By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Ten years ago, Sri Lanka prevailed in a Thirty Years War against a suicide-bombing separatist terrorism. Ten years later, this year 2019, on Easter Sunday, we were attacked atrociously by another type of terrorism: Islamist jihadist terrorism. So, the question of terrorism has been and remains an existential problem for Sri Lanka and it is from that perspective that I speak.
The question “What is to be done?” was initially posed by the writer Chernyshevsky, but was better known after Lenin posed it. What is less well known is that Lenin followed up his question “What is to be done?” with another question: “Where to begin?”. I suggest that we begin with understanding the matrix or the disease vector that produces the ideology and the mentality of terrorism, and assess what can be done to take down the matrix or to contain it.
The second question of course is “What is to be done?” and there I shall be following in the footsteps of Mr. Rajinder Khanna, the high-level representative of our neighbor and friend, India.
The ‘matrix’ is a set of policies and practices in the world order. One may call it the dark side or the down side of the world order. It is those policies and practices that provide the provocations, the stimuli and the opportunities for terrorism. All you really have to do is unpack the videos that radicalized the terrorists, as well as the videos that they themselves post. You take their pedagogical material and you will see inescapably, unavoidably, the recurrence of certain themes. The Occupation of the Palestinians and Palestine, and the worsening of that Occupation– that is true, and really is one of the catalysts. The aggression against many Arab and Islamic countries is another. This is also true, and there are videos of the bombings, the cruise missile strikes, the drones and the destruction. Then there are almost incentives provided by the patronizing of, or the space afforded to, certain types of Islamist terrorist organizations, whether it’s the Afghan mujahideen in 1978 or the KLA, or the evacuation from Raqqa in buses in more recent times.
So, you have this particular matrix of policies, of permissiveness, of a strange paradoxical mix of ‘state destruction’ and of the lassitude, for instance concerning the Russian warning about the Boston Marathon bombers. That is the matrix. What are we going to do about it? I leave that to you and our leaders. But I want to emphasize that we are about to see a powerful factor that will help the radicalization of terrorists and the proliferation of terrorists. And that is the talk of and perhaps action against Iran.
Speaking as a representative of Sri Lanka we have no involvement in the battle within the Islamic world, but the reality is that we do know that most of the terrorist organizations come from a certain stream within the Islamist space, the so-called Wahhabi or Salafist space. Not that everybody in that space is an extremist or a terrorist, but that’s where most of it comes from. But Iran by contrast has been the first respondent against it in Syria, even before the decisive support extended by the Russian Federation. Now if Iran is attacked, damaged, diverted, then two things happen. You weaken one side which for whatever reason has chosen to fight against the IS terrorists physically. Therefore, an attack on Iran or weakening of Iran will automatically strengthen, empower and enable the other side within the Islamic space– that is, the side of the Wahhabist-Salafist jihadist terrorists. You also give a message to every young Muslim that it doesn’t really matter; that there is an attack or a threat against you if you belong to an Islamic country and it doesn’t matter which side or which type it is. That is powerful motivator for radicalization of young people including, lone-wolf terrorists.
Now what are we going to do? Are we going to just sit back and say OK, we watched Iraq happen, and we watched Libya, and Syria almost happened, or half happened until Iran and Russia went in? Now something bigger is going to happen which is going to destabilize the region if not the world economy and unleash a tsunami of terrorism because most of them will not have anybody to worry about within the Islamic world and the rest of them will think there is a threat against Islam as a whole. So, this is a question that the world has to ask itself right now because there is a clock ticking.
There is also the problem of permissiveness. I used to tell my French counterparts when I was serving as Ambassador in Paris, please don’t allow these demonstrations of the LTTE with the crossed machine guns on their banners. Don’t allow school kids in Parisian schools, and especially in suburban schools to give their friends videos of the Tamil Tigers’ attacks on civilian airplanes at Katunayake airport because you cannot stop the spread of a bad example. But that is exactly what is happening in many western societies! So, any kid from a different background can pick up these videos, go home and be turned on by it. Now all of those are problems to do with the matrix. And “where to begin?” is to discuss collectively what can be done to shrink this matrix; to clean up this disease vector of policies which constitute the dark underside of the world order.
The second and final point is “What is to be done?”. And here I pick up from the excellent points made by India’s Rajinder Khanna. I think we have to pose a universalist definition of terrorism that is parsimonious, that is simple, but strikes a chord in every human being. And that is, we must bracket out the idea that terrorism is any and all kind of violent resistance by non-state actors, because in conditions of invasion and aggression and so on, there’ll always be violent resistance whether we like it or not. Terrorism, ladies and gentlemen, is the deliberate, intentional, lethal targeting of non-combatant civilians.
I propose that there be an attempt to have a universalist Charter, may be at the level of the United Nations; a Charter which movements claiming to fight for causes which they consider just, can sign up to abjure the use of violence against non-combatants. This is, of course in keeping with the ICRC’s doctrine. If we draw the line of demarcation there, that doesn’t mean all violence ceases and all non-state actors become pacifists, but that is another story altogether, and that has to be dealt with separately. What we can do is bracket out terrorism and then put the ball in the court of not only movements that claim to fight for resistance or liberation but also for states that tend to instrumentalize and tolerate them.
If we make this a question of the killing of innocents, you will have a resonance right in the families of the terrorists, because there will be some who say that’s ok, there is nobody who is innocent, anybody who is involved, even indirectly involved or is passively is a legitimate target– but that will be a minority. There will always be those, a wife, a lover, a son, a daughter a mother, a father, who says this is wrong, don’t do this, Allah didn’t say this should be done, God doesn’t say this, the Buddha doesn’t say this; and they will insist that killing innocents is bad. If we can draw the line there, not an elaborate distinction, but a simple distinction concerning the right and wrong use of violence, then we take the moral high ground.
The states that refuse to go along with this, then expose themselves ethically and morally. Movements that refuse to go along with this also make it very clear that they walk around with a target painted on their back. Because those who subscribe to this, as they did with the landmine convention, and pledge that “we will not wittingly engage with the killing of civilians” then, those movements open for themselves a window that someday there could be a negotiated solution with them. That my dear friends, is my answer to the two questions that I posed borrowed from the Russian political tradition, namely, “Where to begin?” and “What is to be done?”.
*Text of Ambassador Jayatilleka’s speech at the Roundtable discussion on “Enhancing international cooperation to combat spread of terrorist ideology and counter self-radicalization of lone terrorists”moderated by Deputy Secretary of Security Council of the Russian Federation Yury Kokov, at the 10th International meeting of the high-ranking officials responsible for security matters at Ufa organized by the Security Council of the Russian Federation.