Fight­ing ter­ror­ism 2.0 with strat­egy 1.0

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - MIRROR BUSINESS - BY CHANUKA WATTEGAMA (Chanuka Wattegama, an aca­demic and a pol­icy re­searcher, can be reached at [email protected])



Novem­ber 2015. France was in the mid­dle of the worst con­flict sit­u­a­tion since WW II. Co­or­di­nated bomb and as­sas­si­na­tion at­tacks were car­ried out by the IS ter­ror­ists.

The first of them took place in Saint-de­nis, near the Stade de France in a friendly foot­ball match be­tween France and Ger­many, at­tended by then Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande. On the re­fusal of en­try to the sta­dium, three ter­ror­ists blew them­selves up in what be­came the first sui­cide bomb­ings in France.

The other at­tacks then took place in Paris, in sev­eral streets, where three in­di­vid­u­als strafed ter­races of cafes and restau­rants; two of them fled, the third blew him­self up. The long­est and dead­li­est at­tack hap­pened in the the­atre of Bat­a­clan, where 1,500 were watch­ing the con­cert. The of­fi­cial death toll was 130 with 413 in­jured, about 100 of them se­ri­ously.

In one of the first steps to pre­vent rep­e­ti­tion of such dis­as­trous events, the fi­nance min­is­ter of France for­mally re­quested the Eu­ro­pean Cen­tral Bank (ECB) to ter­mi­nate the is­sue of EUR 500 cur­rency notes. It would not be an easy de­ci­sion. By then, more than half a bil­lion EUR 500 notes (amount to US $ 300 bil­lion or nearly Malaysia’s GDP) were in cir­cu­la­tion.

Af­ter com­pre­hen­sive de­lib­er­a­tions, the ECB an­nounced in May 2016 that it would stop fur­ther is­su­ing EUR 500 notes by the end of 2018. They will not be re­placed by a new se­ries. In­stead, the de­mand is met by is­su­ing more EUR 100 and EUR 200 notes. The old notes will be phased out with time and may be in an­other 10 years, there will only be few EUR 500 notes in cir­cu­la­tion. Like our own Rs.2,000 notes, they would die a nat­u­ral death.

The cor­re­la­tion may not be ap­par­ent but this was done for a good rea­son. Euro 500 (about Rs.100,000) is sev­eral times greater than many of the largest cir­cu­lat­ing notes of other ma­jor cur­ren­cies, such as the US $ 100 bill. (Only Rs.18,000) Thus, a large mon­e­tary value can be con­cen­trated into a small vol­ume of notes. This fa­cil­i­tates the crimes that deal in cash, in­clud­ing money laun­der­ing, drug deal­ing and tax eva­sion. Drug and ter­ror­ism-re­lated crime, shown by mul­ti­ple stud­ies, could drop at least by half, fol­low­ing this move.

On the other hand, there is lit­tle rea­son in the con­tem­po­rary en­vi­ron­ment to have a cur­rency note of such high value. All le­gal trans­ac­tions can be more con­ve­niently car­ried out elec­tron­i­cally. High value cash trans­ac­tions are only nec­es­sary if the trans­ac­tion were not to be recorded. EUR 100 and EUR 200 cur­rency notes are more than ad­e­quate for a rare in­stance om­nipresent e-pay­ment/m-pay­ment sys­tems might not help.

The Rs.5,000 note, the largest de­nom­i­na­tion in Sri Lanka, ac­cord­ing to the Cur­rency Depart­ment of the Cen­tral Bank of Sri Lanka, con­sti­tutes 65 per­cent of cash in cir­cu­la­tion. That is over 80 mil­lion Rs.5,000 cur­rency notes. Will 4/21 events re­sult in sim­i­lar phase out of Rs.5,000 note? No way! Hard to imag­ine such lat­eral think­ing would be forth­com­ing, ei­ther from Janad­hipathi Mawatha or gen­er­ally the ma­jor­ity of the old-school bank­ing com­mu­nity, who still lives with a 19th cen­tury mind­set. Their prob­lem is not too much cash in cir­cu­la­tion. They see noth­ing wrong with it. What they can­not un­der­stand and there­fore dead scared are the elec­tronic pay­ment sys­tems.

Sad that few ‘bank­ing ex­perts’ with lit­tle knowl­edge of pay­ment and set­tle­ment sys­tems, let alone the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two, still mis­taken that any elec­tronic pay­ment sys­tem means a risk of au­to­matic trans­fer of their money to Nige­ria.

The In­for­ma­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Tech­nol­ogy Agency (ICTA), the apex body for ICTS in the is­land, once had am­bi­tious and com­pre­hen­sive plans of im­ple­men­ta­tion a Na­tional Pay­ment Plat­form. That sadly was sab­o­taged by few with vested in­ter­ests. Thus, while elec­tronic pay­ment sys­tems pro­lif­er­ate only grad­u­ally, cash in cir­cu­la­tion – par­tic­u­larly large de­nom­i­na­tion notes – will in­crease in vol­ume in­di­rectly fa­cil­i­tat­ing black-money trans­ac­tions. This is ex­actly what the ter­ror­ists and nar­cos an­tic­i­pate from an in­ef­fi­cient govern­ment, could be one good ex­am­ple of not act­ing smart.

An­other could be not lim­it­ing the num­ber of SIMS is­sued by one telco to an in­di­vid­ual to one. Rarely any­body needs more than one SIM from the same op­er­a­tor. Lim­it­ing the num­ber of SIMS per in­di­vid­ual will have a di­rect im­pact to ter­ror­ist and narco in­ter-net­work

com­mu­ni­ca­tions. (The counter ar­gu­ment: Ter­ror­ists use stolen SIMS. Still a user has a far bet­ter in­cen­tive to re­port a phone miss­ing faster, if she can­not buy a new SIM) Key ques­tions: Why we never even think such rel­a­tively easy and eco­nom­i­cal so­lu­tions? Is there some­thing wrong on our ap­proach in ad­dress­ing this ‘elephant in the room’?

Why past suc­cesses may not hold good

One may think Sri Lanka has enough pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences in fight­ing ter­ror­ism. Its first en­counter with the beast was in 1971, when a petite group of youth in­spired by Fidel Catsro’s and Ernesto ‘Che’ Gue­vara’s suc­cess­ful re­bel­lion in Cuba, at­tempted at­tack­ing po­lice sta­tions and govern­ment agen­cies in the South, think­ing they could top­ple the govern­ment. An al­most déjà vu but with dif­fer­ent and more ad­vanced guer­rilla tac­tics took place about two decades later in 1988-89.

The gov­ern­ments in power then suc­cess­fully en­coun­tered th­ese in­sur­gences – if we can call them so – with blunt mil­i­tary ac­tion and lit­tle or no strat­egy. The groups were of lo­cal ori­gin with no se­ri­ous in­ter­na­tional as­so­ci­a­tion. Even with their rudimentar­y set up, the govern­ment was in a far more ad­vanced po­si­tion, tech­ni­cally and strate­gi­cally than the rebels.

The North­ern chal­lenge was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. The Tamil rebel groups, un­like their South­ern coun­ter­parts, had some­what pow­er­ful in­ter­na­tional as­so­ci­ates. Though ve­he­mently de­nied, Tamil Nadu sup­port in early train­ing and sup­port for Tamil rebels were ap­par­ent. Fol­low­ing the 1983 com­mu­nal ri­ots, at least half a mil­lion Tamils mi­grated to the West, cre­at­ing a siz­able di­as­pora com­mu­nity that sym­pa­thised and some­times fi­nan­cially and tech­ni­cally as­sisted the rebels’ cause.

In­dia in­ter­vened at a cru­cial stage of bat­tle in 1987. A good move, that didn’t work largely due to the mis­trust be­tween the two coun­tries. It did one good thing though, by re­duc­ing mul­ti­ple rebel groups to one.

From the be­gin­ning, the same blunt tech­niques that were suc­cess­ful in the South have been ap­plied against the North­ern rebels too. Af­ter re­peated fail­ures, the govern­ment cru­cially changed its strate­gies af­ter 2005. Th­ese are well doc­u­ments so no need for fur­ther elab­o­ra­tion. (For in­stance, for­mer Navy Com­man­der Ad­mi­ral Was­an­tha Karanno­goda’s book ‘Ad­hish­tanaya’ pro­vides a de­tailed ac­count of the naval strate­gies that ruined the LTTE’S sup­ply of arms and at­tacks by sea, while in a less or­gan­ised man­ner, C.A. Chan­draprema’s ‘Gota’s War’ and Ma­jor Gen­eral Ka­mal Gu­naratne’s ‘Road to Nandikadal’ too elab­o­rate the strate­gies used by Army) The point: What made the vic­tory over the LTTE pos­si­ble were th­ese well-thought strate­gies – not the blunt at­tacks as hap­pened ear­lier in the South.

The re­cent threat by the ex­trem­ist Is­lamic groups takes us to new heights. It is not merely a lo­cal chal­lenge like that of the JVP’S in ‘70s and ‘80s. It is even far more com­pli­cated than the LTTE threat. While fron­tend could be lo­cal, as we see from the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, they could have strong links with the in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist net­work such as IS, which car­ried sim­i­lar at­tacks in France, Belgium and else­where.

The LTTE had lim­ited fi­nan­cial re­sources and a small set of youth, who car­ried out the sui­cide at­tacks be­cause poverty of­fered them no choice. The fall of the LTTE could be at least par­tially due to their lim­ited fi­nan­cial re­sources. The ex­trem­ist re­li­gious net­works are global. They find no is­sues with fi­nance. As the ter­ror­ist port­fo­lios have shown, they don’t have to de­pend on the de­prived youth to carry out their mis­sions.

Sri Lanka, for them, is only a point in a big­ger map of in­ter­est. The scari­est point: Like what hap­pened, they could carry out an­other co­or­di­nated at­tack in Sri Lanka, as a re­ac­tion to an in­ter­na­tional event (like Christchur­ch last time), which Sri Lanka had noth­ing to do with. How dif­fi­cult the pre­dic­tion of such an event would be?

If that does not scare you, read this. The In­dian se­cu­rity agen­cies, ac­cord­ing to ‘The Eco­nomic Times’, In­dia, sus­pect that the re­cent ter­ror at­tack in Sri Lanka was fi­nanced by a Pak­istan-based drug car­tel. Drug smug­glers, ac­cord­ing to them, based in Pak­istan, have been us­ing the Sri Lankan sea route for the last seven years to ex­port drugs to Europe af­ter a clamp down on the Cen­tral Asian and Rus­sian drug routes. This could be a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity.

One could also link it with the pos­si­ble ob­jec­tive of 4/21 at­tacks, as the se­cu­rity di­ver­sion al­ways helps drug smug­glers de­pend on the in­ter­na­tional traf­fick­ing across Sri Lanka. The un­prece­dented sizes of the con­sign­ments of co­caine and heroin seizures dur­ing the last six months clearly in­di­cate their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion could not be Sri Lanka – rel­a­tively a smaller mar­ket with a de­mand, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Dan­ger­ous Drugs Con­trol Board es­ti­ma­tions, of four kilo­gramme heroin per day and al­most no co­caine. What we have been do­ing is dis­turb­ing an in­ter­na­tional drug traf­fick­ing chan­nel. That could be se­ri­ously up­set­ting the pow­er­ful drug car­tels. They may re­tal­i­ate in ways un­think­able.

The Sri Lankan lead­ers have tra­di­tion­ally been at­tempt­ing ad­dress­ing the lo­cal is­sues with the same mind­set the vil­lage head­men to Grama Ni­lad­haris had for ages. That was largely re­ac­tive. Hap­pens some­thing un­usual – say, a fresh threat from the ele­phants from a nearby for­est – a Grama Ni­lad­hari may first call a meet­ing with the all im­por­tant per­son­nel in his vil­lage, start­ing from the chief prelate of the tem­ple. Ev­ery­body, in such sit­u­a­tions nor­mally of­fers a view.

Then they may act col­lec­tively. Each gets a re­spon­si­bil­ity, de­pend­ing upon their com­pe­tences and lev­els of au­thor­ity. Now, this ar­range­ment would have been great as long as all prob­lems they face take place in that small sphere. The is­sues that cross those bound­aries have no so­lu­tions within that do­main. They have to reach out, cer­tainly.

Re­li­gious ter­ror­ism and drug traf­fick­ing are both global, not lo­cal is­sues. The global mat­ters de­mand global so­lu­tions. Th­ese should be ad­dressed care­fully with re­gional and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion. It makes sense when other coun­tries too, at re­gional and in­ter­na­tional level, face sim­i­lar chal­lenges. Why rein­vent wheel? Some­times it could be just a mat­ter of repli­cat­ing so­lu­tions.

We have been liv­ing in an is­land for cen­turies, if not mil­len­nia. Over the long his­tory of Sri Lanka, we have many un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ences of ‘farangis’ in­vad­ing us, tak­ing ad­van­tage of our weak­nesses and re­peat­edly breach­ing our trust. Such in­for­ma­tion, over gen­er­a­tions, is now hard­coded into our genes. Thus, we have good rea­sons to be para­noid.

We see Rambo type CIA and RAW agents, be­hind ev­ery bush ready to at­tack with ma­chine guns aimed us. This xeno­pho­bic mind­set has pre­vented us re­gional and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion al­ways and it would be the sin­gle most ob­sta­cle we have to, as a coun­try, over­come this time. Re­li­gious ter­ror­ism is a com­mon threat. It should bring all states to­gether, not too dif­fer­ent from the way seven king­doms united against a big­ger and more fear­ful en­emy in the form of white walk­ers.

In­ter­na­tional sup­port against ter­ror­ism – eas­ier said than done

Even a com­mon threat does not nec­es­sar­ily bring all to a sin­gle front. Com­mu­nism was a com­mon threat in 1950 but that does not nec­es­sar­ily made the USA back South Korea in the Korean War. The con­flict be­tween two fresh Korean states, fol­low­ing WW II, es­ca­lated into war­fare when the North Korean mil­i­tary (KPA) forces—sup­ported by the Soviet Union and China—crossed the bor­der and ad­vanced south into South Korea in June 1950.

The USA had no pol­icy deal­ing with South Korea di­rectly as a na­tional in­ter­est, so it bought time. Though never of­fi­cially ac­cepted, they say Kore­ans pur­posely let KPA take over Seoul and let them more into the coun­try to win the USA in­ter­est. Even af­ter war, the South Korean lead­ers went to ex­treme level to win the USA sup­port. For in­stance, in 1961, the North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung se­cretly sent Hwang Taesong, a for­mer friend of Park Chung-hee – the Pres­i­dent to be, to South Korea, hop­ing to im­prove in­ter-korean re­la­tions. How­ever, in or­der to dis­si­pate the sus­pi­cions about his Com­mu­nist lean­ings and as­sure Amer­i­cans his firm stance as an ally, Park de­cided to ex­e­cute Hwang as a spy.

For­tu­nately, such ex­treme mea­sures are no more re­quired in the con­tem­po­rary global vil­lage en­vi­ron­ment. Now it is more a mat­ter of plac­ing our­selves at the right point in the in­ter­na­tional map. How that could be done? Is na­tional se­cu­rity an iso­lated el­e­ment? Not re­ally. It is more com­pli­cated. Se­cu­rity could be just one as­pect in a geopo­lit­i­cal pack­age, where econ­omy places a larger role. The chal­lenge is how to find such a pack­age.

In­ter­est­ingly, this brings us back to a topic al­ready in dis­cus­sion prior to 4/21. While the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion does not negate the sig­nif­i­cance, there can be sev­eral al­ter­ations to our think­ing. We have just few months to a ma­jor elec­tion that of the in­ter­est of two re­gional su­per pow­ers: China and In­dia. What can they of­fer in terms of se­cu­rity? At what cost? What would be our eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity cost in each case? Th­ese would be un­easy but rel­e­vant ques­tions.

First, In­dia. This could be the best friend we could have in se­cu­rity – if at all we are ready to treat In­di­ans friends. The op­tion might have an eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity cost. Eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties In­dia might bring, even un­der best sit­u­a­tions, can only par­tially bal­ance the loss. In terms of se­cu­rity sup­port, In­dia has a de­vel­oped and pro­fes­sional in­tel­li­gent net­work and more than ad­e­quate mil­i­tary strength to as­sist a small na­tion with less than one-fifti­eth times of its own pop­u­la­tion.

In­dia also has sim­i­lar in­ter­ests, with Pak­istan as its key ri­val. It was the In­dian in­tel­li­gence re­ports that cor­rectly pre­dicted the 4/21 at­tacks, though we se­lected to com­pletely ig­nore them. With most prob­a­bly Naren­dra Modi back in power soon, In­dia it­self will be di­rectly hos­tile to Is­lamic ter­ror­ism.

What averts we in­vest­ing in an In­dian pack­age is the un­re­cep­tive sen­ti­ments we, as a coun­try, his­tor­i­cally main­tain and which still con­tin­ues for no log­i­cal rea­son with ‘Big Brother’. Oth­er­wise, there is lit­tle that pre­vents from us be­ing an­other vir­tual state of In­dia eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally main­tain­ing only a cul­tural iden­tity. We do have a po­lit­i­cal force ready to take this op­tion for­ward, if the ma­jor­ity en­dorses so. The other equally at­trac­tive of­fer is from China. This would be cer­tainly the case if for­mer De­fence Sec­re­tary Gotabaya Ra­japaksa as­sumes the Pres­i­dent’s of­fice. His chances now, at the mo­ment of pen­ning this, ap­pear thin­ner than Jon Snow’s as­sum­ing the throne but we do have two episodes to go and the Sri Lankan con­stituency is as un­pre­dictable as Ge­orge R.R. Martin. So, we will never know till the end. But get­ting back to China, it is a wor­thy friend to have both eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally.

The op­tion nat­u­rally brings the op­por­tu­nity cost of a re­gional bias that might breach Sri Lanka’s his­tor­i­cal non-aligned for­eign pol­icy but that is worth the ben­e­fits. As I wrote else­where, with over a 1.4 bil­lion heads, China is the world’s most pop­u­lous na­tion. What makes China so pow­er­ful is not this pop­u­la­tion but its sheer eco­nomic power.

Since the in­tro­duc­tion of eco­nomic re­forms in 1978, un­der Chair­man Deng Xiaop­ing, China’s econ­omy has been one of the world’s fastest grow­ing. Its an­nual growth rates con­sis­tently re­mained above 6 per­cent for this en­tire pe­riod. China’s GDP has grown from US $ 150 bil­lion in 1978 to US $ 12 tril­lion by 2017.

Since 2010, China has been the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy by nom­i­nal GDP and since 2014, the largest econ­omy in the world by pur­chas­ing power par­ity (PPP). China is also the world’s largest ex­porter and sec­ond-largest im­porter of goods. Why mince words? China is big. Su­per big. Mov­ing for­ward with China is a great op­tion, if that is avail­able.

The worst pos­si­ble op­tion, eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally, will be at­tempt­ing to man­age things on our own. Our own fi­nan­cial and tech­ni­cal re­sources are no more able to ad­dress global is­sues. If piggybacki­ng on a su­per power made some sense be­fore 4/21, now it makes per­fect sense. And Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion 2020 could be the right mo­ment of com­menc­ing that jour­ney.

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