OPINION | India, Sri Lanka Ended up Doing a Favour to ISIS by Not Showing Joint Resolve to Fight Back
After the attacks, which killed more than 250 people, making it one of the most successful pro-ISIS attacks anywhere, information was leaked out to the Indian press that New Delhi shared intelligence with Colombo of an impending attack of similar nature.
File photo of Islamic State fighters. (Representative image)
The Easter weekend terror strikes, targeting hotels and churches across the island of Sri Lanka brought forth what many had feared for a while, a large scale pro-ISIS attack in the South Asian region. While the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery act of terrorism in Bangladesh announced the arrival of the ISIS ideology in the region, the Sri Lanka attacks cemented a whole different ballgame, that of do-it-yourself terror.
The internet’s convergence with terrorism is a new theatre of war, and in the aftermath of the Easter attacks, both New Delhi and Colombo failed to engage with each other in order to manage the situation. The failures were not only of policing and intelligence, but also of managing narratives.
After the attacks, which killed more than 250 people, making it one of the most successful pro-ISIS attacks anywhere, information was leaked out to the Indian press that New Delhi shared intelligence with Colombo of an impending attack of similar nature. In fact, certain reports also suggested that three intelligence inputs warning Sri Lankan authorities of a possible terror attack, the last one delivered mere hours before the suicide bombers struck.
Ultimately, while it is commendable that India shared intelligence with its neighbour, what ultimately reports of the intelligence leaks did was to undermine an already struggling, internationally embarrassed and fractured political class in Colombo. Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, along with President Maithripala Sirisena, has gone on record to say that they were not told about the intelligence that India shared, puncturing holes in both the Lankan security and political establishments.
Ultimately, politics and public humiliation, particularly in this manner by a bigger neighbour, does not play out well within an establishment. The pushback was coming as Colombo’s police and military establishments tried to protect their own ecosystems against overnight changes by the government.
The reaction from Sri Lanka was at some level expected, as their own political and bureaucratic cliques looked to save face, and perhaps react against Indian leaks showing them in bad light. The country’s army chief, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanyake, in an interview to the BBC said that the Sri Lankan attackers had visited Kashmir and Kerala in India for “some sort of training”, or to “make more links” with other outfits. The claims made by Senanyake were offered to the press without any basis or proof, and created a flurry of activity in India, particularly in Kerala.
The Kashmir curve ball thrown in by the army chief in all possibility was just to counter India’s leaks, and propping up his own offices and institutions.
The support of this hypothesis lies in the reportage that followed after he gave the interview. Reports in Sri Lankan media suggested that intelligence agencies were still doubtful whether the chief of the National Thawheed Jamat (NTJ), the small group behind the attacks, Zahran Hashim, had actually died in the bombings himself or not.
This made Senanyake’s claims of travels by Hashim and others to Kerala, and specifically Kashmir, questionable considering they were still trying to figure out whether the NTJ chief was even alive or not. The police chief of Jammu & Kashmir, Dilbag Singh, said that no records exist of any of the attackers visiting Kashmir.
To counter a group such as ISIS, and its influence often distributed using the online world, today is more about countering narratives rather than trying to destroy it by bullets. ISIS caliphate is no more, and today it runs its affairs as a traditional insurgency instead of the proto-state it had setup that operated between 2014 and 2018. Despite the loss of geography, ISIS has continuously put weight behind smaller groups that support it around the world.
ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in his first video appearance this month since 2014, accepted the allegiance of groups operating under the ISIS banner in places such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Afghanistan, officially expanding his organisational footprint.
How to fight ISIS, and how to approach the issue of weaponisation of the internet is still a much discussed topic.
Policies of counter-terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) are still playing catch up to the evolutionary changes ISIS has orchestrated on how modern-terror groups operate. Researchers Alastair G Reed and Haroro J Ingram have highlighted in a new research published by Europol that a critical juncture of narratives that CT and CVE policy makers need to apply within themselves, before advocating policies to governments and others alike, highlighting the need of active counter-messaging to tackle these new threats rather than the traditional defensive approaches.
In the case of the Sri Lanka attacks, the counter-narrative designs were neither defensive nor active, but largely self-defeating for both Colombo and New Delhi’s interests.
“The largely defensive measures (of CT and CVE) are reflective of (as well as contributed to) a culture of “do no harm” in the departments responsible for these efforts. While a philosophy of “do no harm” is understandable, we argue that the golden rule of CT-CVE messaging should be to do violent extremists no favours because it contributes to a more assertive, less defensive, and competitively-oriented posture,” Reed and Ingram highlight. Both India and Sri Lanka ended up doing favours to ISIS, and the NTJ by not showing joint, and strengthened regional resolve to combat the same.
It is imperative for South Asian countries to understand and recognise the ways in which ISIS has changed the very modus operandi of Islamist terrorism. Adaptation of counter-narratives at the forefront of CT and CVE is an approach that needs to be institutionalized in the region’s security thinking.
(The author is Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal)
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