Easter Sunday Attacks

All eggs in the tourism basket?

Untitled design (1).png

In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The Easter Sunday attacks devastated Sri Lanka. As much as the attacks shattered lives, the economy too has taken a hard hit. According to Reuters, full-year median growth could drop as low as 2.5%, with analysts concerned that second-quarter growth could be zero or even drop to negative. To give these numbers context, these growth numbers are the worst the country has seen since 2001, when Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) was attacked. The economic hit to the tourism sector is the most visible, due to the nature of the attacks, with occupancy dropping drastically from 75% to a paltry 5%.

Officially, the tourism sector accounts for 5% of GDP, but in reality, the industry adds a lot more to the economy. The growth we see in the formal tourism sector is also an indication of the growth created in the informal sector. If one gets off the train at Ella or walks around Sigiriya, it is clear that a large number of tourists backpack throughout the country; staying at low-budget homestays and eating at local eateries. The result is a boom in local industries as people work as tour guides, make cheese kottu, drive a trishaw, and take a loan to build a homestay on their property.

This addition to the economy is notoriously difficult to enumerate, and it is virtually impossible to include all economic activity created by tourism into national figures. However, one can conclude with certainty that tourism is an important sector on which the livelihoods of thousands of people are dependent.

While this seems positive, the downside is that this means that the lull in tourism has an impact that goes far beyond what’s calculated. The economic losses and instability brought to thousands of livelihoods is difficult to comprehend. The Government put forward a relief package for the industry, and while this is timely, it is also important to look at the rest of the economy.

Before the attacks, the industry was optimistic – Lonely Planet ranked us the number one destination for 2019, and the Government launched the “So Sri Lanka” brand. It is clear that growth in this sector was and continues to be a priority. However, if we want to create long-term, sustainable growth for the country, more needs to be done.

Resilience beyond the comfort zone

While tourism is important and we do need to focus on this, we cannot neglect the rest of the economy. Ideally, our economy should be resilient, with other sectors of the economy able to absorb a shock, reducing the time taken for the country to recover. While we have a comfortable comparative advantage in tourism, we need to move into other areas.

For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka opened its economy in 1977. While we were one of the first countries in the region to open up, our export sector failed to keep pace with our comparator countries. Nationalist sentiment drove mainstream discourse, and free trade is perceived as a threat to local industries and local jobs. Successive governments were swayed by or actively promoted this perception, resulting in a country which is in practice, not very open.

The Government’s role

Export diversification has been a buzzword over the last few years. GDP growth in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia was driven by strategic export diversification. As is visualised in the chart, these countries are miles ahead of Sri Lanka in the contribution their exports make to GDP. Sri Lanka has recognised the importance of export growth, and key areas have been targeted through the National Export Strategy. However, export diversification will not happen overnight, and it will not happen in isolation. There needs to be a legal and regulatory environment that is conducive to this growth, creating the right incentives for businesses to take the initiative and diversify. As such, the Government should push a much wider reform programme.

The Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2018, was the first trade agreement we signed in a decade. This is only a partial victory – the trade agreement faced significant opposition, even after it was signed. The Government needs to take the initiative, not only to sign free trade agreements, but also to make sure the local businesses are in a position to take advantage of these agreements.
A vital part of creating buy-in on a national scale is the effective and timely dissemination of information. Open, transparent discussions should be held before signing free trade agreements; these would go a long way in countering anti-free trade mentality.

In addition, regulations should be eased for export-oriented businesses; making it easier and not more difficult for an entrepreneur to sell their product abroad. Finally, the Government should speed up its current programme of tariff removal. Restricting imports to the country via tariff barriers actually suppresses the growth capacity of our export industries. Free trade works best when borders are truly open and intervention is limited, and our export industries often depend on imported inputs which are cheaper than local alternatives. By removing tariffs on these imported inputs, the Government will allow export industries to produce goods at lower prices, and price their final goods on par with global competition, creating opportunity for our export industry to grow and diversify.

While it is important that focus is given in the short term to industries that have been hit the hardest, a responsible government would take this opportunity to assess the health of other key sectors of the economy, and take steps to facilitate their growth, as opposed to hindering it.

The ban that did more harm than good

Originally appeared on Daily FT

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter attacks, one of the first steps taken by the Government was to announce a social media ban. This ban was ostensibly to protect us; the rationale being that this would stop the spread of hate, stop the spread of misinformation and fake news, and prevent the inciting of violence. In the Government’s eyes, this ban was the all-encompassing panacea to these problems.

Was the social media ban effective?
Rumour is a powerful weapon at any given time. In the context of a nation that is wracked with grief and fear it was a veritable weapon of mass destruction. Fear is also one of the most effective drivers of hate. If the objective of a social media ban was to prevent further violence, then in retrospect, the first step the Government should have taken would be to speak to the country addressing the fear that would drive retaliatory violence. Instead, the main method of communication was banned, even before the President or Prime Minister of the country addressed the nation. Effectively, the Government followed the precedent of the CEB, and left the entire country in the dark – with no reassurance that anyone in a decision-making position had a grip on the situation.  

In practicality the social media ban was ineffective, as VPNs were immediately downloaded, and people were active on Facebook and WhatsApp. This meant that fear mongering, fake news and hate was prolific. The irony is that if this ban was not in place, the Government would have been able to better monitor and address the slew of fake news. 

Does the Government have the mandate to ban social media?
The right to freedom of expression can arguably be curtailed in instances of hate speech. However, if one group of students organise a rally in campus grounds, and this rally is used to spread hate and incite violence against a different group of students, the answer is obviously not to ban rallies on campus grounds. Banning rallies on campus grounds would first, punish a majority for a crime they did not commit, unfairly infringing on their freedom of expression. Secondly, it would not address the problem. Rallies that incite violence are not exclusive to campus grounds – it could simply be organised elsewhere.

This analogy stands for the ban on social media. Banning social media at such a crucial point meant that the Government officially shut down communication lines among individuals, and importantly cut people from an important source of information. 

This goes completely against the mandate of the Government. What would have been effective was if the Government maintained clear, open lines of communication with constant, timely updates from verified Government sources. As the ban was ineffective, social media was rife with fake news, and the only effective method to combat it proved to be the counter-sharing of verified news alerts or first-hand reports from credible journalists, which disproved the fake news. 

A small but effective group of individuals took up this task, and spent hours sharing verified information and addressing the fake news which incidentally ranged from ‘there’s a tsunami heading this way’ to ‘my neighbour’s aunt’s brother-in-law said that another bomb has gone off’. The Government failing its mandate, restricting the country’s right to expression, and limiting access to information just exacerbated an already volatile situation. 

Who deals with the consequences?
A dangerous precedent has now been set. Last year, during riots in Digana, the Government imposed a similar ban on social media. The Government’s first reaction to the Easter Sunday attacks was to re-introduce the ban. 

According to the OECD, when the Egyptian Government blocked internet for 5 days in 2011, it cost the national economy $90 million. As the internet was still running in Sri Lanka, we can hope that the economic fallout from this disastrous decision will be less in our case. However, this is important. According to Statista, $88 million was spent on social media advertising in 2018 alone. The social media ban negatively affected the plethora of businesses which use Facebook or Instagram as platforms to run on, of which it is safe to assume that small and medium enterprises would have been hit hard. While Government officials are clamouring to propose plans to revive our tourism, they are silent on this front. 

Moving beyond these immediate, short term losses, the long-term consequences are worrying. This ban sends a negative signal to the international community. The Government mismanaged the crisis, to say the least, and the social media ban was the cherry on the top. It is clear that the Government favours this ban in times of crisis, even after the first ban came under criticism and scrutiny. This disregard of individual rights in the face of crisis, the fact the Government clearly has no qualms in compromising these rights, even when they do not translate to increased security or safety is not a message a country wants to send to investors or donors. 

The attacks were a national tragedy, and as a country we need to grieve and recover from this. However, once we do, and once a semblance of normalcy returns, the impunity with which the Government blocked social media with complete disregard for individual freedoms is not something we can ignore or forget. 

Social media ban

Combatting the Cult of ISIS

Originally appeared on Groundviews

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Featured image courtesy AFP

It now seems clear that the attacks on Easter Sunday were carried out by local radicals, under the aegis of foreign fundamentalists. The problem is contained in that there is little support for this group from the wider Muslim community. While those involved must be swiftly identified with and dealt with, the bigger question is how to check the spread of radicalisation?

A paper [1] by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann offer an approach that is summarised below.

The central problem with focusing on beliefs is the issue of variation. Simply put, if “radical” beliefs produce terrorists, then why doesn’t every Salafist or political-Islamist mosque produce terrorists? Even more complicated, why have most of those providing material support to Islamic terrorist groups shown little understanding of theology, but instead seem to be attracted to the thrill of jihadi adventurism (Venhaus 2010)

Violent extremism is a cult, not a religion

According to the authors, treating violent extremism as a problem of religion or belief is a mistake. The process of radical, violent mobilisation shows closer links to that of a cult.

Accordingly counter strategies based on empowering moderate, liberal voices to preach inclusion and tolerance to seemingly more “extreme” mosques may not be effective, indeed even counterproductive.

It is therefore problematic to assume that “countering narratives,” showing extremists the error of their ways, or debating theology would do anything other than produce hostility and even spur heightened aggression.

When confronted with countering evidence, individuals may become defensive and cling on initial beliefs more strongly, driving fence-sitters towards radicalisation.

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub. The killer was believed to have been gay, consumed alcohol, not known in the local mosques but showed signs of identity confusion, anger, isolation, and other attributes shared with violent individuals of all sorts.

Countering a cult

To deal with a cult the focus should be on weakening the organisational ties within the movement, not on debate. In debate people tend to rely more on intuition than reason. If people are not working from ideological standpoints there is little possibility of making headway through discussion so it may make more sense to counter the networks and personal ties between individuals and terrorist groups instead.

This model maintains that since ideology fails to predict or abet terrorist violence, other social factors such as alienation, mental health, or bonds with other bad actors explains violence. It is not that ideology doesn’t matter at all, but rather that ideological pulls exist within a social context. It is the social context that counter strategies should be focusing on.

How do cults work?

Cults Create Affective Bonds Around Friendship, not Belief

Most recruits to cults and new religious movements come from those who know one or more members of the group. The personal connection between recruiter and recruited is far more persuasive than the content of the belief system as the testimony of former cult members shows:

“The way the Jesus Army worshiped was a bit odd at first … but I soon got used to it. What really attracted me was the sincerity of the people and the obvious love and bonding that they had with each other”.

Likewise, a participant in another cult reported that:

“after his first visit to the FWBO center, he thought members of the centre were crazy and decided not to go back. However, he thought about all the people he knew there, and he recalled what a great time he had with them. Subsequently he turned up for the rest of the course.”

Similarly, terror networks operate around bonds of kinship and friendship. Scott Atran found that 95% of foreign fighters who joined ISIS were recruited by friends or family. Similarly, in his study of Al Qaeda networks, Marc Sageman found that friends and family ties were involved in the recruitment of 82% of the jihadists in his study (2004, 111–112).

A vast literature finds that terrorists are not goal-seeking or strategic, but instead are motivated by a desire for friends and comradery (Abrahms 2008). It is worth recalling that 6 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were brothers (Wickman et al. 2013).

Social Connections are Deep and Meaningful

A cult is not simply a quixotic fringe group with unorthodox practices: they are a community of practice. For alienated, isolated individuals, cults create affective bonds of love and attention received from nowhere else.

The culture of jihad is more than ideology: a burgeoning literature has found that terrorist groups have cultures of practice that go far beyond doing terror. Terrorists read poetry, weep and hug, sing, eat, and have a culture that can be observed outside of the material threat they pose.

This phenomenon is the “soft power” of jihad, which pulls recruits in not with force, but with cultural appeal and interrelational ties.

Cults Thrive on Intensive Interaction Between Recruits and Elites and Forge Social Encapsulation

Cults rely on exclusive, and isolating bonding practices that forge the conditions necessary for violence. Social encapsulation inoculates the recruits from outside influence, neutralises the stigma frequently associated with participation in such groups, and masks their deviant behaviour.

Conversely, the more civil connections a group has with others, the more engaged they become in the democratic process. Cohesion and overlapping, bridging ties between communities can prevent splintering, ideological isolation, and foster mutual respect.

Cults Offer Direct Compensation and Provision of Goods in Exchange of Allegiance

People may join associations to procure goods they could not otherwise get on their own. For cults and extremist groups alike, rewards can include power, material provisions like food and shelter, as well as ego and cosmically driven outcomes. The former Saddam Hussein Baathists joined ISIS not for ideological reasons, but to procure power and goods they were otherwise denied following the US deBaathification policy.

Many foreign fighters in ISIS don’t have experience in Arabic, which indicates that the ideology cannot be very well developed. Instead, they are promised wives, adventure, and alternatives to the lives they live in the West.

Women are promised comfort, the ability to raise a family in a pure Muslim environment—the utopia is even complete with houses, clothes, and even blenders (Speckhard 2017). None of these core elements of cult-recruitment and radicalisation operate around ideology per se.

Towards a more social strategy to counter extremism

Terrorist groups, like cults, are friend and kin networks that isolate and encapsulate new members, offering various forms of compensation and affection those members could not get elsewhere. Instead of ideology, policymakers should focus on the bonds of affection between friends and kin and build campaigns that target the correct avenues of extremist radicalisation.

The first step is to be able to identify early signs of radicalisation and those best able to do so are an individual’s friends or family. However if reporting can lead to harsh government reprisals, they will be reluctant to do so.

Community-based mosques, youth clubs, and social services should be given more resources to gain the trust of entire friendship networks. Local basketball tournaments, food-drives, open shari’a classes, and drop-in counseling sessions are civic trust-building exercises. Within these civic institutions, friends can feel safe to report warning signs because they trust the community to carefully reprimand and rehabilitate the offender and act as a social bridge to law enforcement. Mosques should be celebrated for building deep community ties, because such social fabric is far more likely to prevent radicalization than debating the finer points of shari’a law in chat rooms.

For example, Denmark has recently employed an affective bond-based counter-extremism program that focuses on linking up would-be jihadis with mentors, learning skills, and providing avenues of hope. This actively combats the cult-like mechanisms of friendship, love, intimacy, and compensation.

Danish mothers have also established a peer network called “Sahan,” where mothers worried about a child can seek advice and counsel from others on how to intervene.

In Canada and Germany, groups have sprung up called “Hayat”—the Arabic word for love—to highlight the loving network that ISIS sympathisers actually have at home.

Second governments should not be about policing -reporting “strange ideas or behaviours.” The government needs to support vulnerable communities-job fairs, tutoring, recreation, and civic engagement to ensure people are productively engaged.

Since religious ideology doesn’t predict violence, but rather the social conditions of groups, governments should think of CVE as simply providing good government. In essence, we guard against violence by making our societies less vulnerable to cult-like groups seeking to isolate, encapsulate, and predate on weak individuals

Mosques should be celebrated for building deep community ties, because such social fabric is far more likely to prevent radicalisation than debating the finer points of shari’a law in chat rooms.

We should target and counter all types of “extremist violence.” The cult analogy points to the social factors that give ideology meaning, but all types of violence have social conditions that constitute actors in particular ways. Countering extremism should be conceptualised as engaging a social phenomenon, not just a set of beliefs and ideas.

As Robert Putnam has argued, the fabric of a healthy democracy is the relational bonds between citizens (Putnam 2001). Similarly, the fabric of a strategy to counter extremism is to build a social network of alternatives to the appeal of violence.

The attacks were carried out by a few individuals, with little broader support. The government, civil society and the Muslim community need to work together to defeat this.


[1] Joel Day & Scott Kleinmann (2017) Combating the Cult of ISIS: A Social Approach to Countering Violent Extremism, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 15:3, 14-23, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2017.1354458