raised questions about the nature of communal strife in that country’s more recent history. A few have pointed out that during the civil war; Muslims were also targeted by Tamil Tiger rebels and suffered at their hands. 

Some Muslim community leaders have also criticized successive Sri Lankan governments for their failure to restore confidence among young Muslims following more recent attacks by some members of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. It may be recalled that a communal incident took place in the town of Digana in central Sri Lanka where one person died when a Sinhalese mob attacked Muslim shops and mosques in March last year. 

This led Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council to comment that "after Digana quite a few Muslims lost faith in the government to provide them security. Some of them got the idea that they can defend themselves." Consequently, it is being alleged that the Muslim youths might have perceived such lack of action by the government to lead some of them towards groups like the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) led by Zaharan Hashim, a radical Muslim preacher from eastern Sri Lanka. To circulate his views Hashim posted several videos on social media purportedly promoting hatred against non-Muslims. Most of his videos were in the Tamil language and purportedly attracted several Muslim youths.

Eventually the Sri Lankan government spokesman, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, has come out with the government view that National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a home-grown Islamist group, has been responsible for the bombings. The electronic media has also noted that even though connections with global jihadist groups are unclear, the choice of major luxury hotels and Christians as a target - in addition to the sophistication of the operation - makes it plausible that local radicalism has come under the influence of global jihadist networks. BBC has however pointed out that during the Sri Lankan civil war foreign tourists were spared and attacks on outsiders were rare. In the latest bombings, many foreigners were killed and this has raised the spectre of links with al-Qaeda or IS.

It needs to be mentioned here that a few days after the terrorist incidents the Islamic State (IS) group stated that its militants had carried out the attacks. It also published a video of eight men the group claimed were behind the attacks.

Political deadlock and confusion has nevertheless continued to haunt the corridors of power in Sri Lanka. Some commentators who are security analysts have mentioned that the manner in which NTJ was identified was circuitous. The Prime Minister has accepted that there had been warnings provided to officials that had not been shared with the cabinet. 

He said only the President would get such briefings, even though it is not clear if he personally did in this instance. Such a difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and the President has only underlined how both these political leaders have been at loggerheads for much of the past year. 

This lack of coordination is being interpreted by critics as how political discord can have serious consequences in undermining trust within governance. Apparently, according to the US media, the Sri Lankan government may also have had warnings from US and Indian intelligence about a possible threat. The Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who oversees security forces, has now set up a committee to find out what went wrong.

For Sri Lankans the loss of so many children appears to have had calamitous consequences. It has been reported in the Sri Lankan social media that it is not the bombers who are the subject of conversation - but the children. In the days immediately after the attacks, versions of events involving the children began to circulate on WhatsApp and Facebook, in family conversations and even during exchanges in the street.

Counseling psychologist Nivendra Uduman has pointed out that in Sri Lanka; these children represented what could be called the first "innocent" generation. War, division and brutality were not part of their daily diet. This also assumed importance as in just a few weeks, the country is due to mark 10 years from the end of a 30-year civil war between government forces and separatist Tamil militants. It was a conflict that saw bomb attacks unleashed across the country and brutal violence meted out by both sides. 

It may also be recalled that the "pre-war" generations witnessed two bloody Marxist insurrections - first in the late 1970s, then in the late '80s and early '90s, which saw massive and violent disruptions to daily life, including months-long shutdowns of schools. A brutal retaliation from the government saw even more bloodshed.

 As a result the deaths of so many of children on Easter Sunday are leaving behind a poignant taste because this was the first generation for decades for whom violence was not part of their daily lives. The bloodshed that regularly affected Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims of generations before had all but gone.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Gadambanathan and the UNICEF need to be congratulated for their courageous pro-active approach in reducing anxiety among children. They have been putting out guidelines to help adults talk to their children about what happened in an age-appropriate way. These have been shared widely on social media and also with parents and medical staff in hospitals as well as teachers. 

It is being anticipated that these measures will help to contain a range of immediate challenges - panic attacks, sleep disturbances and nightmares and worries about facial disfigurement due to injuries. Understandably parents have been overwhelmed by grief and many among them have been unable to care for their remaining children and are struggling to communicate the loss of a sibling or parent to a child.

In the meantime from 29 April, almost a week after the attacks, Sri Lanka has banned face coverings in public.  President Maithruipala Sisirsena has said that he was using an emergency law to impose the restriction from Monday. Any face garment which "hinders identification" will be banned to ensure national security, his office has said. The niqab and burka - worn by Muslim women - were not specifically named but the move is perceived as targeting these garments.

There has also been another important measure introduced in Sri Lanka to combat instability both in short as well as medium terms. Sri Lankan authorities have taken steps to block the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube came in the wake of the devastating attacks and also to be able to identify and take requisite action against those who have been using the social media to fan violence and misunderstanding.  A year ago a government move to block access to social media would have been greeted with a global outcry.

Previous attempts by governments to curb internet access have been seen by liberal commentators as dangerous attacks on online freedoms. However, this time, the headline on a New York Times column by technology journalist Kara Swisher: "Sri Lanka Shut Down Social Media. My First Thought Was 'Good'" was different. She said she was ashamed to admit it, but the social-media platforms' role in spreading hate and misinformation had made her welcome their temporary disappearance. 

 The column reflected a wider disillusionment with the idea that the web is a force for good. It may be recalled that during the Arab Spring, Facebook was hailed as a vital new weapon in the battle against authoritarian governments. However, now, many have deplored how it has been used to incite violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar and also during the broadcast of the murderous spree by the Christchurch gunman. Many now see social media casting dark shadows within the geo-strategic paradigm.

Before April, Sri Lanka had been able to claim considerable success in creating a stable and thriving country in the wake of a 25-year civil war against Tamil separatists, who had entrenched the use of suicide attacks as a weapon of guerrilla terror. Now, that stability is in jeopardy.

There is only one way for resolving this growing instability. Urgent steps need to be taken to pull the beautiful country together through the cessation in the operation of parallel governments. Offices of the Prime Minister and the President need to hold inter-active security meetings together and stop issuing competing narratives as both try to blame the other for the government’s failures to prevent the Easter Sunday tragedy.

 Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance