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Malaysia

Sri Lanka and the changing face of terrorism

Last Sunday, Sri Lanka was under siege. More than 300 people were killed in a highly coordinated series of terrorist attacks targeting churches and hotels, and nearly 500 were injured.

This is the worst terrorist attack aimed at civilians since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.

In a span of 60 days, two deadly terrorist attacks have transpired at places of worship.

The striking parallel between the attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka is the timing and location coupled with the lack of coordination between intelligence and security agencies.

The perpetrators in both the Christchurch and Colombo attacks chose a significant day for these religions to carry out their attacks.

Terrorists are elusive by intent. They are unpredictable and dangerous. They will find the means to execute their “mission” in any way.

From my observations, there are patterns which have emerged from these two terrorist attacks.

Firstly, the failure of intelligence and security agencies to circumvent the attacks even though, as in Sri Lanka’s case, these agencies received credible information from foreign intelligence agencies. They failed to act on the information.

Secondly, the growing influence of radical preachers outside their own boundaries. They are able to incite and encourage their supporters and sympathisers to launch a terrorist attack in any part of the world without playing an active role in the operation of these attacks.

Thirdly, the effectiveness of social media in garnering more support and influencing audiences.

In Christchurch, the perpetrator live-streamed his atrocity which was viewed by millions of people.

Most lone wolves are self-radicalised via social media. The usage of such media becomes more effective for these groups for recruitment and fundraising.

There is arguably less detection by intelligence agencies. IS has been notorious for its use of social media for propaganda purposes where it recruits supporters, sympathisers and members globally.

Fourthly, terrorist groups like NTJ, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and Abu Sayyaf have shown their allegiance to IS but they are not part of IS. There is no longer a requirement for a structured group to launch terrorist attacks.

The latest attacks indicate that the terrorists want to operate as a decentralised unit to avoid detection by security and intelligence agencies.

The main purpose of this strategy is to have a successful terrorist operation such as what transpired in the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday attacks.

Some terrorists or terrorist groups are on the intelligence agencies’ radar but are considered a low threat.

For example, NTJ from Sri Lanka and Brenton Harrison Tarrant were little known to the intelligence agencies in their respective countries. This enabled them to launch attacks with great efficiency.

There are no clear indications of whether the terrorists in Sri Lanka are part of sleeper cells, unknown to the intelligence and security forces. This can be perilous for security forces to deal with.

Finally, the gap in countermeasures inadvertently created by intelligence and security forces facilitates the successful operations of terrorist groups.

The 9/11, Bali, London, Paris and Sri Lanka attacks show that intelligence and security forces cannot observe suspected terrorists around the clock.

Terrorists are elusive and impulsive. Cooperation among intelligence and security agencies within and outside their borders is a crucial factor in preventing a terrorist attack.

The face of terrorism has changed. Most choose to operate as lone wolves and be part of sleeper cells. They are self-radicalised. They use social media and other apps to encrypt communications among themselves without attracting the attention of security and intelligence agencies.

Political leaders cannot be complacent or confident about the capacity of their own intelligence and security agencies in tackling issues of terrorism because terrorists evolve all the time.

The eradication of extremist ideology is the biggest challenge now facing the world. These terrorists or extremists are very difficult to reform because they fully subscribe to their ideology.

Terrorism is not exclusive to one religion or race. For terrorists, their goals are more important than their own blood. They do not see women, innocent civilians or children who may be their own, but the accomplishment of their mission as fundamental.

What strategies and approaches can be considered appropriate to deal with these kinds of cold-hearted terrorists? Do we treat them equally, and apply the rule of law?

These terrorists denounce the rule of law and proclaim their way of life and law as supreme.

How should the authorities handle these kinds of terrorists and extremists?

No religion justifies the killing of innocents. All religions preach peace and love for mankind. Governments are duty-bound to protect their innocent citizens rather than weigh the rights of terrorists who have complete contempt for the peace and security of their countries.

Paneir Selvam lectures on Crime and Criminology at HELP University, Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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