The unintended consequences of terrorist attacks

You gotta feel for Sri Lanka. The island nation went through a full quarter century of civil war as the government tried, and ultimately succeeded, in defeating a separatist movement led by an actual terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE for short. The war ended in 2009, allowing Sri Lanka to get back to a degree of normalcy.

Tourism was up as many people decided that the island was a good place to visit (it is: I was there for a terrorism conference in 2017 and loved it!). Sri Lanka even became the ‘place to go to’ in 2019 as determined by Lonely Planet. The country is quite beautiful and the residents are friendly. Heck, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Then came the horrific terrorist attacks of two weeks ago when suicide bombers struck three Catholic churches during Easter Sunday mass and three luxury hotels. All in all 259 people were slaughtered and many more injured. It was the largest single terrorist attack in Sri Lanka’s history, even considering the 25-year war against the LTTE, a group that killed a Sri Lankan President and a former Indian Prime Minister, and one of the largest anywhere in history.

As a consequence, tourists are staying away in droves. As this New York Times article demonstrates , cancellations and hence vacancy rates are soaring. Nobody wants to go there now, no matter what Lonely Planet says. The hesitation is driven by fears of more attacks and there have been many dire warnings that more violence is on its way.

It is fair to ask, however, whether this dread is warranted. For its part, Sri Lankan authorities claim that they have killed or captured all the suspects tied to the recent terrorist acts. Cynical observers would merely retort that this is just government bluster intended both to cover up ineptitude in preventing the attacks in the first place (there is some truth to this as I wrote in this blog) and to encourage a return to the status quo ante.

To my mind there are several ways to view this situation. Firstly, in the wake of a terrorist act any given place is most likely to be more safe rather than less for two mutually reinforcing reasons: increased police presence on the streets, which in turn gives terrorists pause to commit another atrocity due to that increased presence.

Secondly, authorities are damned in they do and damned if they don’t. The only way to determine if more terrorism is in the offing is through intelligence. Spy and police agencies need to up their investigative tempo and increase their collection of intelligence through multiple sources – and this includes help from allies – to see whether more terrorists are out there. If they publicly disclose that they are following more extremist cells they risk blowing their operations. If they don’t and something happens they get blamed for not stopping it. If they say they are not aware of any other activity and/or that they have wrapped things up, and one gets through regardless, they are also criticised.

I am not a fan of panic. Nor do I believe that past performance is any guarantee of future actions (unless you live in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq where terrorism happens every day regardless). I wrote that the best time to visit Paris was AFTER the 2015 attacks and did not support the decision by at least one Canadian school board to cancel a class trip. In this light I would advise to put Sri Lanka back on your list of tourist destinations. Not only will you help the country’s economy but you will cock a snook at terrorists everywhere (I have ALWAYS wanted to use the phrase ‘cock a snook at’!).

Besides, it really is a beautiful land to visit.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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