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Sri Lanka blasts expose flaws in organisational culture of country's security apparatus, its complacency in face of jihadist terror

A nation without intelligence can be termed as a person without eyes and ears: intelligence which no single nation can gather and process on its own. That is why sharing intelligence is recognised as one of the most critical elements in countering transnational organised crimes and terrorism. When it comes to national, regional and global security in present century, the intelligence mantra is ‘one for all, all for one’.

The calamitous terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter have, once again, brought the issue of intelligence sharing into limelight for contradictory reasons. It was not the lack of specific and actionable intelligence sharing from India, but the utter failure of the threat intelligence sharing framework within the Sri Lankan security apparatus that led to the tragic death of more than 350 people. This failure has generated a series of controversies and criticism by the president, the prime minister, current and former politicians, security experts and civil society representatives in both Sri Lanka and abroad.

 Sri Lanka blasts expose flaws in organisational culture of countrys security apparatus, its complacency in face of jihadist terror

Over 350 people were killed in the Sri Lanka blasts. AP

The sharing of intelligence is often driven as much by mutual professional respect as by a genuine desire to improve security and reduce operational costs in doing so. It is clear now that Indian intelligence agencies shared multiple intelligence inputs with their Sri Lankan counterparts about the identity, targets and modus operandi of the potential terrorists who were plotting to mount suicide attacks on churches and luxury hotels at multiple locations in Sri Lanka.

But India’s eagerness and promptness to share specific intelligence appears to have raised more questions than answers with regard to inter-agency cooperation within Sri Lanka’s security apparatus. It was the sheer lack of imagination as well as the inexcusable inability of Sri Lanka’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies that allowed the terrorists to execute their plans which were known and shared.

As conceded by Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in an interview to NDTV, “India gave us the intelligence but there has been a lapse on how we acted on that... intelligence was not conveyed down the line.”

Why intelligence was not conveyed down the line is not too difficult to understand. Two factors need particular attention: First, existing organisational culture in Sri Lanka’s intelligence community seems to serve as a barrier to information sharing within the security apparatus. Their practices of limited information distribution, compartmentalisation of information and overlapping mandates may have proved a hindrance to timely information exchange between agencies and decision-makers.

Second, intelligence experts have often pointed out that the fundamental factor that increases the depth and breadth of cooperation on matters of intelligence sharing is commonly-shared and perceived threats among partners. It seemed that after the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka did not feel the need to share with India a common threat from jihadist terrorism.

Though there was appreciation of the threat Tawheed Jamaat posed in view of its radical activities, it was not sufficient to prod intelligence agencies to properly analyse its intentions, capabilities and links of its members; a common feeling was that a small organisation was incapable of wreaking havoc of such magnitude. Only this can explain the complacency of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus in responding to India’s multiple threat alerts.

The Easter tragedy now must provide genuine opening for Sri Lankan authorities to develop a level of confidence and habits of cooperation that is required to counter terrorism both nationally and regionally. Although, factors such as a lack of leadership — political differences between Wickremesinghe and Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena is no longer a secret — and growing geopolitical rivalries in the Indo-Pacific are going to pose significant challenges that could hinder effective bilateral and multilateral intelligence sharing arrangements.

However, Sri Lankan leadership must carefully consider the limitations of its information sharing network and identify the political and institutional reforms required to correct the existing anomalies so as to prevent the return of terrorism after a decade of relative peace. Sirisena has already talked about restructuring the country’s security apparatus in the coming days. It remains to be seen what changes are effected to ensure the flow of national security intelligence directly to the top without unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

In territorial terms, the Islamic State is dead. It has been driven out of territory stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq. But it would be misleading to regard the Islamic State’s ideological charm as finished. Nothing could be further from the truth as individuals at far-flung places around the world continue to get radicalized by its virulent narrative. Individuals inspired by the Islamic State’s ideology continue to plot and carry out terror attacks.

South Asia, which has one of the largest Muslim populations, is also a place which has been on the radar of the Islamic State. The National Investigation Agency has arrested several individuals from various parts of India who are suspected to have become radicalised, are forming regional partnerships, and planning to mount terror attacks. Evidence is gradually emerging now that some Sri Lankan individuals were also inspired by the Islamic State, and those who might have fought in Syria and Iraq are attempting to return in the country.

Moreover, responsibility for the Easter attacks has also been claimed by the  Islamic State. Therefore, the Indian Ocean region is no longer a calm region since it occupies a key position in terms of global security. This necessitates the need for acquisition, analysis and sharing of relevant and timely intelligence in order to help facilitate threat mitigation and sound decision-making for improved security.

In this context, one cannot overemphasize the urgency of collecting intelligence and sharing information, besides the task of creating practical regional networks that can facilitate coordination among regional security actors for counter-terrorism. This information exchange system is all about trying to avoid surprises such as the recent Easter attack, support risk mitigation strategies and ensure that response capability is always ahead of varied threats to national security.

The changing nature of global terrorism, transnational organised crimes and cyber-sabotage continue to pose serious security threats to all littoral states in the Indian Ocean region. A drive for greater intelligence fusion will demand both individuals and systems to increase communication and coordination at regional level, and also change the lackadaisical organisational culture within a nation’s intelligence community.

Questions will continue to be asked about the handling of the intelligence alerts passed on to the Sri Lankan authorities, and political blame-game will also intensify in coming days as more details of security lapses are revealed. Sri Lanka, therefore, cannot avoid developing an effective intelligence system through, among other measures, the improvement of specific coordination and cooperation mechanisms within the agencies, departments and organisations that are involved in national security policy-making and execution.

However, the existing gap in Indian and Sri Lankan perceptions of the jihadist threat should no longer be a source of major confusion in terms of both policy and practice of counter-terrorism. Despite the obvious domestic political and institutional barriers and risks, the reciprocal needs of all affected countries from jihadist terrorism in Indian Ocean region — India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius and the Maldives — will continue to drive the benefits of security cooperation and sharing intelligence.

These countries must establish specific intelligence sharing and exchange mechanisms through various bilateral and multilateral channels, stemming from common needs and perceptions, as well as shared threats. For such partnerships to be beneficial, foresightedness, professionalism and aptitude both among and within various intelligence services will be an essential component.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 20:07:48 IST