It is beyond words. That was what Father Jude Fernando, a priest in Sri Lanka, said of the terror attacks that killed more than 250 people there on Easter Sunday, April 21.
How to explain? The long line of coffins in a mass funeral in the fishing town of Negombo; the old man weeping inconsolably for his dead wife; the shoes of victims left behind; the orphaned teenager; the 45 dead children – and all for what? These heartbreaking scenes were as painful as they were shocking.
It seems hideously cruel that such tragedy should befall this poor, war-torn country which had finally reached a fragile peace after suffering so much violence for decades.
And it made little sense. Why the closely coordinated attacks – a hallmark of the Islamic State (IS) terror group – on a minority not at the centre of fighting before (which involved the Buddhist majority government and Tamil separatists)?
As the news began reporting a link with IS, the terror inched closer to home. I hope our Home Minister, Special Branch, and all responsible for our country’s security, are paying close attention.
Do you not see it? It just takes one radicalised fanatic, malleable to be goaded and trained by organised foreign militants, to tear apart a country.
In Sri Lanka’s case, the apparent “mastermind” behind the terror attacks was radical cleric Zahran Hashim, head of a local extremist group blamed for the attacks: National Thowfeek Jamaath.
A video released by IS, from their Amaq news agency, shows eight men in front of an IS flag. They are all masked except for one – who Sri Lankan officials have identified as Zahran.
Zahran is known for his hate-filled sermons and controversial videos online. But although he was on a watch-list, he was never taken to task.
Hate speech has far too often gone unchecked in Malaysia. In our multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, it needs to be criminalised and not tolerated. And consider this. The Justice Minister of Sri Lanka had previously confirmed that 32 Sri Lankans had joined IS in Syria. We’ve had more than 100 detained for links with IS.
Some are still stuck in Syria. Last October, Special Branch said 54 Malaysians were in Syria, The Star reported. Recently, 13 reportedly want to come home. The government is apparently trying to get them home.
But then what? Other countries, including Singapore, have rehabilitation programmes. Germany even helps former extremists with training and jobs to help get them back to a “normal” life.
Connections with IS are very worrying. Significantly, most of the terrorists attacks in Europe had links to foreign militant networks. In the 2015 Paris attack, the terrorists were almost all French citizens who had fought in Syria; the ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a well-known IS leader from Belgium.
IS have lost their so-called Caliphate and been defeated in battle. But they are still a threat. Their dispersal could mean their terror is strewn far and wide now.
Already, we’ve seen many with IS links here. Several people were arrested last December. One was a honey seller in Kelantan receiving orders from Akel Zainal, a Malaysian IS recruiter in Syria, to destroy non-Muslim places of worship. An oil and gas engineer from Kajang, Selangor, gave RM14,000 towards IS terror operations.
We’ve also had a worrying number of near-misses in terror attacks. During last year’s elections, a woman linked to senior IS leaders was stopped from ploughing into voters in Puchong, Selangor.
Then there was that teenager who planned to throw Molotov cocktails at non-Muslim sites. He even did a video. Thankfully, as the media reported, the police caught all these potential threats.
And then there is Zakir Naik, the controversial preacher accused by the Indian government of spreading hate speech, laundering money and funding terrorism. Despite repeated calls to have him deported, he is still here.
Last September, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof said a “combative” style of propagating Islam, putting down other beliefs, as touted by Zakir, is not suitable for Malaysia. And yet, earlier this month, Zakir was invited to speak at Universiti Utara Malaysia, where he was welcomed with a red carpet.
Extremist ideas fan fires of hatred that can send a country up in flames. We need to take a strong stand against extremism and hate – that’s where terrorism begins. The voices of moderates need to drown out those of the extremists’. Although most people are moderate, their voices are not always heard.
Sri Lanka failed to protect itself. It did not heed warnings of possible attacks in churches. There was also a communication breakdown. It was a huge security failure. We should learn from this.
Our intelligence services must be robust and alert. The police have already increased security levels in the country, especially at places of worship, following the Easter Sunday attacks. We should take no chances. Our peace is too precious. It takes just one radical to shatter it.