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Don’t want anyone to believe SL military was involved in Easter attacks: Prof. Rohan Gunaratne

31 Dec 2021

  • Counter-terrorism expert Prof. Rohan Gunaratne discusses the background to the Easter Sunday investigation and extremism in Sri Lanka
By Ruwani Fonseka The Easter Sunday terror attacks of 21 April 2019 brought about tumultuous change to Sri Lanka’s social and political landscape, and gave rise to several questions, which remain to be fully addressed, on the true cause and nature of the attacks. Chief among these questions, and ones that have even been raised by members of the clergy, concern the level of negligence on the part of key authorities in preventing the attacks, complicity if any in connection with the attacks themselves, and subsequent issues that have arisen in the sluggish process of meting out justice to the victims of the attacks. Sri Lanka Institute of National Security Studies Director General Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, who is an international counter-terrorism researcher, recently released excerpts of a video of Zahran Hashim – who is believed to be responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings – and his associates, taking a pledge of allegiance to their extremist ideologies before committing the terrorist acts, in an effort to prove that the attacks were not part of a political conspiracy, as claimed by some parties. Given the recent conspiracy theories that have risen about the Easter Sunday attacks, and with the passing of almost 1,000 days since the gruesome tragedy, Prof. Gunaratna sat down to share with The Morning his professional insights into the farewell video message by Zahran Hashim and the ongoing investigations, and also released the full video. Below are excerpts of the interview. As the Director General Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, you released Zahran’s farewell video. Why did you choose to release the content of this farewell video?  There is a false political conspiracy theory floating around that the Easter attacks that took place were staged by the military. I don’t want anyone to believe that the Sri Lankan military was involved in the Easter Sunday attacks, because it was not. The Easter Sunday attacks were staged by Muslim extremists in this country, and in 2019, there were attacks against Christian churches in over a dozen countries around the world, including in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. We will not permit false manipulations online, and we will also bring about another law that will investigate, charge, and prosecute people who deliberately manufacture false news and propagate such false theories. These kinds of things diminish the value of this nation, especially of our youth. If the next generation believes in such fabricated news, we will give birth to a very ignorant generation of Sri Lankans. We also know who is spreading this information; this is largely spread by the radical Muslim community and by some political activists, and because it impacts national security, I took the decision to release the video. If there are such false narratives, Sri Lankans of high quality will not join the security forces, and will harbour suspicions in their minds over whether the military or intelligence has anything to do with the Easter Sunday bombings. We have a further 51 videos, and those will also be released, if and when necessary, to justify and legitimise and to tell who was really behind this attack. The evidence is overwhelming, and of gold standard. This video has been given to the government analysts, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Attorney General’s office, and the Easter Sunday attacks Presidential Commission. The video has also been analysed by foreign governments, and this video debunks all conspiracy theories. As a professional in the field, what is your analysis on the content of the video? Why did Zahran Hashim conduct the Easter Sunday attacks? What was his motive? The video addresses the key questions that are running in people’s minds. People ask why Zahran attacked the churches and hotels particularly. This is answered in the video, and Zahran clearly mentions the reason as to why he attacked the churches and hotels. Zahran claims that Westerners killed Muslims, including the Mujahideen (Fighters of God) in a place called Bagus in Syria. Zahran claimed there was a genocide in Bagus, which is true, as the terrorists were killed. The Americans and Europeans did not deliberately target civilians, but civilians did die, as in every war. Zahran also clearly mentions that he carried out the attacks to avenge what happened in Bagus, because Westerners killed Muslims in Bagus and they come to Sri Lanka and have a holiday in hotels as tourists. I released this video as I wanted people to hear Zahran’s own words. Secondly, Zahran mentions the reason as to why he attacked the churches. He mentions that he wanted to avenge the Christchurch Mosque shooting that Brenton Tarrant conducted, killing 41 Muslims and injuring 50 Muslims as well. Zahran says that he wanted to seek revenge. Zahran clearly addresses these key questions that the Christians of this country are asking. The Christians have all the right to look for answers to their questions; in fact, I believe the Government should have held a press conference every two weeks or so, to update the people on the ongoing investigations, and kept the Cardinal briefed on the investigation. This did not happen frequently enough, and that is why there is anger and various theories emerging. I believe the Government failed to have a proper communication strategy to clear the doubts, and that is why I have taken this responsibility to release the video now. The video was going to be screened in court during the trial, but I have decided, as the Institute of National Security Studies Director General, to release this video ahead of the trial, because I do not want such conspiracy theories to linger, which will in turn damage our national security. Was Zahran really motivated by Naufer Moulavi and was Moulavi the actual mastermind behind the attacks? In the video, Zahran clearly mentions that the reason and motive behind the Easter attacks was to please Allah and please the religion. I have interviewed Naufer Moulavi the longest for several weeks. I have also reviewed his electronic items, I have read his content, and I have also spoken to all his associates. Naufer Moulavi himself told me, and other foreign analysts, that he brought the thumb drive with the Islamic State (IS) content from Qatar and gave it to Zahran in Kattankudy; and after receiving the content, Zahran moved towards the IS and propagated this radicalism. Zahran’s wife, Hadiya, who I also interviewed, said that after Zahran was given the IS content on the thumb drive; Zahran would watch videos of beheadings, shootings, and the barbaric killings that were conducted by the IS in Syria and Iraq. Hadiya also mentioned that she was not in support of Zahran watching such content in front of their children, as they were afraid, yet Zahran was glued to the laptop watching the videos handed over by Naufer Moulavi. I think there is overwhelming evidence that Naufer is indeed the one who brought the ideology of the IS to Sri Lanka. There were others as well, but none influenced Zahran as much as Naufer. Another person who influenced Zahran was Jameel Abdul Latheef, who was also designated to be the Taj Hotel bomber and whose device did not work. Jameel tried to fix his device at a hotel in Dehiwala and it detonated accidently and killed him at the Tropical Inn motel. Jameel and Naufer were the two people who clearly introduced the IS ideology to Sri Lanka.  I would place Naufer above Jameel, because he is a Muslim religious cleric, and Naufer also developed the curriculum to train the suicide bombers and others who staged the attacks, in places like Nuwara Eliya, Kattankudy, Kurunegala, and Aruppola in Kandy; and classes were held in these places to indoctrinate Muslim people. These people are now in custody and will be prosecuted or rehabilitated based on the judgement they receive. The Christchurch shooting took place on 15 March 2019, whereas the Easter attacks took place on 21 April 2019. Can such a sophisticated and co-ordinated attack be planned and executed within just one month and five days? The IS ideology began in 2018. Zahran was already making bombs along with his family members. One member is his brother Rilwan. Rilwan was particularly good at making bombs, and in March 2018, while Rilwan was making a bomb, it accidently detonated, and Rilwan lost nine of his fingers and his face was completely disfigured. He was treated at the Colombo General Hospital for his injuries and Zahran’s family claimed that it was a domestic gas cylinder explosion that took place in the house. The Police did not suspect anything, whereas one doctor insisted that the characteristics of Rilwan’s injuries did not resemble a gas explosion. No one took notice of the doctor’s advice; if people had believed him, maybe the Easter attacks wouldn’t have happened. The Bagus genocide was Zahran’s main reason for revenge, and the Christchurch shooting was the final trigger that led Zahran to immediately execute his plan. The bombs made by Zahran and his team did not have a long shelf life. This was because they were not the best of quality. If the detonators and the explosives were bigger, the Easter attacks would have been even worse. The Easter attacks were not planned within the month, it was a plan that had been in the works for a very long time. Several factions have expressed their opinions on the source of funds for Zahran; what is your opinion? In the video, Zahran clearly mentions that the funds used to carry out these attacks were “halal”. Halal means that they were permissible for Muslims to take and deal with, and this could also mean the funds were provided by a person of the same faith. Upon research and investigation, the funds were provided to Zahran by a company called Colossus Copper, and that company was owned by a person named Ibrahim Hajiya, who was also a top spice trader at that time. Both Ibrahim’s sons, Ilham and Insaf, became suicide bombers and both lived in Mahawila Gardens, and both of them were recruited by Jameel. Jameel recruited the brothers, and Zahran radicalised them. Ilham attacked the Shangri-La and Insaf attacked the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Ilham’s wife was Fathima Jiffry, who was also a suicide bomber. Fathima Jiffry had a backpack full of explosives when the Police went to question her; she detonated herself along with her three small children. Jiffry was also a few months’ pregnant at that time. This is the extent the radicalisation had extended to. We want Muslims to understand, and not blame others. Every country is at risk when Salafi Wahhabism is present. What are the measures taken by the Government to rehabilitate terrorists and extremists? Currently, until a judgement is passed, no final decisions can be made. The Government has not taken measures as much as it needs to. The curriculum that is being taught in Masjids and Islamic schools are not moderated by the Government, and this is the first step. Clerics need to be educated as well. Instead of clerics from Saudi Arabia, we should be bringing down clerics from more moderate Islamic teaching countries such as Indonesia, Egypt, and Malaysia. When this happens, the youth and youngsters are taught a more moderate form of the religion. As for the current detainees, those who are sentenced to a prison term will be taught the religion the right way before their release. As for the ones who are sent for rehabilitation, we need to change their methodology and completely erase their way of thinking, and instil a more moderate form of the religion. They need to be taught that Islam is a very good religion and should not be misinterpreted. Is there a population of people still following this ideology and methodology, and if so, how can we prevent another attack as such? Oh yes! This has spread far and wide. It has been drilled into the minds of a lot of people. Because of this, we need to ensure that the spread is now being curtailed and does not cause more damage. The education curriculum needs to be moderated by the Government and we need to teach people that radicalism will not prevail. The Easter attacks was not the first attack by these IS radicals; we have seen them damage and disfigure statues of Lord Buddha and Mother Mary as well. So this was not something that was sudden. It had been happening, and this was well planned. Do you think the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979 as amended (PTA) needs to be reviewed or repealed? The existing PTA is stone-age; it is old and surely does not include modern-day terrorist activities. The existing PTA does not deal with cybersecurity, and first and foremost, our forces need to be educated. The old PTA talks about letters and meetings, whereas now terrorists use communication applications such as Whatsapp, Signal, and Telegram. The existing PTA does not include these, and it really needs a complete change. Poet Ahnaf Jazeem was detained for his poetry, on charges that it promoted extremism. What is your stance on this? The poet’s poems were supposedly promoting extremism, and this was what the investigators say; I have personally never read his poems or studied him. But my opinion is that our forces need to be educated and modernised to understand the intentions of people, and not always just make assumptions. Our forces do not even know about the dark web or dark net. If you see these sites, it is unfathomable how people communicate and share things on those platforms. Our investigators need to start checking on those platforms and learning more about how the terrorists work and their network. Since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the northeastern region has been under heavy militarisation. Does this signify that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) threat still exists, and would this not make the youth of that region feel threatened? I agree to some extent; the youth must be feeling uncomfortable. But we have seen a rise in the LTTE ideology once again, and the older people of those areas are not happy if a war is to start again. The reason why the military has been stationed in those areas is to help the people rebuild their lives. The military have helped build homes, dig wells, tar the roads, and have conducted various other activities. The older people who have actually lived through the war know how it feels, and they are happy that the Sri Lankan military is taking care of those areas. The youth should also be controlled to some extent, as the spread of radicalism and terrorism will not be entertained anymore. Sri Lanka has already suffered, and we will not allow it to happen again. Archbishop of the Diocese of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and the Catholic church have been outspoken about justice against the Easter attacks’ perpetrators. The Cardinal has claimed that there is a great conspiracy. What do you think about this? If there is no conspiracy, why is he making such allegations? This is exactly what happens when people are not informed at regular intervals – people start fabricating stories and conspiracy theories. There is no great conspiracy. The investigation is still ongoing, and we are looking for the root cause. We also want to ensure that the Catholic and Christian community receives justice for the families they have lost and the trauma they have faced. The Easter attacks were purely an act of terrorism, fuelled by the IS ideology. What is your stance on the investigation process and are you satisfied with the proceedings? The investigation is going on smoothly, but I feel the Government should have done better by keeping the people informed. The Catholics and Christians are right to demand for answers and for justice. The Government should, at least now, keep the people up to date on the investigations. This will not only curb false propaganda, but also ensure there is racial harmony and that people do not argue about this. 

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