Sri Lanka – the terrorism playbook re-written

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There was a time when terrorism and extremism was linked to poverty. This was as much assumptive as it was objectively determined. ‘The poor’, ran the argument, are driven to desperate acts as a protest, a push-back, at the forces that keep them that way – the Establishment, politicians of every hue, feudalism and patriarchy – and ‘the poor’ find themselves prey to those who would manipulate and influence them for dark reasons, often religio-sectarian or based on interfaith intolerance and animosity.

‘The poor’ were the eternal fall-guys, the reliable and determined delivery systems for those that sought to destabilise states.

This proves to be one of the many fallacies that obscure any understanding of terrorism and extremism; and poverty on close inspection has little connection to it, more it has connections to wealth, privilege, higher education and the comforts of life at the middle and upper-middle class end of the scale. The Sri Lanka bombings are an exemplar of this – as well as a pointer for where groups such as Islamic State are going next. And anybody that believed recent assertions that IS was ‘defeated’ or ‘finished’ with the demise of its short-lived ‘caliphate’ needs a paradigm reboot.

The Sri Lankan police, intelligence services and politicians have a lot to answer for in the appalling mess of mis-and-failed communication that preceded the attacks, but the police at least were on the ball in the immediate aftermath. A little over an hour after the first explosions they were in the wealthy Colombo suburb of Dematagoda and outside the 3-story house of Inshaf Ibrahim who with his brother Ilham owned a copper factory. They also have interests in the jewellery trade. Their father is one of the wealthiest in the Muslim community and made his fortune in the spice business. As the police approached there was an explosion and the older brother’s wife and three children were shredded, the top floor being wired with explosives presumably to pre-empt any attempt to gain entry. Both brothers were members of the attack team, one died and the other is in custody and they are now revealed as at the apex of a complex and widespread organisation that completely escaped the notice of Sri Lankan police and security agencies. It did not escape the notice of foreign intelligence agencies, and the Indians in particular gave specific and troubling warnings as much as a month in advance and continued to do so until days before the attacks.                                                                                     Now consider the bombers themselves. One of them attended Kingston University in London studying aeronautical engineering, later studying in Australia. Most of his fellow bombers were educated to degree level though not all completed their courses. Bright bombers are nothing new and the current leader of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri is a qualified pediatrician – a children’s doctor – and a plot unearthed in the UK in 2007 was almost exclusively run by qualified medical personnel. There are numerous examples of well educated Islamist extremists and none of the men who flew into the WTC’s on 9/11 came from a poor or deprived background.

There was much speculation in the days immediately following the attacks as to how it was that a tiny and hitherto unregarded Muslim extremist group could mount a multi-target operation, this ended when Islamic State (IS) claimed it for itself. No details of its involvement were offered but clarity began to emerge as to the nature of the attacks and their organisation, the hinge around what now has to be viewed as a re-writing of the terrorism playbook.

It is five years since IS came into the world and it has never been a populist mass movement, more a carriage for an ideology of Sunni Islam that finds no shortage of fellow travelers but needs little in the way of formal infrastructure to sustain itself. Most of the leaders are or were – there have been casualties – religious clerics. Its volunteers come from Syria which is nowadays a manufactory of well-trained extremists looking for somewhere to practice their arts – as well as the UK, Iraq and Egypt or Tunisia. The failure of the caliphate has left some of these characters in search of an author, and in one high-profile case a British woman sought to return to her homeland, a move that triggered the UK government revoking her citizenship. She is not alone and there are hundreds of others, many of whom would willingly give their lives for a cause they believed in. Cannon fodder for the digital age.

To quote from a recent ‘Guardian’ article – ‘Taken together, this teaches us that neither education nor economics can help explain any one individual’s violent activism. The literature on radicalisation that has been produced since 2001 has yet to pinpoint a cause, and few experts think there might be one.’

How do these people arrive at this point? The first, and perhaps most difficult idea to understand is that terrorism is a social activity. The Sri Lanka attacks are an example, this was family and friends, peers that knew one another socially and were easy in each other’s company and able to keep a secret. Ideas quickly spread in a small group, there is a sense of exclusivity and probably a rolling paranoia linked to supremacist ideas of the need to impose faith. Married couples have friends and family also, then there are the contacts from schooldays that have come into adulthood all together. It is not difficult to imagine that an actor such as IS would recognise the potential of working through such affiliative networks.

The SL group had no need of foreign funding, no transfers of funds that might alert the security agencies, they were rich enough to fund this themselves and IS was more than happy to assist with logistics and planning and reconnaissance advice, all of which could be delivered at arms length, no need to make very visible journeys just access to the internet, a layer of VPN’s and encryption and some competent tradecraft. That said it is now known that there were ‘foreign elements’ moving in and out of the country for months preceding the attacks, again unnoticed or, if noticed – ignored.

Where does this leave IS? Feeling very pleased with itself is the most likely projection. This is a proof-of-concept operation that went almost flawlessly. With local variations this can be replicated assuming the right host group can be identified with the independent resources to make the hit. The hit team hides in plain view, anonymised by their ordinariness, their places in society, and it can be any society at least theoretically but preferably one with weak or corrupt security systems and a broken or conflicted political cohort that have no investment beyond self interest. These are by no means uncommon in a world fast dividing along political fault lines. The Islamic State needs no caliphate to conduct business, and a new horizon has emerged, one that those who would countervail terror are ill-equipped to deal with.