The Great Purge: De-radicalising youth post Easter

  • Countering radicalisation, de-radicalisation, and rehabilitation: Key steps

  • Education on religious, ethnic harmony is a start

  • Extremist groups promoting hatred online/offline

  • Radicalised groups exist in all communities 


 In April 2019, a decade after the end of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka was unfortunate enough to witness another carnage that cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people and traumatised thousands more. Also, it was not just an attack on Sri Lanka’s public; it was also an attack on the country’s vulnerable youths and national security.

Speculation was rife that the international terror outfit, the Islamic State (IS), was behind this attack, even though later it was refused by certain parties, who acknowledged that the influence of the ideologies of the IS, rather, was behind the groups that carried out the attack.

Among the key culprits of the Easter Sunday attack were Muslim youths – misguided youths, to be precise – and the Government said that it was planning to de-radicalise them while the Police also announced its plans in this connection.

Defence Secretary General (Retd.) Kamal Gunaratne had said that even though Sri Lanka had been successful in countering issues pertaining to radicalisation in the recent past, the current trend, the politico-religious radicalisation that steered the Easter Sunday attacks, should be the focal point of all concerned elements, stressing that transnational extremism that is in place has a direct bearing on domestic religious extremism. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a number of high-ranking figures have also expressed similar sentiments concerning the importance of de-radicalisation.

To look into the connection between acts of terror and radicalisation, as well as what Sri Lanka’s future steps in this connection should be, The Morning spoke to Sri Lankan terrorism researcher, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Honorary Professor Dr. Rohan Gunaratne. 

According to Dr. Gunaratne, radicalisation alone cannot result in terrorism, and it is a process involving several other factors.


Radicalisation and terrorism


He explained: “Terrorism does not emerge overnight; terrorism is preceded by two steps. Exclusivism leads to extremism, and if extremism is not controlled by the Government, it leads to terrorism. The Muslim community leaders and the Muslim religious leaders have a major responsibility to regulate their religious base, and if they do not promote moderation, tolerance, and co-existence, then terrorism is inevitable.”

He added that the process through which innocent Muslims transform into extremists through the stages of exclusivism and extremism is called radicalisation.

When The Morning queried as to what sort of steps the Government should take in order to prevent the recurrence of attacks fuelled by radicalisation, Dr. Gunaratne added that the Government must understand that the radicalisation of Muslims cannot be stopped by the Army, Navy, Air Force, or the Police, and that the models of fighting religious extremism that is causing terrorism are different from the strategies used for fighting LTTE terrorism. 

Dr. Gunaratne also proposed that the Government should pay attention to taking three key steps in this connection.

Firstly, he suggested that without any further delay, the Government should pass a bill on ethnic and religious harmony in Parliament. He added that by doing so, it would be possible to prevent the spread of hatred leading to violence through incitement. He added that violence is an end result of a process stemming from suspicion, and that this process includes prejudice, resentment, hatred, and incitement. 

The second recommendation for the Government is introducing one period of religious knowledge, especially on Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in madrasas (educational institutions). 

He explained: “Muslim leaders should take this responsibility seriously and start to reform the madrasas. Even two years after the Easter Sunday attacks, they have failed to regulate the madrasas by introducing comparative religions. Unless the madrasas are reformed, they will continue to radicalise, and as a result, Sri Lankan Muslim youth would be vulnerable and join extremist and terrorist groups. The local and traditional Muslims lived in peace with the Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus for thousands of years. But, the new ideologies which came from the Middle East created a discord between Muslims and non-Muslims and between Muslims belonging to various sects of their religion. Unless Muslims learn about other religions, there will be no peace between Muslims and non-Muslims in the future. Sri Lanka will become like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even Iraq and Syria. If the Government fails to develop the said legislation, to regulate religious education and the information space, Sri Lanka in the future will be ungovernable, like some countries in the world where there are ethnic and religious riots every year.”

Dr. Gunaratne added that in order to counter the radicalisation of the Muslim youth, all madrasas should have a common syllabus and should be registered under the Ministry of Education. He also said that all the clerics in the madrasas should be accredited preachers and teachers, and that they should be required to pass a basic examination on other religions, which includes building harmony between the communities, so that they can preach about the commonalities between the religions rather than highlighting the differences. Issuing a license after the said exam was also among his recommendations.


Post-Easter Sunday attacks PCoI report: Recommendations


Speaking of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) appointed to look into the Easter Sunday attacks, Dr. Gunaratne added that he is of the opinion that the PCoI report would be a brilliant one that would help Sri Lanka to build the legal and policy framework to re-establish safety and security for all communities. 

“The report should be taken seriously by the Government, the Opposition, and also every Sri Lankan citizen,” he said, opining that according to his knowledge and understanding, the report should contain four key elements, which ultimately aims at ensuring reconciliation thereby preventing radicalisation and extremism.  

He added that the report identifies the Muslim exclusivist and extremism ideology that had slowly and steadily separated them from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian communities. He further said that the report calls for the integration of the communities. “If there is going to be peace, all communities should co-exist and there should be no area where there are only Sinhalese, Tamils, or Muslims,” he opined.

He also said that the report proposes a series of measures to integrate all communities and build one Sri Lanka, including a national education policy. He stressed that even though Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education claims that it has a national education policy, in fact, it does not. He further said that such recommendations should be implemented as the highest priority.

He added that the report identifies the new structures and capabilities Sri Lanka should create to efficiently identify and effectively address the national security challenges such as Muslim radicalisation. He also opined that former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President and incumbent parliamentarian Maithripala Sirisena did not make national security their priority, and that in order for Sri Lanka to prosper economically, it should invest in social harmony and political stability. 

Dr. Gunaratne added that the report identifies the polarisation of the ethnic and religious communities, which is a direct result of Sri Lanka permitting the registration of political parties based on ethnicity and religion.

“In order for Sri Lanka to build a stable and secure country, the Government should deregister political parties with an ethnic and religious basis, and should also encourage multi-ethnic and multi-religious political parties.” 

He added that even though India had provided sound and timely intelligence that could have pre-empted the Easter Sunday attacks, the United National Front (UNF)-led Government did not take the repeated alerts by the Indian intelligence seriously and did not act. “I am of the view that the Easter Sunday attacks were not an intelligence failure, but an operational failure.”

Even though The Morning tried to contact the Defence Secretary, he was not reachable. Co-Cabinet Spokesmen and the Minister of Public Security were also unavailable to comment in this connection.


De-radicalising of extremists in all communities, crucial


Speaking of the Government’s alleged plans for de-radicalisation efforts in Sri Lanka, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Mujibur Rahman said that in order to implement a proper de-radicalisation programme, the Government should take steps to introduce a national policy that is common to all ethnic communities. He added that despite various claims and the necessity for it, so far, the Government has not come up with a proper plan in this connection.

Rahman alleged that the lack of concrete plans is what pushes the country’s youth to be radicalised.

He also said that the Government’s plans should not target one specific community such as the Muslim community and that doing so is likely to amount to discrimination. The Government, according to Rahman, should focus on de-radicalising extremist elements in all communities including the Sinhala and Tamil communities, as extremism exists in almost all communities irrespective of their ethnicity.

He further alleged that targeting one community in the process of de-radicalisation implies that the Government has a political agenda or that it is trying to achieve political objectives. He added that in the event the Government takes steps to present a genuine proposal aimed at de-radicalising people and establishing reconciliation, they are ready to consider it and even support those programmes.

A report by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI), titled “International Engagement in Countering Youth Radicalisation: Sri Lanka’s Untapped Opportunities”, noted that the country not only needs better measures to prevent grave security lapses such as the Easter Sunday attacks in the future, but also needs a more proactive long-term plan to counter and manage radicalisation and its effects, particularly that of youth radicalisation.

The report added that in a context where around 22% of Sri Lanka’s population is between 15 and 29 years old, this burgeoning population of young people is potentially fertile ground for the sowing of radical ideologies, and that studies have shown a strong correlation between countries with rapidly increasing youth populations and countries prone to civil conflicts.

The report further stated that according to the “Youth Bulge Theory”, rapidly growing youth populations result in large groups of unemployed and frustrated young people who are susceptible to radicalisation. The “Youth Bulge Theory” is a concept that identifies young people as a historically volatile and an ever-increasing population.

The report identifies several examples of different types of radicalisation in Sri Lanka, including left-wing radicalisation – the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the 1960s-1980s, right-wing radicalisation – the LTTE in the 1976-2009 period, and politico-religious radicalisation – the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) from 2012 to date.

The report also claimed that Sri Lanka lacks a national policy or action plan that focuses on countering radicalisation, which is in agreement with the sentiments expressed by Rahman, and added that countries such as Norway, Denmark, and Indonesia have taken policy-level steps to prevent the radicalising of youth.   


Countering radicalisation post Easter Sunday attacks


Speaking to The Morning, trainer on counterterrorism Dr. Malkanthi Hettiarachchi said that in order to address the issue of radicalisation, Sri Lanka has to have three main strategies, namely, preventing radicalisation focusing on the larger community to build resilience in the community to radical ideologies, countering radicalisation by radicalised groups and individuals to prevent youth from becoming violent extremists, and de-radicalisation through the rehabilitation of already radicalised individuals. She added that much of the focus is on the community from which people are recruited to resource violent radical and extremists groups. 

She also noted that the rehabilitation programmes should be a minimum of two years, in order to give the radicalised individuals that are being rehabilitated the time to adjust, engage, contribute to the programme, and reflect, so that it would ultimately lead to self-realisation.

She added that Sri Lanka has achieved great success in rehabilitating radicalised individuals when the LTTE members and fighters were rehabilitated, and that that process needs to be continued and further developed to include IS-inspired terrorist rehabilitation.

She noted: “Sri Lanka has had experience regarding the LTTE’s influence on the Tamil community. The Easter Sunday attacks also impacted heavily but for a shorter period of time. There is a lot that can be learnt from the damage the LTTE caused when we are dealing with current concerns regarding religious extremism related to the IS factor. Even though Sri Lanka has some programmes in this connection, there is a need for more such programmes.” The emphasis is on having all three strategies for sustainable change.

In order to implement a proper de-radicalisation programme, according to Dr. Hettiarachchi, Sri Lanka has to have the engagement of civil society organisations, supported by state institutions, and should also give attention to schools. She added that Sri Lanka should ensure that schools and their curricula promote harmony, are standardised across the country, and do not radicalise children in any way, while teachers also have to be trained to think, teach, promote, build, and provide children with experiences of ethnic harmony.

“De-radicalisation programmes should be conducted both online and offline,” she said, adding that groups attempting to radicalise youth are publishing a large amount of material offline and online, and that the Government too should pay attention to doing the same to counter radicalisation by employing young people so that their material resonates with youths. 

She also said that the promotion of hatred is taking place in all communities even though only some of them attempt to get attention, and that therefore any efforts to counter it should focus on dealing with all communities.

Dr. Hettiarachchi also said that false and misleading information plays a huge role in radicalising people, and that countering such attempts should be based on facts and accurate information. She added: “Sri Lanka has the vision, the willpower, the material, and personnel to conduct this task. What is needed is to implement this sooner rather than later.”

The de-radicalisation process is more of a fight with an invisible enemy, and the bullets and bombs used in the war against the LTTE can hardly be useful in this endeavour. It is a fight with people’s minds which have, as British poet John Milton notes in “Paradise Lost”, made “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”, which then requires a more tactful, gentle approach than an armed fight.

Therefore, as the efforts pertaining to countering radicalisation concerns co-existence and reconciliation among different ethnicities, such efforts also need to be sensitive and long term.