The recent violent acts of terrorism unleashed on France and Belgium had all of us horrified and without a doubt, standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of those nations. However, even while we bemoaned the loss of life and more importantly, the sense of peace those countries once enjoyed, there is no doubt that security lapses and a sense of complacency were glaringly evident.
Like other countries, Belgium has also seen the apparently relentless spread of a violent ideology through social media and among peers which, if it does not directly encourage violence, certainly promotes a hate-filled, intolerant and deeply conservative worldview. In this context, little Sri Lanka has much to teach the world about living under the threat of terrorism – random attacks targeting life and property.
Those of us old enough to remember the 1980s and 1990s and the uncertainty of daily life in those dayswill be able to truly empathise with what Belgium and France are going through presently. That is not to say that other right-thinking citizens will not; but that murky period resonated in the minds and hearts of everyone who was caught inexorably in two bloody wars – the LTTE in the North and the JVP elsewhere.
There was a sense of apprehension whenever we stepped out; this was heightened if, for some reason, we were stalled in traffic. As if by default we wondered if we would be the victims of a random bomb. Our tiny island nation reeled against this onslaught, helplessly entrenched in two vicious wars that tore its very core apart.
What is significant however is the manner in which terrorism was managed. There are lessons Belgium can take from tiny Sri Lanka; lessons learned at great cost but available for the world to access today. Nobody who lived through that dark era can forget how our strained resources – security forces, the National Hospital, ambulance services and other related services would instantly spring into action when necessary. If a bomb went off in Colombo, the National Hospital handled the victims with admirable professionalism. The security forces displayed true grit and the people themselves reacted with courage and resilience.
Those travelling overseas accepted that they would have to leave home earlier. Several checkpoints along the way ensured that it was only a genuine traveller than entered the airport. Well-managed checkpoints scrutinised people and vehicles. Mirrors were used to check the underside of vehicles while the security forces made sure they questioned people inside vehicles.
In contrast, in many airports around the world, movement of traffic and passengers are unrestricted. Persons entering an airport do not have to have a reason, and this may be an area to look into.
Entering a building in major cities in Sri Lanka, a visitor would by habit produce any bag they carried for checking. Citizens cooperated with security forces manning checkpoints and there was no complaining or grumbling. Everybody accepted that the inconvenience was in their best interests. The general public learned to be vigilant; school children were taught to watch out for suspicious packages and a new culture of caution prevailed. The public response to the situation was certainly instrumental in curtailing incidents which could have proved disastrous.
In 2009 the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa initiated an uncompromising military campaign against the LTTE, and made counter terrorism and counter insurgency policies multi-layered. Prioritisation of policies focused on the training of forces, noting that the fight against the LTTE in the dense forests and harsh terrains of the north was not going to be conventional. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was also promulgated by the Sri Lankan parliament to strengthen the existing body of laws. The efficacy of Law enforcement agencies’ also improved to investigate the cases of terrorism.
There are quite a few tips for European security policymakers to learn from the Sri Lankan experience. For example, the Sri Lankan armed forces asymmetric tactics of countering terrorists with a special focus on guerrilla warfare. Certainly the Sri Lankan counter terrorism experience as well as counter insurgency expertise may be of benefit to the rest of the world.
Additionally the training aspect of Sri Lanka’s 30- year experience of learning the hard way could prove invaluable for fighting terrorists. During the 30-year long experience of dealing with the Tamil rebellion, no stone was left unturned in the quest to learn to deal with the LTTE. The Sri Lankan forces learned by the practice of trial and error, they also learned a number of counter terrorism practices from Israeli and American experts.
There is no doubt that a level of complacency existed in Belgium prior to the recent attacks. A former UN counter-terrorism expert argued that Europe’s complacency had left it dangerously vulnerable. The jihadists “have found the weakness in European intelligence systems, which cannot be solved overnight, and which will allow them to strike again. The public must be prepared for this.”
While some nations may be savvy with running campaigns such as the one in Afghanistan in collusion with a multinational force, they have little experience of managing crises when things go wrong. Therefore the Sri Lankan experience is edifying.