By M Abul Kalam Azad
The shock wave of the coordinated bombings that killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka has reverberated every corner of the globe. People irrespective of faith and religion have rallied with the families of the victims to express their sympathy to the victims. There will be discussions and analysis about who orchestrated one of the deadliest attacks in recent history and why. But above everything, the role of the law-enforcing agencies and the government will be debating for their failure to stop the massacre even after having concrete information about possible terror attacks. With top politicians already in a blame game, a fresh political crisis is set to surface the Island nation.
What has been clear as of now is that a little-known radical Islamist group—National Thowheeth Jamaa’th—has carried out the attacks despite the fact that the authorities had prior intelligence about the group’s planning to bomb Catholic churches. The arrest of 24 suspects hours after the attacks implied that police had knowledge about them and their whereabouts. Why didn’t then the authorities take precautionary measures to prevent it? Why the security forces failed to act before the bombings? Why the country’s prime minister didn’t even know about the intelligence passed by the agencies? Was it just a security blunder or the result of an in-fighting in the ruling party or using religious card as political tool?
A careful assessment of Sri Lanka’s political landscape and marginalization of minority communities may answer to many questions.
Whoever carried out the attacks for whatever reasons the most important point here is prior intelligence about a possible attack and the subsequent warnings. The security forces issue such warnings on and off based on analyzing movements of extremists and communication among themselves. Most of these warnings may not come true allowing the authorities doubt the authenticity. Even many would rule out the warnings terming them just routine ones. Here lies the danger.
Bangladesh and the other countries facing religious extremism should take a serious note from the Sri Lankan case. In today’s world everything relating to security threat should be taken lightly on time. In Sri Lanka, there were perhaps several warnings prior to that of the April 11 and all that fired blank. In this process, the authorities overlooked a genuine warning, inviting the disaster. The attacks could not have happened had the Sri Lankan authorities taken it the latest one seriously.
Taking the Sri Lanka case into consideration, we need to pay attention to a number of subjects when it comes to tackling religious extremism and attacks. Firstly, we must accept that no country or community in the world is immune to the evil forces, meaning attacks may come anytime by any groups or individuals anywhere in the world. There is no question of undermining the strength of any militant groups. In recent past, Bangladesh and some other countries paid heavily for being complacent.
Secondly, police officials and politicians should avoid making whimsical statements about the evil elements. What Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said a day after the attacks in Sri Lanka is something insensible and unexpected which confuses people and encourage the radicals. He said there was no possibility of such attacks in Bangladesh, a claim difficult to make in today’s world.
If we look back, we will come to know the consequence of being complacent or taking extremists lightly. For several years, from 2009, we have often heard government and police officials saying that religious extremism was under control, that its networks were destroyed and that the militants would not be able to regain capacity to carry out attacks. The complacency came for two reasons. One was the capture of the most top-ranking militants, who were sentenced to death in 2007; the other was that there were no attacks during those years. The extremists did not take much time to prove this conclusion wrong. The misplaced complacency in fact went in favour of the extremists, who silently grew in strength and re-emerged with a more, frightening, brutal face.
Again we have a pre-2013 situation and the same dangerous tendency of showing self-satisfaction. Some police officers and ruling party leaders have on several occasions said that the strength of the militants had been destroyed and that they would not able to attack. Many claimed Bangladesh is the role model in tackling extremism. We can’t afford to be complacent about the militants who are following a wrong and destructive ideology and are ready to die for it. Surely, the militant networks have been dismantled but not uprooted completely. In the face of crackdown, they may have adopted a different tactic to lie low for some time to regain capacity.
As we know only a few countries have been able to curb radical Islamists and the reason behind their success was not only using force to destroy them but launching a multi-pronged counter-radicalisation strategy— community involvement, social awareness about the scourge of extremism, campaign against misinterpretation of religion, de-radicalisation of radicals and integrating them in society. Singapore is doing this successfully, yet the country does not claim to be a role model.
Bangladesh is far behind from what Singapore has been doing. In absence of such a counter-radicalisation strategy, extremists continue to grow in the society and remain as a big threat. Killing extremists will not kill their ideology. So, instead of being complacent, the authorities should successfully launch a comprehensive counter-radicalisation campaign to check recurrence of what the country saw from February 2013 to July 2016.
Thirdly, political stability and good governance are very important to check growing of deadly religious ideological and prevent attacks. If all the minority communities in a country are not treated fairly or if the minorities are marginalized through systematic discriminations and intimidations extremism will grow there and slowly gain strength to stand against the injustice. In Sri Lanka, the minority Christian, Muslim and Tamil communities were being targeted by the majority Singhalese Buddhist, which many experts say might have instigated radicals to launch the attacks.
Fourthly, sectarian politics or using religion as political tool and as vote banks is a dangerous game that is directly contributing to terrorism and extremism in many societies. This kind of policy of the states and the parties in power are encouraging the majority community to swoop on the minorities. This is so true for Sri Lanka.
In Bangladesh, all the elements that trigger extremism are available and thus the government can’t afford to be complacent or play down the potential threats posed by different extremist elements now silently operating in the country. No militant attack has been carried out in the country for quite a long time doesn’t mean the evil forces have all been eliminated. They may have been gaining strength and preparing with evil designs in future. It can be a lull before the storm.
Against the backdrop of the attacks in Sri Lanka, the government should reassess the overall security aspect, alert its intelligence and counter-terrorism officials to increase vigilance on the radical groups and take necessary measures so that the extremists don’t get space for regrouping and regaining ability to strike back in future.