Sri Lankan security forces - Too distracted to stop terror?

Despite years of military support from Israel, Sri Lankan security forces dropped the ball, leading to one of the worst terror attacks since 9/11.

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April 25, 2019 23:14
4 minute read.
Sri Lankan security forces - Too distracted to stop terror?

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka . (photo credit: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS)

 
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Ten years after the end of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, the country’s capital was hit by one the deadliest terror attacks carried out since the September 11th 2001 attacks in the United States.

The coordinated suicide bombings, claimed by the Islamic State group, struck churches and high-end hotels in Colombo claiming the lives of 253 people and injuring over 500 more.

In the days following the attack, authorities put the death toll at 310 and the Sri Lankan security forces arrested over 60 people. On Thursday Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau raised its travel warning for Sri Lanka to level 2, citing a concrete and immediate threat to the island nation and urged citizens to leave immediately.
Video shows suspected suicide bomber entering Sri Lankan church, April 23, 2019 (Reuters)

Officials in Israel’s defense establishment have warned that while the Islamic State group’s territorial presence is in its death throes (the group is still carrying out militant attacks in Syria and Iraq despite losing their Caliphate) the group is more than capable of carrying out deadly attacks across the world.

While the majority of their attacks occurred in conflict zones, the scale of IS attacks, many of them suicide attacks in Europe, transformed the War on Terror. But what does this have to with Sri Lanka, a country which until now had seen quiet since the end of their civil war in 2009 with the Tamil Tigers?

The first suicide bomb vests

According to the FBI, the Tamil Tigers which fought for a homeland for ethnic Tamils who felt persecuted by the country’s Sinhalese ethnic majority, were the first to use suicide bombing vests and were the first to have women carry out suicide attacks.

The group was responsible for close to 130 suicide attacks against Sri Lankan military and civilian targets. One of the group’s attack was when a truck laden with explosives drove into a Sri Lankan military barracks killing 55 people.

It was an attack which was similar to the US Marine barracks attack in Beirut by Hezbollah, in 1982. And for good reason: a number of Tamil Tiger militants had received weapons training in Lebanon. Others received training from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which copied the Tigers suicide bombing jackets during the Second Intifada.

Israeli aid

Despite not having an embassy in the country, Israeli security agencies were highly involved in Sri Lanka, training and equipping the Sri Lankan military, allowing it to quell the 26-year-conflict by 2009.  According to some reports, Israel also provided weapons to the Tamils, albeit to a much smaller extent.

Israel was also one of the main weapons suppliers to the island nation during the civil war. The Jewish State provided millions of dollars in equipment to the country, such as advanced night vision and communication technology, artillery coordination systems, Gabriel sea-to-sea-missiles, reconnaissance drones, thousands of Uzi submachine guns as well as Galil assault weapons, ammunition, mortars and 155-mm cannons.

Israel also sold Sri Lanka Dvora patrol boats and Kfir fighter jets, which according to some reports had Israeli pilots flying them during military operations. Israel also provided training to the Special Task Force, a brutal commando unit in the Sri Lanka police.

But, according to human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, the government and security forces were not able to adapt all the training to the changes on the ground.


“The security forces are so politicized and too busy with other things that they keep failing again and again. After all the militarization and increase in budget they still can’t do anything,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

“Israel sold them so many weapons and training, not decades ago, some 10 years ago...what are they going to do with it?”

The Filipino Example

Mack pointed to the Philippines which also gets significant military assistance from Israel - despite a large amount going towards President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs- which was unable to stop IS militants from seizing control of the town of Marawi for close to half a year.

With militia groups still active on the island and a complicated geopolitical battlefield which just six months ago faced a major constitutional crisis, security forces were distracted from the threat which grew under their noses.

“After the war the security forces never reorganized and for decades security forces used the ethnic conflict and ethnic militias to get what they want,” he said.

“In Sri Lanka you have Tamil militias, Sinhalese, radical Muslims, communists...there’s a cycle of violence, it’s a reality and this kind of reality can be used by international terror organizations,” Mack told the Post.

Security forces distracted

“If Israel is helping Sri Lanka to tackle its terror problem is not a problem, but after the civil war the Tamil areas are looking more and more like the West Bank-a settlement project where they are taking Sinhalese people to Tamil areas. And forcing the Tamils to their own zones,” Mack added.

According to the attorney , this project is taking a large amount of time and effort for the security forces who are then unable to focus on more pressing issues.

“You see it worldwide. Many countries are using the war against terror for a war against minorities and the opposition and they are using their budget and legitimacy for that and failing again and again on real security issues,” Mack explained.

According to the Sri Lankan government, over 30 well-educated citizens travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State group. Despite warnings of an attack in the works, nothing was done to stop it.

Sri Lanka was a soft target and whichever terror group was behind the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo knew it. Security forces became complacent and did not see a need to adapt their military training and intelligence gathering to counter the new world of terrorism. 

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