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Sunday, 22 November 2015

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Combatting terrorism

A Europe-wide crackdown on terror cells is underway in the aftermath of the ISIS terrorist attack in Paris that left at least 130 people dead and over 300 injured, some of them severely. The attacks have raised a lot of questions for which answers are still being sought not only in France but also in capitals around the world. With some attackers and their accomplices still believed to be at large in France or in neighbouring nations, it will take some more time for the entire horrendous story to unfold. But it is a story that must be uncovered somehow.

As a country that suffered from the ill effects of terrorism for 30 long years, Sri Lanka does have a lot of experience in this field. Indeed, Sri Lanka remains one of the few countries which has defeated a terror group. Granted, the modus operandi and the objectives of the LTTE and ISIS are different, but there are certain similarities too. While the LTTE (once described by the FBI as the most ruthless terrorist group in the world) used terror tactics to press for a separate state in Sri Lanka, the ISIS is not exactly a territorial terror group and eventually aims to establish its dominance over a much wider swathe of the world.

It is also based on its own misguided interpretation of Islamic tenets. Clearly, the ISIS has nothing to do with Islam or the Quran. It has distorted history and religious texts to present a completely wrong picture about Islam. In fact, most innocent people targeted by the ISIS are Muslims themselves.

Sri Lanka has been sharing its experiences in anti-terrorism operations with other countries and there are many lessons that can be drawn by the French and European investigators as they deal with the aftermath of the biggest terror attack in the continent since 2004 Madrid bombings blamed on the al-Qaida. One of the biggest assets in the tool kit of the 'good guys' is reliable intelligence. This being the second major terrorist attack in Paris in less than one year (after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January), questions have been raised whether there was a lapse in intelligence gathering. They will no doubt take any corrective action needed on this point. However, gathering intelligence is not enough.

It must be shared among all countries - terrorism anywhere is terrorism everywhere. No country can afford to shut its eyes and ears saying it will not be affected by terrorism. The LTTE had a global footprint. So does ISIS.

Intelligence

Granted, this is no easy task because intelligence agencies have to tread rather cautiously in gathering information. There are always accusations of racial profiling whenever one or two communities are targeted, but we have to bear in mind that this is sometimes inevitable.


Paris attack

There are also privacy concerns - some freedom of expression rights are affected if the State authorities (or highly sophisticated robots/filtering tools) listen in to telephone conversations or scan through emails of private citizens.

But such restrictions could be the collective price we have to pay for greater security which subsequently leads to the greatest good of the greatest number. Here in Sri Lanka, we are all too familiar with the concept of checkpoints which may impede your freedom to travel for a few minutes, but at the end of the day you feel safer because you are aware that the Security Forces are on alert. Such a tradeoff may be essential to ensure greater security.

Vigilance

That brings us to the equally important concept of eternal vigilance. It is no secret that many terror plots were foiled here because the authorities were always vigilant. British Prime Minister David Cameron said soon after the attacks in France that UK authorities were able to thwart at least seven terror attacks on UK soil thanks to a combination of good intelligence and relentless vigilance. It may still not be possible to prevent all the attacks, but the chances of more incidents happening is diminished significantly if the authorities are always alert.

As the saying goes, Governments have to be lucky all the time, but terrorists have to be lucky only once. There is no better solution than eternal (24x7, 365 day) vigilance. There is absolutely no need to let the guard down, regardless of the perceived threat level.

Training of Police including SWAT teams and Security Forces is another essential requirement. They have to be ready to face any eventuality at any time. Terrorists usually choose the night time for attacks since they can move and fire under the cover of darkness, but this is not 'a given'. An attack can really take place anytime. In fact, 9/11, the biggest-ever terrorist attack took place in broad daylight, though the operational aspects were admittedly very different.

The security units must be provided with the latest weapons and surveillance devices as the terrorists are also usually equipped with the latest weapons sourced from well-funded terrorist networks.

Problems

Funding of terrorist organisations remains one of the biggest problems for Governments. Sri Lanka successfully led a campaign to cut off funding for the LTTE. The ISIS rose to prominence in a very short period and it remains a mystery as to how they accumulated so much money and firepower in such a short period. It is quite possible that certain entities are funding it. These funding sources must be found and cut off before the funds are used to create more carnage across the world. The international community must strengthen the terrorist financing laws.

Even if international funds are not forthcoming, there is one form of terrorism that seems to have raised its ugly head in Europe.

It is called home grown terrorism, where people who have been born and raised in certain countries attack those very countries.

This happened in the July 2005 attacks in the UK and in the recent attack in France. One answer to this issue is ensuring that migrant communities are not isolated from the mainstream community.

They must be given every opportunity to integrate with the rest of the society. A society that respects equality and provides equal opportunities to all is often the best answer to insurgency and even terrorism.

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