Leading article

How not to fight a war on terror

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

It has become commonplace to describe terror attacks as ‘senseless’. The horrific Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, which cost the lives of more than 350 people, several British citizens among them, make little sense. The only way to understand them is as a symptom of the growing globalisation of terror.

The tactics — synchronised bombs on a Christian holy day — are grotesquely familiar. And it was not surprising to learn that one of the attackers was partly educated in London. The attacks, on three Catholic churches and three hotels favoured by westerners, clearly targeted Christians. The culprits have been identified as local Islamic extremists. The purpose of the attacks, therefore, was to increase tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sri Lanka used to be well-known for violence. A civil war divided the country bitterly and cost the lives of between 70,000 and 80,000 people. But it was an ethnic conflict between a rebel group of Tamils demanding independence from the majority Singhalese. There was no role for either Muslims or Christians: they are both small minorities in a country which is nearly three quarters Buddhist. The civil war wasn’t about faith; it was about ethnicity.

While Sri Lanka does have a radical Islamic group — National Thowheeth Jamaath, which has been blamed by the Sri Lankan government for the attacks — until now it has limited itself to minor acts such as defacing Buddhist statues. Buddhist targets would in fact make a more natural target for the group’s ire. Last year, a number of Muslim homes and businesses were burned in a spate of attacks by radical Buddhist mobs.

At first, the scale of the Sri Lankan bombings seemed surprising: how could a band of vandals suddenly acquire the means to perpetrate one of the most deadly terrorist attacks of recent years, with nine suicide bombers taking more than 350 lives? The picture became clearer when Isis claimed responsibility for aiding the attacks.

Jihadis are now appearing in a country that was utterly unprepared for trouble on this scale. The lesson from New Zealand and Sri Lanka is that no country, however remote it may seem from the religious politics of the Middle East, can now consider itself safe from such madness. On the contrary, countries with no history of animosity between Christians and Muslims must now consider themselves to be especially at risk from extremist attacks as the merchants of hate attempt to spread their activities worldwide, and in doing so seek to take advantage of weak defences.

In the past two decades, the West has provided plenty of examples of how not to react to Islamist violence. Eighteen years ago, Osama bin Laden could not have dreamed of a better reaction from the West as he attempted to reorganise world affairs along the lines of his clash of civilisations. George W. Bush needed to make a robust response to the horrors of 9/11 — that goes without saying. But in declaring his ‘War on Terror’ and making out that the rest of the world was either with him or against him, he helped generate the idea that the world was divided into two tribes: one Islamist and the other led by Christian-dominated America. The military strategy was one failure. Accepting bin Laden’s premise was another.

Sri Lanka will do itself a favour if it treats the Easter Sunday attacks as straightforward attacks of extreme criminality and refuses to indulge the ideology of the attackers. There are signs that it is doing just that. Its Muslim council has been the first to warn of attempts by Wahhabi hardliners to spread their creed of religious division into an island that has always been resistant to it. There has also been a display of honesty about the extent of the problem, and the progress that jihadists have managed to make in radicalising Sri Lankans. Similar tactics have been used to sow division between the Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians in Egypt. The idea of religious war allows extremists to control society without ever being elected to government.

For the West, there is a lesson in Sri Lanka, too — that defeating Isis is about more than depriving the group of territory. While Isis took great pride in being a pretend state — something which since last month it can no longer do — its activities were never likely to end with territorial defeat. The Sri Lankan attacks show how easy it can be to brainwash suicide bombers. While it is possible to decapitate the leadership of al Qaeda, it has proved harder to confront its ideology. Especially if military action seems to reinforce, on a global basis, the jihadis’ point about a religious war being under way. Military force alone will not be able to defeat this form of terrorism.

Islamists would like to encourage Sri Lankans (and others) to see Muslims as an enemy within, as people whose faith makes them immediately suspect. Their wish is for Muslims to feel persecuted, thereby persuading other young recruits to join this concocted jihad.

The strong Muslim leadership in Sri Lanka means they may not succeed. But there is no doubt that this is their aim. The Easter Sunday attacks were a reminder of what Isis is still able to do. Our only real defence against them and other terror groups is eternal vigilance.

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