One of the globally burning issues today is the activities of extremist groups spawned by the radicalisation of the Muslim faith. The Sunday Observer asked well-known terrorism expert, Prof. Rohan Gunaratna for his views on this issue of great concern.
Q: Since the Easter attack in 2019, has the global situation improved or worsened?
A: In 2019, 63 countries suffered from terrorism resulting in 13,826 deaths. After Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan records the highest number of fatalities and injuries. An alternative theatre to Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan is likely to emerge as the single most important theatre if the US and other forces withdraw.
Africa is emerging as a new epicentre both for the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliated groups. Although the threat persists in the Maghreb (North Africa), the threat is cascading to the Sahel. Both West and East Africa present a growing threat. The most affected African country, Nigeria recorded 1,245 deaths in 2019.
Conflict zones from Libya and Yemen to Rakhine and Mindanao remain the primary driver of terrorism. In 2019, 96 percent of deaths occurred in countries in conflict. While 17 countries recorded over 100 deaths from terrorism, most countries witnessed at least one death from a terrorist attack.
First, law enforcement authorities and the security forces should build direct action capabilities to neutralise imminent threats. Second, working with community, academic and private sector partners, governments should build community engagement and rehabilitation capacities. Third, intelligence, enforcement and military should build online monitoring capabilities as well as capacities to counter the extremist message and promote moderation, toleration and coexistence.
Fourth, governments should work with religious institutions to break the radicalisation pipeline, transform segregated schools into national schools, build educational policy, and make laws to protect the Infocomm space.
Fifth, disrupt institutions and monitor ideologies promoting discord and division and promote nationalism. Develop and instil a spirit of promoting local heritage and traditional practices to fight foreign ideologies that has surreptitiously infiltrated and supplanted the Muslim heritage. Sixth, develop deep expertise on threat groups; exchange personnel, conduct joint training and operations and share experience, expertise and resources.
Q: What are the lessons of the Easter Sunday massacre?
A: Terrorism is a vicious by-product of radicalisation. Law enforcement, intelligence and the military working with community partners need to build skills to break the cycle of radicalisation. Otherwise, suspicion will lead to prejudice, resentment to anger, and incitement to violence.
A visionary, collective and decisive leadership at all levels, especially by the Muslims, is at the heart of winning the fight.
Q: What is the current situation of Islam in the world?
A: Islam is under threat from Muslim terrorists, extremists and exclusivists. Under the guise of spreading Islam, Islamism is propagated. The political ideology of Islamism is slowly and steadily supplanting Islam, as a religion. Today, the political, religious and cultural radicalisation presents a challenge to the Muslim and non Muslim world. The threat to Islam is not an exception. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism too have been exploited by religious entrepreneurs to spread political ideologies.
When Islam in history spread worldwide, it embraced other cultures and flourished. From Bukhara to Samarkhahd, Sumatra to Xinjiang, Islam created civilisations that produced science and medicine, math and astronomy, and philosophy and poetry. With the rise of political Islam since the 1980s, the rich Islamic cultural heritages are supplanted challenging social cohesion and fragmenting communities.
With radicalisation, the threat is manifesting in the form of exclusivism, extremism and terrorism. While exclusivism and extremism affect the stability and security of nations, terrorism presents a tier-one national security threat to most governments and societies. As such, law enforcement authorities entrusted with maintaining law and order should act both preventively and remedially.
The apex threat stems from two global threat movements. The so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda dominate the international threat landscape. Although core al Qaeda has suffered, its affiliates in Asia, Africa and the Middle East present a resurgent threat. The operational threat posed by the Islamic State has diminished from its peak in 2014. The Islamic State is de-centralising by co-opting threat entities and radicalising communities worldwide. It is compensating for its battlefield losses by deepening its investment in the surface, deep and dark web. With its mastery of the cyberspace, Islamic State centric threat entities craft and disseminate compelling narratives seeking to radicalise communities.
The Islamic State is expanding by radicalising and recruiting threat entities. Although it suffered territorial losses in Syria and Iraq in 2019, the Islamic State is creating provincial (wilayat), groups, networks, and cells. Although the number of attacks off-the battlefield has diminished due to lockdowns and partial lockdowns, the number of attacks in the battlefields has increased. Even more deadly is the radicalisation especially online radicalisation, a battle governments need to win.
Q: What is the impact of Middle Eastern ideologies on Sri Lanka ?
A: Sri Lankan Muslim leaders did not understand the grave damage Middle Eastern ideologies caused to Sri Lankan unity especially to the Muslim community.
After Wahhabism spread, the radicalised Muslims fought traditional Muslims and attacked other faiths. The Wahhabis subverted our education stream. Today, even the Advanced Level Islamic civilisation text book in Sri Lanka profile Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the ideologues of al Qaeda, Islamic State and other threat groups.
Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) has realised the danger of Wahhabism and reduced the power of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (religious police) which enforced a strict religious code, excluded women from public life and cracked down on businesses for not closing for the five prayers, desecrated the shrines of saints, broke idols and forbid the practice of other faiths.
A religious reformer, MBS has started to reverse the 40-year Saudi policy of conservative Islam. In March 2018, MBS explained to a CBS journalist that before 1979,
“We [Saudis] were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country until the events of 1979. We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” MBS said to international investors in Riyadh in October 2017.
Having acknowledged that moderation is lacking in the interpretation of Wahhabism and that it hinders socioeconomic development, MBS removed the arresting powers of the religious police in April 2016. In December 2016, he replaced the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious body in the country. In 2017, he allowed music concerts and mixed public events for both genders. In 2018, Saudi Arabia opened cinemas and theatres closed for 35 years. By 2030, Saudi Arabia plans to operate 300 theatres with over 2,000 movie screens. After limiting the power of the clerics over state affairs, MBS’s far reaching reforms include rehabilitating clerics.
In Sri Lanka, the first step the Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs (DMRCA) should take is to build a national framework to replace Wahhabism with Wasathiya. Like the Middle Path in Buddhism, Wasathiya is an Islamic concept that promotes moderation, toleration and coexistence. All mosques should preach commonalities in religion and arrange preachers from other faiths to enrich their understanding of religious knowledge. The Madrasa curriculum should include not only Islam but Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism so that the students will practise Islam and respect other faiths. The second step is for All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) to wish Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who was both President and Prime Minister on Easter Sunday.
Until the end of times, Sri Lankan Muslims should appreciate the Cardinal who stopped a riot against innocent Muslims. The reluctance of the ACJU leadership to wish the Christians calls for reform of the apex body of Sri Lankan theologians. Like progressive Muslims worldwide, the next generation of Sri Lankan Muslims should sing carols, celebrate Christmas, and build lasting relationships with Christians!
Q: How should governments worldwide respond to the rise of Islamism, the political ideology?
A: To prevent, counter and respond to the extant and emerging threat, governmental and nongovernmental partners should understand the threat. To expand worldwide during the pandemic, al Qaeda, Islamic State and their affiliates are disseminating it’s ideology in the physical and cyberspace. They seek to radicalise and recruit entire families. Their resource base is the communities, especially vulnerable persons who abandon culture and nation for politics under the guise of religion. When indoctrinated, they are motivated to mount attacks against their own citizens and countries, and damage and destroy their own traditions and culture.
The current government strategy is to focus on hard power. Although law enforcement should maintain its capabilities to hunt operational terrorists and extremist supporters, it should invest more resources to prevent radicalisation (counter radicalisation) and rehabilitate those who have been radicalised (de-radicalisation). The ideal strategy is to develop a full spectrum response of counter radicalisation by engaging communities and de-radicalisation both in community and custodial settings. These activities should take place online and offline although the threat has shifted to the online domain. Law enforcement should create cyber warrior teams with a range of expertise from tracking to entrapment and forensics.
The intelligence services, law enforcement authorities and military forces should move from counter terrorism cooperation to collaboration and partnership. As operational terrorists and extremist supporters seek to infiltrate sacred spaces, institutions of learning, and cyberspace, governments need to work with a range of partners.
To regulate the religious, educational and digital spaces, the government should first build a legal and policy framework, develop the resources and expertise followed by building the trained staff and infrastructure. Working with community, academic and private sector partners, governments should build the higher strategic and ground level operational and tactical capabilities.
To fight the contemporary wave of global terrorism, governments also need to develop upstream capabilities to prevent, mid stream capabilities for direct action and downstream capabilities in rehabilitation, and be a game changer in the fight against terrorism.