‘Remaining alert on all terrorism manifestations, a challenge’ | Sunday Observer

‘Remaining alert on all terrorism manifestations, a challenge’

21 July, 2019

In the aftermath of the Easter attacks, many countries stood in solidarity with Sri Lanka. Help arrived in numerous ways and the show of support was overwhelming. The European Union (EU) too was quick to condemn the heinous attacks.

Last week the EU and Sri Lanka held an informal counter-terrorism dialogue, a first of its kind to share experiences and discuss common challenges relating to violent extremism and terrorism.

EU Ambassador in Sri Lanka Tung-lai Margue, in an email interview explained the purpose of this interaction. Excerpts:

Q: What were identified as common challenges and threats at the informal counter terrorism dialogue held last week ?

A. In the EU, following the Madrid bombings, a new strategy was designed based on four priorities: namely prevent, protect, pursue and respond. The incident clearly manifested a radically new challenge. To prevent people from turning to terrorism, the first challenge, we came across was to tackle the factors or root causes which can lead to radicalisation and recruitment. The second was to protect citizens and infrastructure as to reduce vulnerability to attacks through improved security at borders. The third was to pursue and investigate terrorists within but also across borders, globally, disrupt their support network, cut off their source of funding and bring perpetrators to justice. Then it is necessary to respond, manage and minimise the consequences of terrorist attacks by improving capabilities to deal with the aftermath and support victims. In our understanding these are challenges that Sri Lanka is confronted by in the aftermath of 21/4.

Q: What experiences of the EU can be cloned to help counter Sri Lanka’s threats?

A. For the past 15 years, the EU has been the stage of numerous attacks (Madrid, London, Paris, Nice) claimed by Jihadist movements, Al Qaeda or ISIS, IS. Decades earlier some European countries were confronted by terrorist organisations such as the RAF in Germany, the ETA in Spain, the IRA in Ireland. Today, in the EU far right movements resorting to violent extremism constitute another threat which the EU has to tackle within its own borders and within its Member States.

In a nutshell, this scourge takes multiple forms and the main challenge is not to focus on one but remain alert on all its manifestations. There are certainly parallels with Sri Lanka. Political movements resorting to violent extremism or terrorism have also surfaced in Sri Lanka in different phases of its history. The LTTE was a case in point that has been addressed through a hard security approach. However the CT strategies that were designed against the LTTE-led separatist movement now have to be adapted to be effective against the new threat as evidenced in the 21/4 attacks.

Q: Among the matters underlined by the EU were ‘importance of efficient coordination of counter-terrorism efforts, the essence of focusing on the prevention of violent extremism and the importance of counter-terrorism responses to be in line with human rights obligations.’ Why do you stress on coordination of the counter terrorism efforts?

In the fight against terrorism, coordination and sharing of information are essential. As multiple actors are involved, coordination among intelligence and security agencies remains key. However, this is easier said than done. Experience in the EU, has made it clear that connecting the dots was crucial. The 9/11 had demonstrated that the CIA and the FBI had information but did not connect. Often scattered information is available but agencies work in silos and do not put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the EU there has been significant progress since 2005, but it is still work in progress.

Q: Do you believe Sri Lanka is ‘ready’ and has ‘the capacity’ to ensure human rights obligations are met in its counter terrorism responses and efforts?

A. Striking the right balance between successful counter terrorism operations and human rights is a challenging task and essential for success and sustainability in the prevention of extremism. Emergency regulations are put in place in times of acute crisis as happened in Europe. However, it goes without saying that exceptional circumstances are their raison d’être. Therefore a prolonged extension of the extraordinary powers of security forces in a democratic framework are bound to be negatively perceived as a threat by citizens and alienate them creating new problems.

As experienced in the EU, when a particular community is identified there is a risk of alienation which can produce contrary effects to those expected. Therefore conducting a counter terrorist policy without alienating or stigmatising communities is a crucial element. Suspects are not terrorists until strong evidence is provided. An exchange on lessons learnt on investigation and prosecution and best practices was also agreed upon during the visit of CT Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove.

Q: The EU offered a support package worth EUR 8.5 m for Sri Lanka under the Instrument contributing to ‘Stability and Peace’. It focuses on law enforcement, rehabilitation and disengagement, counter-narratives, and online radicalisation. How do you propose to achieve the above objectives, especially online radicalization, a challenging feat for even the first world?

A. During the visit of the CT coordinator, the EU presented a support package under the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace and indeed funds will be channelled through UNODC and UNDP, the key partners.

Among the programs foreseen, it is envisaged inter alia to look into prevention of extremism through de-radicalization by addressing issues of incitement and recruitment in key environments such as prisons, places of religious training or worship as well as online radicalization.

We now live in a world where the lines between online and offline are increasingly blurred. Online radicalisation can among others be addressed by joining the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. Monitoring and flagging content on social media to control violent extremism and in particular hate speech will be a priority. Other agencies such as INTERPOL could also be called in to play a role in this context.