‘COUN­TRY IS BACK TO NOR­MAL’

IM­MI­NENT THREATS AND FUR­THER AT­TACKS DESTABILIS­ED NEED TO CONCENTRAT­E ON COUN­TER­ING VI­O­LENT EX­TREM­ISM Sri Lanka is one of the few coun­tries to have fully erad­i­cated the ter­ror­ist threat through mil­i­tary means Global in­flu­ence of Is­lam rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, c

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - FRONT PAGE - By Aye­sha Zuhair

We have suc­ceeded in pre­vent­ing any im­mi­nent threats and taken ac­tion to desta­bi­lize fur­ther at­tacks in the coun­try

Sec­re­tary to the Min­istry of De­fence

Shan­tha Kot­te­goda says that nor­malcy has been re­stored in the coun­try fol­low­ing the Easter Sun­day at­tacks, and that im­mi­nent threats and fur­ther at­tacks have also been desta­bi­lized.

Sec­re­tary to the Min­istry of De­fence Shan­tha Kot­te­goda says that nor­malcy has been re­stored in the coun­try fol­low­ing the Easter Sun­day at­tacks, and that im­mi­nent threats and fur­ther at­tacks have also been desta­bi­lized. In his first interview as De­fence Sec­re­tary, Gen. Kot­te­goda – a for­mer Com­man­der of the Sri Lanka Army – as­serted that with the im­me­di­ate threat being con­tained, there is a need to fo­cus on the chal­lenges of pre­vent­ing and coun­ter­ing vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism. Ex­cerpts of his interview with the :

Q The Sri Lankan forces crushed one of the most ruth­less ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions in the world; the LTTE and is pos­si­bly the only coun­try in the world that has erad­i­cated ter­ror­ism in re­cent times through mil­i­tary means. Hav­ing wiped out the LTTE, what jus­ti­fies the pres­ence of for­eign ex­perts and se­cu­rity agen­cies in the cur­rent con­text? Won’t their con­tin­ued pres­ence fur­ther ex­pose Sri Lanka to IS at­tacks in the fu­ture?

What jus­ti­fies the pres­ence of for­eign ex­perts in Sri Lanka is that even though Sri Lanka suc­cess­fully erad­i­cated ter­ror­ism by de­feat­ing the LTTE this is the first time Sri Lanka ex­pe­ri­enced at­tacks from a non-tra­di­tional vi­o­lent ex­trem­ist group. Our ex­pe­ri­ence has been mainly in deal­ing with the tra­di­tional ide­ol­ogy of ‘sep­a­ratism’, and Sri Lanka is one of the few coun­tries to have fully erad­i­cated that threat through mil­i­tary means phys­i­cally on ground. To­day we are deal­ing with a non-tra­di­tional ide­ol­ogy of rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and ex­trem­ism. An out­fit that is not ge­o­graph­i­cally lim­ited, which is ar­bi­trary and asym­met­ric in na­ture, and more com­plex than tra­di­tional threats. So shar­ing ex­per­tise knowledge with other coun­tries that have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced these types of threats and at­tacks pro­vides for bring­ing to­gether and learn­ing from each other’s spe­cial skills and knowledge on a spe­cific topic, a job, a process or dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures or sys­tems. This also falls into the do­main of in­for­ma­tion and in­tel­li­gence shar­ing and sub­ject mat­ter ex­pert ex­change be­tween in­tel­li­gence and in­ves­tiga­tive agen­cies.

I don’t be­lieve that the pres­ences of for­eign ex­perts are a rea­son or cri­te­ria for groups such as ISIS to choose their tar­gets.

Q Arch­bishop of Colombo His Em­i­nence Car­di­nal Mal­colm Ran­jith as­serted on May 10, 2019 that Is­lam is a re­li­gion of peace and that those be­hind 21/4 were not Mus­lims. He took up a po­si­tion that it would be wrong to iden­tify Is­lam with ter­ror­ism. The Car­di­nal also said that Western na­tions en­gi­neer con­flicts in var­i­ous parts of the world to sell their arms and am­mu­ni­tion. Is this an an­gle the de­fence es­tab­lish­ment has con­sid­ered?

The an­gles the de­fence or the in­ves­tiga­tive and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies con­sider are the avail­able facts that are re­sults of in­ves­ti­ga­tions or in­tel­li­gence that will be re-con­firmed from mul­ti­ple agen­cies. So far we have no ev­i­dence that sug­gests such an an­gle.

Q A video footage was re­leased on April 23, 2019, two days af­ter the 4/21 at­tacks, which shows eight men in­clud­ing the sus­pected ring­leader pledg­ing their al­le­giance to ISIS. Has it been ver­i­fied and stud­ied? Are there any in­di­ca­tions in that video or any other re­lated ma­te­rial which in­di­cates the mo­tive for the bru­tal mas­sacre of the in­no­cent?

It is too early to com­ment on a dis­tinc­tive mo­tive for the at­tacks as we need more foren­sic and in­ves­tiga­tive ev­i­dence for this.

Q It is plau­si­ble that some of the youth were mo­ti­vated to join ISIS be­cause of the tur­moil in the Mid­dle East ever since the in­va­sion of Iraq?

There is no ev­i­dence that di­rectly sug­gests this. It could be said that the global in­flu­ence of Is­lam rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, the col­lec­tive­ness and shared kin­ship by on-line rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion in­spired by ISIS has played a key role in mo­ti­vat­ing these youth.

Q What is the ex­tent of for­eign in­volve­ment in the at­tacks? There are re­ports that some in­di­vid­u­als have trav­elled over­seas for train­ing...

Other than the fact that some have trav­elled to for­eign coun­tries, and may have had con­nec­tions with cer­tain rad­i­cal groups, there is still not enough ev­i­dence to sup­port those claims. The at­tacks on Easter Sun­day and sub­se­quent ex­plo­sions in Kat­tankudy were car­ried out by a very much home-grown out­fit. How­ever, this as­pect is being looked into.

Q The Pres­i­dent has said that Sri Lanka is 99% safe and you main­tained this po­si­tion in your sub­mis­sions to the Par­lia­men­tary Se­lect Com­mit­tee (PSC) prob­ing the Easter Sun­day at­tacks on May 29, 2019. Are you sat­is­fied that the coun­try is back to nor­mal?

Yes. We have suc­ceeded in pre­vent­ing any im­mi­nent threats and taken ac­tion to desta­bi­lize fur­ther at­tacks in the coun­try. We have ef­fec­tively iden­ti­fied those who en­gaged di­rectly with vi­o­lent ac­tiv­i­ties within a short span of time. The armed forces to­gether with the Po­lice that were mo­bi­lized un­der a state of emer­gency, have been suc­cess­ful in de­tect­ing weapons, ex­plo­sives and am­mu­ni­tion. A large num­ber of suspects in con­nec­tion with the at­tacks and the Na­tional Thowheed Ja­math or Cey­lon Thowheed Ja­math with any con­nec­tion with the ISIS have been ar­rested, and ac­tion has been taken to pro­scribe those or­gan­i­sa­tions as ter­ror­ist out­fits. The in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have been strength­ened and fur­ther ca­pac­i­tated. The im­me­di­ate threat has di­min­ished while we have to concentrat­e on the chal­lenges of pre­vent­ing and coun­ter­ing vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism in the short, medium and long terms.

Q From among those ar­rested in con­nec­tion with 21/4 at­tacks, are there any per­sons against whom there is no ev­i­dence of participat­ing in, aid­ing and abet­ting, or fi­nanc­ing the at­tacks?

I can­not out­right give you an an­swer to this ques­tion with­out hav­ing the facts with me. But what I can say is that the de­gree of in­volve­ment of each in­di­vid­ual will be as­cer­tained through in­ves­ti­ga­tions and there­after ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion will be taken. De-rad­i­cal­is­ing youth in­volved with ex­trem­ists are un­der con­sid­er­a­tion and those found in­no­cent af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion would soon be re­leased.

Q Is the de­fence es­tab­lish­ment con­scious of the ur­gency of re­leas­ing the in­no­cent among the ar­rested?

Yes. Very much. Those taken into cus­tody are being ques­tioned to as­cer­tain their in­volve­ment. How­ever, we have no in­ten­tion of keep­ing those who are in­no­cent for long pe­ri­ods and would be re­leased af­ter the in­ves­ti­ga­tion process. We are also look­ing into de-rad­i­cal­is­ing the youth in­volved with ex­trem­ist groups.

Q In the con­text of many provoca­tive com­ments aired daily over sec­tions of the elec­tronic and print me­dia, as well as so­cial me­dia, do you fore­see more and more com­mu­nal con­fronta­tions? How can hate speech be tack­led?

Hate speech and ir­re­spon­si­ble me­dia re­port­ing con­trib­utes to widen­ing the al­ready deep so­cial divide and mis­trust be­tween the dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties. The re­sult is fur­ther po­lar­i­sa­tion of the com­mu­ni­ties break­ing the so­cial fab­ric of Sri Lanka. Tack­ling the hate speech prob­lem on so­cial me­dia is not the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the gov­ern­ment alone. Ap­pre­hend­ing wrong do­ers and pros­e­cut­ing them is what the gov­ern­ment can do. But the gen­eral pub­lic has the re­spon­si­bil­ity not to share hate speech on the many dif­fer­ent so­cial me­dia plat­forms they use. It is a na­tional dis­grace that hate speech dom­i­nates the dis­course on most so­cial me­dia dis­rupt­ing the peace­ful co­ex­is­tence of eth­nic and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties. The gen­eral pub­lic should put to use the so­cial me­dia plat­forms to express views on na­tional is­sues. But there is an is­sue with re­gard to the gov­ern­ment not hav­ing a pro­ce­dure or of­fi­cial di­rec­tion from the gov­ern­ment for coun­ter­ing and ver­i­fy­ing fake news, which leads to the prop­a­ga­tion of hate speech and fear psy­chosis. We are in the process of en­sur­ing a chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion on new me­dia where ver­i­fied news will be pro­vided to the pub­lic in a timely man­ner.

Q In your sub­mis­sions to the PSC, you re­ferred to the tensions in Ku­rune­gala and mentioned that cer­tain pow­er­ful fig­ures had vis­ited the town, in­clud­ing a monk in a bid to create un­rest. Could you elab­o­rate?

I be­lieve that some of the in­ci­dents in the anti-com­mu­nal ri­ots in the North-western prov­ince in­sti­gated by a few in­ter­ested par­ties. A few of them were ar­rested to pre­vent es­ca­la­tion of the sit­u­a­tion, and one such per­son is ab­scond­ing still, how­ever, I do not wish to dis­close any more details due to on-going in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Q In the af­ter­math of the 4/21 sui­cide at­tacks, the se­cu­rity forces swiftly moved in and suc­cess­fully ap­pre­hended the al­leged group. But they could not avert anti-mus­lim vi­o­lence on May 7 in Ne­gombo, and there­after again on 12, 13 and 14 May, in the North Western Prov­ince. The ri­ots took place de­spite an as­sur­ance by the de­fence es­tab­lish­ment that forces were de­ployed on the ground and there was no need to fear vi­o­lence or com­mu­nal clashes in the coun­try. A Mus­lim backlash was widely an­tic­i­pated, and yet not pre­vented. Why?

You need to un­der­stand two things. Firstly, the se­cu­rity forces fully con­cen­trated on ap­pre­hend­ing and pre­vent­ing any fur­ther ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the af­ter­math of Easter Sun­day, and we were suc­cess­ful in that exercise. Se­condly, the se­cu­rity forces can­not be om­nipresent, but we de­ployed them in the trou­bled ar­eas to en­sure that the sit­u­a­tion was brought un­der control. I my­self vis­ited Ne­gombo on the very first day trou­ble started to brew to en­sure that se­cu­rity ar­range­ments were in place. Ad­di­tional troops were de­ployed in sus­pected vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas, which pre­vented and in some in­stances pre­empted and also re­acted to con­tain the spread of ri­ots to other ar­eas, there­fore it can­not be said that the se­cu­rity forces did not pre­vent com­mu­nal clashes in the coun­try. Hav­ing said that, un­for­tu­nately there were iso­lated in­ci­dents in the coun­try which could have ,ac­cel­er­ated into some­thing worse had it not been for the in­ter­ven­tion of the se­cu­rity forces.

Q The HRCSL Chair­per­son has said that a vi­o­lent mob at­tacked the main mosque in Bandara Koswatte de­spite po­lice and army pres­ence. This is a very se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion. What is your re­sponse?

Yes, it is a se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion. There­fore, in­quiries are being made to as­cer­tain the truth of this al­le­ga­tion, and if the out­come of the in­quiry iden­ti­fies any per­son or per­sons re­spon­si­ble for such al­le­ga­tions, strict dis­ci­plinary ac­tion amount­ing to dis­charge from the ser­vice and crim­i­nal charges will be lev­elled against them.

Q How about that pre­cise warnings by In­dian in­tel­li­gence did not reach the rel­e­vant per­sons in gov­ern­ment?

I can­not com­ment on this, as I was not in this po­si­tion then.what I can as­sure you is that it will not hap­pen now.

Q Ac­cord­ing to the Army Com­man­der, the Po­lice were aware of the pos­si­ble at­tacks, but the in­for­ma­tion was not shared with the Army. What is the factual po­si­tion?

I don’t wish to com­ment on this as I was not in this po­si­tion at the time.

Q Look­ing at the pro­file of the sui­cide bombers, it’s ap­par­ent that fac­tors such as ed­u­ca­tion, wealth or so­cial sta­tus do not de­ter in­di­vid­u­als from getting drawn to ter­ror­ist ide­ol­ogy. It’s also clear that one of the prin­ci­pal me­dia for the trans­mis­sion of vi­o­lent ideas is cy­berspace. What are the steps taken to de­tract in­di­vid­u­als from mobilizing to vi­o­lence? The per­cep­tion now is that some of the re­sponses have been based on ignorance or prej­u­dice, and can drive more peo­ple into the arms of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists. How can the State win over the hearts and minds of all com­mu­ni­ties and en­sure their con­tin­ued con­tri­bu­tion to the coun­try’s ad­vance­ment?

The first step to­wards this is that all com­mu­ni­ties ac­cept that Sri Lanka has a prob­lem. This ac­cep­tance would mean that there is a pub­lic con­sen­sus to strengthen in­sti­tu­tions re­spon­si­ble to main­tain peace and har­mony in the coun­try. In to­day’s con­text, each eth­nic com­mu­nity and each re­li­gion and the sects within them have a colos­sal re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards bridg­ing the gap be­tween com­mu­ni­ties.

At the cen­tre of this ex­trem­ism at the higher level is not lead­er­ship, men or ma­te­ri­als but the ide­ol­ogy which is an ab­stract el­e­ment. Hence any strat­egy to counter the cen­tre of grav­ity should ad­dress this ‘ide­ol­ogy’ rather than phys­i­cal de­struc­tion of men and ma­te­rial, thereby de­mand­ing a long-term strat­egy com­bined with care­ful civil and mil­i­tary co­or­di­na­tion. In the af­ter­math of the Easter at­tacks, Sri Lanka has be­come the perfect breed­ing ground for ha­tred and mis­trust among com­mu­ni­ties, es­pe­cially the Mus­lim com­mu­nity. We must be mind­ful of dif­fer­ent fac­tions try­ing to create rifts among the na­tion­al­i­ties and re­li­gions that can only lead to more de­struc­tion and may even lead to the cre­ation of more rad­i­calised ex­trem­ists. While we are reel­ing in the af­ter ef­fects of the bru­tal­ity we all wit­nessed and ex­pe­ri­enced, we must advocate unity among com­mu­ni­ties. Help re­build the now frag­ile re­la­tion­ships be­tween the com­mu­ni­ties, and pro­mote com­mu­nal har­mony.

Q Ac­cord­ing to Field Mar­shal Sarath Fon­seka, dur­ing the Cease­fire Agree­ment (CFA) in 20022003, the then Pres­i­dent Chandrika Ban­daranaike Kumaratung­a sought his views as well as yours on the pos­si­ble col­lapse of the CFA. In Fon­seka’s words, “The Pres­i­dent in­quired from me and Kot­te­goda what would our re­sponse be in case of re­sump­tion of hos­til­i­ties. Kot­te­goda promised to en­sure se­cu­rity of our bases un­til the re­sump­tion of talks, whereas I vowed to de­stroy the enemy.” Is it cor­rect that you did not be­lieve at that point that the armed forces could de­feat the LTTE?

I am not aware of what tran­spired be­tween the then Pres­i­dent Chandrika Ban­daranaike Kumaratung­a and the Field Mar­shal Fon­seka, sim­i­larly I won­der how he got to know what was asked from me. How­ever with re­gard to his state­ment, I have al­ways main­tained and had con­fi­dence that the Sri Lanka Army was fully ca­pa­ble of de­feat­ing the LTTE at any time. I re­mem­ber that even on the eve of my re­lin­quish­ment of my ap­point­ment as the Com­man­der of the Army, I stated that the Army was well trained and we could de­feat the LTTE. What was re­quired was more man power and more mil­i­tary equip­ment for the three ser­vices and po­lice which was sub­se­quently pro­vided to strengthen the ca­pa­bil­ity of the se­cu­rity forces and de­feat the LTTE.

As an of­fi­cer of an In­fantry Reg­i­ment, I too had been in the thick of this battle in the North and East since its in­cep­tion in com­mand po­si­tion of a com­pany, bat­tal­ion, bri­gade, di­vi­sion and se­cu­rity forces com­man­der. I took com­mand of the Army dur­ing the time a cease­fire agree­ment was en­forced by the gov­ern­ment and the LTTE, there­fore the se­cu­rity forces had to per­form a dif­fer­ent role to en­sure the suc­cess of the peace process ini­ti­ated by the gov­ern­ment. It was a very dif­fi­cult task since the sol­diers were trained to fight the enemy, how­ever they abode by the con­di­tions of the peace ac­cord which was com­mend­able. The ap­par­ent state­ment that I “promised to en­sure se­cu­rity of our bases un­til the re­sump­tion of talks” is in­cor­rect.

Hate speech and ir­re­spon­si­ble me­dia re­port­ing con­trib­utes to widen­ing the al­ready deep so­cial divide and mis­trust be­tween the dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties

I AM NOT AWARE OF WHAT TRAN­SPIRED BE­TWEEN THE THEN PRES­I­DENT CHANDRIKA BAN­DARANAIKE KUMARATUNG­A AND THE FIELD MAR­SHAL FON­SEKA, SIM­I­LARLY I WON­DER HOW HE GOT TO KNOW WHAT WAS ASKED FROM ME

Each eth­nic com­mu­nity and each re­li­gion and the sects within them have a colos­sal re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards bridg­ing the gap be­tween com­mu­ni­ties

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