Sri Lanka Is Already Drawing the Wrong Lessons From the Attacks

Responding to the recent violence with typical policies to counter violent extremism could make things far worse.

Police officers patrol the area around Dewatagaha Jumma Masjid in Colombo, Sri Lanka, ahead of Friday prayers on April 26.
Police officers patrol the area around Dewatagaha Jumma Masjid in Colombo, Sri Lanka, ahead of Friday prayers on April 26. Carl Court/Getty Images

Within 72 hours of last Sunday’s Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, Colombo had passed a 30-day Emergency Regulations act. The measure gives the military carte blanche to enforce the already draconian strictures of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been in place since the late 1970s.

The move may have been a predictable reaction to a moment of mass violence. In response to national catastrophes such as Sunday’s attacks targeting churches and hotels, which killed more than 250 people, governments typically try to enact a one-size-fits-all counterterrorism policy, often drawn from the countering violent extremism (CVE) industry playbook. But in Sri Lanka, such prescriptions are more likely to incite violence than quell it.

The recent attacks do bear some of the hallmarks of a classic terrorist strike, but Sri Lanka’s contested political landscape doesn’t fit neatly into existing narratives about violent extremism: namely, prevalent theories that focus on individualized radicalization into groups like the Islamic State rather than the collective struggle of anti-state movements that have shaped Sri Lanka’s own history of violence.

In fact, rather than a case study that reinforces existing theories of radicalization, the attacks in Sri Lanka present an opportunity to reexamine the impact and effectiveness predominant CVE policies—particularly those that endorse the militarization of policing and make at-risk communities more vulnerable to state violence.

CVE arose in post-9/11 policy circles and quickly morphed into a full-fledged industry, flush with funding from the U.S. State Department and backed by a crop of new think tanks such as the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.

By promoting simplified narratives of terrorism, the CVE world gave support to U.S. military interventions abroad. The governments of countries like Sri Lanka could even use it to justify war crimes against civilians as collateral damage of the fight against terrorism. Disturbingly, Sri Lanka’s own counterinsurgency methods in 2009, conducted with a complete disregard for international humanitarian law and human rights norms, soon became a “model” for counterinsurgency in regional CVE circles.

Yet CVE’s theories pull from outdated criminology research that treats terrorists as “deviant” or “social outcasts.” Sometimes funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the “radicalization process” has been attributed to everything from individual feelings of insignificance to the lure of high-quality online videos. The approach narrowly focuses on the actions of the individual as a threat to national security and in doing so ignores the breadth of scholarship devoted to understanding the formation of social movements as a form of resistance, research that expands the analytical lens to consider the role of the state.

As women became more visible inside extremist movements, the subfield of gender and countering violent extremism quickly emerged as well, creating a cadre of what Columbia University’s Lila Abu-Lughod has aptly termed “securofeminists,” who insist that women be included in observers’ understanding of who is a threat (and who needs saving). Drawing on stereotypes of women as more peaceful by nature, and inherently oppressed by culture, some securofeminists posit that women are the most likely to have been coerced into violence by extremists—and the least likely to have their own political perspectives.

Missing from such CVE narratives is the role of state violence as a driver of radicalization. Easily dismissed (particularly in analyses of women) are the real political grievances of the communities states target. Scholars of insurgency who have been embedded in these communities have found that deep militarization, policies of ethnic exclusion, extrajudicial detention, and torture by the state produce a constant sense of insecurity that drives recruitment to radical groups, among people of all genders. The alleged involvement of one female attacker in the Easter attacks has already been dismissed as the actions of a wife whose husband may have suggested something along the lines of, “Hey, honey, I think you should strap on a vest and go.”

My own research on women who joined the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka shows that rape, and the fear of rape, at the hands of state forces became a significant driver for their mobilization into an armed movement. In 1983, Mathivathani Erambu vowed to fast until death, protesting the treatment of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, before eventually becoming one of the first female cadres in the Tigers.

Though the female fighter is often seen as an anomaly, women have made up nearly 30 percent of militant movements worldwide. Historically, these women have been deeply misunderstood, nowhere more so than through the lens of CVE.

Whatever the specific motivations behind the Easter attacks, the danger of CVE policies is clear. The Emergency Regulations have varied slightly over the years, but Sri Lanka has adopted versions of such oppressive policies throughout its post-independence history. Extended detention, surveillance, and disappearances (Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest numbers of recorded disappearances) of members of minority communities have directly contributed to individual men and women joining militant movements across the country. The logic behind more thoughtful research is not complicated: When marginalized communities feel targeted by the state based on their identity, they will fight to protect themselves.

Colombo’s decision to enact the Emergency Regulations comes at a tense time on the island, with the upcoming 10-year anniversary of the end of the civil war and the possible return to power of a presidential candidate accused of war crimes perpetrated during that war. The act also enters into law in an already deeply militarized society, where some formerly rebel-controlled territories report one soldier for every two civilians.

Such policies are more likely to worsen the conflict than protect future victims. Small newspaper shops and fishermen’s boats owned by Muslims have been attacked by civilian mobs without recourse, and the interrogation and harassment of Muslims by military forces (now sanctioned by the Emergency Regulation laws) has already begun. As we have seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Muslim women will become a convenient cover for military action—one politician on the island has already called for a nationwide ban on the burqa.

Sri Lanka’s pain from the Easter attacks should not be used to promote failed policies. The cycle of violence may begin with one, explosive moment, but it lives on through militarized responses, deepening the political grievances that drive recruitment into radical movements.

Nimmi Gowrinathan is a visiting professor at the City College of New York and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Her forthcoming manuscript, Radicalizing Her, examines the politics of the female fighter.