The eight devastating bomb blasts that targeted three churches and several posh hotels in Sri Lanka killing nearly 300 people and leaving hundreds injured have shaken the conscience of the civilised world. Simultaneously, it has once again reminded us of the horrible spectre of 9/11 and the active presence of Islamic State, al Qaeda and several other terrorist outfits. The intensity, sophistication and simultaneity of the Sri Lankan attacks were a demonstration of how global terrorist organisations are trying to outmanoeuvre the state security and intelligence organisations. More troubling aspect is the supposed facilitation of local persons for such a major terrorist plan that could not be executed without a significant support base.
Sri Lankan security agencies have so far not been able to confirm the identity of the perpetrators of crime. They maintain the terrorists were local with possible affiliation with overseas militant organisations and religious extremist factions.
There is also a perception that it came in retaliation for the terrorist attack on the mosques in New Zealand. Whatever the evil motives, the fact that internal terrorist organisations in collaboration with foreign elements and affiliates of different faiths and denominations remain active is alarming. Fingers are also being pointed towards the remnants of Tamil Tigers as there are many discontented elements that either independently or in collaboration with Islamic State or other groups could also be involved. According to the Sri Lankan government, a local religious group, National Thowheed Jamaath, is behind the attacks. Although many experts believe that they are too weak and could not have launched a major operation, if at all, without the full backing of international terrorist networks. It is possible that the Sri Lankan government is still unsure and may have been groping in the dark.
Militant organisations benefit from finding space in weak states to carry out their nefarious designs. But several sophisticated militant groups have defied conventional wisdom by striking in developed nations that have sophisticated security and intelligence services.
Militant organisations have also taken advantage of globalisation by expanding their network across countries. This is the negative face of globalisation.
Apart from severe agony suffered by the huge loss of human lives, the terrorist attacks would be a major setback, albeit temporary, to Sri Lanka’s flourishing tourist industry, prospective investment and the economy as a whole. Terrorists aim as much to hurt the economy as they relish death and destruction.
Considering the nature of terrorism and its global reach, it becomes mandatory on every nation to fully cooperate with each other on intelligence and other aspects that would shrink the operating space of militant groups. Building protective walls, fencing and use of satellites and other technological means are necessary but not sufficient for combating terrorism. Cooperation among nations, a satisfied polity and economic development do contribute toward combating terrorism.
Several countries continue to use militant proxies to harm their regional or global opponents. They promote and patronise these groups. Pakistan has been a victim of it and so has been Sri Lanka. For several decades India in a clandestine way or openly has sided with Tamil insurgents. During the Tamil insurgency, RAW provided military training and indoctrination to these insurgents. It is only when Indian leadership realised that the policy would backfire on its own unity that they retracted.
The recent unfortunate events in Sri Lanka remind us of our national tragedy when terrorists committed the most horrendous attack on innocent students and teaching staff at the Army Public School in Peshawar. It shook Pakistan to its core and prompted it to take the challenge of terrorism more seriously. It also resulted in the formulation of the National Action Plan. Recent terrorist attacks on the Hazara community and security forces in Balochistan and upsurge in the incidents in North Waziristan should also be a matter of serious concern. Our government would be well advised to pay greater attention to security and take the local population along in fighting this menace.
According to international observers, Pakistan ranks among the seven most dangerous countries for Christians. This is a huge stigma and the Pakistani leadership will have to make sustained efforts in close cooperation with religious and civil society leaders to overcome this weakness. Our record in dealing with other religious minorities, like Hindus, raises similar concerns. Cases of forced conversions have been on the rise. We need to develop a culture that respects religious freedom.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s call to Iran for closely cooperating on security and other allied border problems of smuggling and drug trafficking is a wise step. Its faithful implementation would be the key to success. After all India’s super-spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, until caught by Pakistani security forces, was operating from the Iranian side of the border. Iran would be justifiably expecting of Pakistan to implement, in letter and spirit, its part of responsibilities. Moreover, close cooperation with Iran and distancing itself from the Arab-Iran rivalry would undoubtedly strengthen national unity and increase our leverage in the Muslim world. This, however, in no way should be an impediment to our exemplary relationship with Saudi Arabia. All these measures — if implemented in good faith — should greatly contribute toward furthering peace and development in the region.
Greater harmony among Muslim countries should reduce space for terrorist groups that exploit religion or sectarian differences to advance their nefarious designs. At the global level, promoting religious harmony should be the essence of the policies of major powers. Unfortunately, the global trend is just the opposite. There is a wave of acute narrow nationalism and emergence of leaders like President Trump and of certain East European countries that have sharpened religious differences. These trends need to be curbed but it would only be possible if international situation changes toward a more cooperative and liberal polity.
The Sri Lankan tragedy once again brings to the fore the urgent need for greater cooperation on security issues at the global level. But whether the world is prepared for it is a big question mark.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2019.