By Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Attacks on worshippers in religious sanctuaries have happened before. We remember the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand on March 15 of this year and the terrorist attacks on Lahore in 2016 on Easter Sunday when 75 people were killed. As for attacks on hotels, the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 come to mind. Horrendous, cruel and cowardly as they were, they had the distinctive characteristic of an attack perpetrated on one location. The unspeakably cruel and dastardly acts perpetrated by terrorists on the holy day of 21 April – again on Easter Sunday – on the populace of Sri Lanka who are known to be hospitable and generous to one another and to foreigners – stand out as multifarious and simultaneous terrorist acts on churches, hotels and other locations across the county. They bear distinct similarity to the attacks during the holy season of Lent in the 2017 Palm Sunday assault in Egypt carried out in the two cities of Tanta and Alexandria in which 45 people were murdered. All the above acts are unforgivably vicious and evil. They are the new terrorism.
The attacks in Sri Lanka killed at least 290 people and injured over 400. At least 20 of those killed were foreigners. At the time of writing, analysts were still trying to figure out a pattern for these mass killings across the country with a view to identifying the modus operandi of a particular terrorist group, with little success. Chatham House was of the view: “The first goal appears to be to spark further violence. There has been a striking uptick in nationalist sentiment among the predominantly Buddhist, Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka, and in recent years tensions with the Christian and Muslim minorities, which each make up no more than ten percent of the population, have been growing”. That these attacks would severely affect the tourism industry is a fact and the Prime Minister ascribed the attacks inter alia to attempts at paralysing the economy of the country.
CNN has reported that a police source had informed the news media:” Before the blasts on Sunday, a memo warned of a potential attack and requested heightened security…The memo was dated April 11 and was signed by Sri Lanka’s deputy inspector general of police”. Other sources were reported to have said that there was a delay in action. The memo should have generated both pre-emptive and preventive action calculated to thwart the evil action.
The fact that the warning memo was not actioned upon reflects the absence of a security culture in the upper echelons of instrumentalities charged with the security of the State. The thrust of political will essentially lies in a security culture that must be visible in the State. A security culture would make a State aware of its rights and duties, and, more importantly, enable the State to assert them. Those who belong to a security culture also know which conduct would compromise security and they are quick to educate and caution those who, out of ignorance, forgetfulness, or personal weakness, partake in insecure conduct. States have to adopt a security culture that admits of an overall approach to the threat as a potential harm to humanity. This should inevitably include strict adherence by States to established national and international regulations.
Action on the warning memo could have prompted many proactive measures by the security forces who are by no means incompetent. The security forces of Sri Lanka are reputed to be highly intelligent and sophisticated particularly in counter intelligence – a fact amply demonstrated by their defeat in 2009 of the terrorism movement – one of the most virulent in recent times, known to have introduced the suicide bomber to international terrorism. There is a distinct example of how such action may be taken in the in the field of aviation security. One of the measures could have been what Amendment 15 to Annex 17 (Aviation Security) on behaviour detection advocates – that within an aviation security environment, the application of techniques involving the recognition of behavioural characteristics, including but not limited to physiological or gestural signs indicative of anomalous behaviour, to identify persons who may pose a threat to civil aviation would be an effective measure in pre-empting an attack. There is also a recommendation that a State should consider implementing innovative processes and procedures to allow operational differentiation of screening and security controls based on clearly defined criteria.
In the context of aviation the Annex (which is a good analogy for general security as well) requires a State to keep under constant review the level and nature of threat to civil aviation within its territory and airspace above it, and establish and implement policies and procedures to adjust relevant elements of its national civil aviation security programme accordingly, based upon a security risk assessment carried out by the relevant national authorities. Another good recommendation is that a State should integrate behaviour detection into its security practices and procedures.
Underlying these measures is the ultimate recommendation that the State should encourage entities involved with or responsible for the implementation of various aspects of the national security programme to identify their critical information and communications technology systems and data, including threats and vulnerabilities thereto, and to develop and implement protective measures to include, inter alia, security by design, supply chain security, network separation, and remote access control, as appropriate.
Ever since the life changing events of 9/11, we lost our ability to trust one another. When such events occur, we take a long time to heal. What is unfortunate is that there is no fool proof solution that could eradicate global terrorism. As the Irish Republican Army told Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she escaped an attempt on her life during the bombing in Brighton Hotel: “today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always”.