A terrible scene inside a church in Sri Lanka after the blasts on Easter Sunday
While it is difficult to say if better relations between President, PM and multiple intelligence agencies could have averted the tragedy on Easter Sunday, it seems evident that Sri Lanka’s fractured political leadership contributed in no small measure to the mental paralysis that scotched an effective response to the timely intelligence input
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s irreconcilable differences with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was excluded from crucial intelligence briefings and State Intelligence Service chief DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, are most culpable for the terrorist attacks that occurred on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019). India had tipped off the authorities in Colombo after an arrested jihadi suspect revealed the plot, but Jayawardena inexplicably delayed sharing and acting upon the information.
The principal cause behind the administrative paralysis was the constitutional crisis of 2018. While the reasons for the differences between the two leaders are still not known, the rift came into the open on October 26, 2018 when Sirisena swore in Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and informed Wickremesinghe that he had been removed from the post. However, Wickremesinghe fought back and ultimately returned to office on December 16, 2018; however, the chasm between the two leaders could not be bridged.
During the constitutional crisis, however, Sirisena asked the Defence Secretary not to invite the Prime Minister, the State Minister for Defence and the IGP for meetings of the National Security Council, Sri Lanka’s apex national security body, which is headed by President. Sirisena also directed Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Secretary to the President not to attend any meeting called by the Prime Minister. This made the government dysfunctional in myriad ways, which the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) investigating the blasts has brought out cogently in its report, submitted on October 23, 2019.
The PSC hints at motivated attempts to destabilise the government ahead of the presidential elections. As the intelligence was not shared with relevant agencies, the PSC wondered if “those with vested interests” did not act “so as to create chaos and instill fear and uncertainty in the country in the lead up to the Presidential Election to be held later in the year”. Creating anxiety over national security could trigger calls for change of regime to control terrorism, which can adversely impact Sri Lanka’s democracy and electoral processes.
The PSC specifically held the President, Director of SIS, Secretary of MoD, IGP, CNI, DMI, Attorney-General’s Department culpable for the events of Easter Sunday
The PSC also blamed rising fundamentalism among Buddhists and Muslims for creating an unhealthy environment in the country. It said Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene, Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara, and the Attorney General’s Department also shared blame for the lapses.
Sirisena himself blamed IGP Pujith Jayasundara and defence secretary Fernando, but the PSC found SIS Nilantha Jayawardena more blameworthy and condemned attempts to shield the culpability of key individuals.
The Easter Sunday blasts took the lives of 259 persons, including eight suicide bombers, 40 foreign nationals, and 45 children, and wounded more than 400 persons. The targets included the Catholic Church of St. Sebastian, Negombo (8:45 a.m.); Catholic Shrine of St. Anthony, Kotahena, Kochchikade (8:45 a.m.); Hotel Kingsbury, Colombo (8.47 a.m.); Hotel Shangri-La, Colombo (8.54 a.m.); Zion Church, Batticaloa (9:10 a.m.); Hotel Cinnamon Grand, Colombo (9.12 a.m.); The Tropical Inn, Dehiwala (1.30 p.m.) and Housing Complex, Dematagoda (2.25 p.m.)
Zahran Hashim of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) was identified as the brains behind the coordinated attacks, from the start. What perturbed Members of Parliament was the fact that the Director, SIS, had prior intelligence information about the impending attack as early as April 4, 2019, but failed to share it with the relevant intelligence and security personnel.
Zahran Hashim set up the National Thowheed Jamath in 2016 after he was expelled from the Dharul Athar for his extremist speeches. Operating in Kattankudy, the NTJ had armed clashes with Sufi Muslims in March 2017, as a result of which many persons were injured. Zahran and his brother Rilwan absconded, though many associates were arrested. They secured bail after eight months; two of them were suicide bombers on Easter Sunday.
Members of the Parliamentary Select Committee probing the Easter attack in Sri Lanka
Zahran began to attract followers after the attacks on Muslims in Digana in March 2018. He endorsed the ideology of the ISIS, though investigations have failed to establish any direct links with the ISIS. However, several local Muslim groups complained to the authorities about his activities from as early as 2013-14. In November 2018, two policemen on duty in Vavunatheevu, Batticaloa were killed, a crime later linked to the Zahran group.
The PSC appreciated the consistent information received from the Muslim community, including from Kattankudy, about the growing radicalisation of Zahran and others, and regretted that the relevant authorities failed to act in time.
In December 2018, some members of Zahran’s group destroyed Buddhist statues in Mawanella. Thereafter, police discovered a huge cache of explosives in an 80-acre coconut plantation in Wanathawillu, Puttalam. This included 125 kg of urea nitrate, 99 non-electric detonators, other equipment, and notes on making explosives. In mid-March 2019, Mohamed Razak Taslim (who had helped in nabbing the Mawanella culprits) was shot at point blank range at his residence in Dhanagama Mawatha, Kandy. This was linked to Zahran’s group. The missing detonator from the pack of 100 was used to blow up a Scooty in Palamunai, Kathankudy, for a “dry run” on April 16, 2019.
Nilantha Jayawardena, Director, SIS told the PSC that he first received intelligence about the danger of Easter blasts on April 4, 2019 via Whatsapp, and written information on April 5, after which he called a meeting of his officers to discuss the information. Here he discovered that the Zahran group was under surveillance since 2015. The chief of national intelligence (CNI) told the PSC that he was given the intelligence information only on the morning of April 8, 2019, which he conveyed to the Defence Secretary the same day with the suggestion that it be passed on to the Police. Director, SIS did not inform the Defence Secretary though SIS is supposed to report to the Secretary, MoD.
Arabisation has changed the physical landscape of Kattankudy in Sri Lanka with date palm trees planted in the middle of the main road, Arabic letterings used for street names and on arches throughout the town
At the meeting of the Intelligence Coordination Meeting (ICM) on April 9, DIG Nilantha Jayawardena did not brief the ICM despite the seriousness of the information. However, he informed the IGP prior to the meeting, but curiously, Pujith Jayasundara also did not raise the issue at the ICM. There is thus a complete failure on the part of the Director, SIS. It is pertinent that Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando called Director, SIS by name and asked him to brief the members; this was the first meeting of the ICM after intelligence was received about potential attacks, but Jayawardena simply said he would send a note. Moreover, one year before the Easter incidents, on April 8, 2018, he asked the Inspector General of Police to close down investigations by other agencies into Zahran’s activities. This made the SIS the sole agency probing Zahran, and it failed to act.
The Army Commander who was present at the ICM on April 9 told the PSC that no information about the intelligence received (from India) was shared at the meeting and that the military could have taken measures to prevent attacks if intelligence was shared. He learnt about the intelligence information only after the attacks.
The PSC was told that meetings of the Intelligence Coordination Meeting and other bodies were erratic; even the apex National Security Council (NSC) met on ad hoc and irregular basis, with key individuals not invited while opposition MPs were invited. There were failures with information sharing and follow up. However, in recent years the Director, SIS had emerged as leader in intelligence gathering and briefing. The present Director, SIS had regular access to the President, whereas Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando did not. This suggests a politicisation of the intelligence security sector, to the detriment of national security.
The written note finally sent by the Director, SIS Nilantha Jayawardena to the IGP, CNI and CID, stated that Zahran Hashim of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) and his associates are planning to carry out a suicide attack in Sri Lanka and would target some churches and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka. Individuals likely to participate include Zahran Hashim, Ja Al Quithal, Rilwan, Saji Moulavi, Shahid, Milhan and others.
Thereafter, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) tried to arrest Zahran and others, and informed Facebook to block Zahran’s page, which was blocked on April 15, 2019. By April 18, police had realised that the Kattankudy explosion was a “dry run”. By now a sense of urgency was building up among the various intelligence and security agencies in the country. Even Director, SIS, became concerned and reached out to the Defence Secretary, IGP, CID, DMI and TID. The Directorate of Military Intelligence seems to have had a communication gap with the Army Commander, who remained in the dark.
But despite reaching out to many officers and institutions, the Director, SIS, failed to inform the DIG-Eastern Province about the intelligence received, even though the “dry run” took place in his jurisdiction. On the morning of April 21, he received a tip off that the terrorists were likely to strike between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. that day and that one target was likely to be a Methodist Church in Colombo. Panicked, Nilantha Jayawardena immediately contacted DIG-Western Province.
Strangely, in all the time prior to the attacks, between April 4 and 21, the political leadership was not informed by anyone in the security and intelligence apparatus. The President was out of the country and in his absence the Prime Minister was not kept informed of the intelligence. Even after the blasts, the Secretary to the President and the Defence Secretary were advised by none other than President Sirisena not to attend the meeting called by the Prime Minister.
Worse, at one stage, the TID Director, DIG Nalaka de Silva was arrested on the complaint of one Namal Kumara who alleged a plot to assassinate the President. This further weakened the intelligence operations underway on Zahran and his group; the PSC recommended that future such incidents must be handled in a manner that does not hamper intelligence and security operations. The TID had long monitored Zahran and on June 7, 2017 sent a file on him to the Attorney-General’s Department, requesting legal action against NTJ and the websites they were operating. There was no response, and after several reminders, only a consultation was called on March 12, 2019. This was a huge failure of the AG Department.
In the past decade, Sri Lanka has witnessed a rise in Buddhist extremism. The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force or BBS) was created in 2012 to promote Buddhist nationalism among the majority Sinhala community. It has reportedly been involved in several attacks on mosques and anti-Muslim campaigns and attacks on churches and Christians, but no action has been taken to control it.
In June 2014, Muslims and their properties were attacked in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Darga Town in Kalutara district by Buddhist extremists believed to be supporters of the BBS. At least four persons died and around 80 were injured in two days of rioting. Despite the change of Government in 2015, attacks against minority religious places continued coupled with increasing calls to boycott Muslim businesses. There were more riots in 2018.
The spread of Wahhabi Islam in the past two decades, mainly in the Eastern Province centered on Kattankudy, was the main factor in the rise of Zahran and the NTJ which was active in the area since around 2013/2014. This led them to clash with the Sufis, though by 2016, Zahran was preaching against Catholics and urging people not to celebrate Christmas.
Arabisation has changed the physical landscape of Kattankudy, with date palm trees planted in the middle of the main road, Arabic letterings used for street names and on arches throughout the town. The PSC observed that as there are only two official languages in Sri Lanka-Sinhala and Tamil—there was no need for a third language in name boards in and around the city. In Batticaloa campus buildings have Arabic architecture and landscapes, in contrast to any university building in the country.
Witnesses told the PSC that Arabisation was started and fostered in Kattankudy during the tenure of former Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah. Zahran helped Hizbullah and others garner votes during elections, and this possibly gave him freedom to act with impunity in the area. The PSC has suggested a separate investigation to ascertain if Zahran and his associates could evade arrest despite an arrest warrant and make inflammatory speeches without repercussions due to possible support from politicians in the Eastern Province.
The PSC specifically held the President; Director, SIS; Secretary, MoD; IGP; CNI; DMI; Attorney-General’s Department culpable for the events of Easter Sunday. It said that the President’s decision to exclude the Prime Minister from NSC meetings since end October 2018 was a serious failure by the President. However, it stated that the Prime Minister should have raised this development in the Cabinet and in Parliament and not kept silent over his exclusion from the NSC for over six months (October 2018-April 2019). It was unfortunate that he had to rely on the then Minister, Law and Order, for information on security developments.
The State Minister for Defence was also not invited for NSC meetings after October 7, 2018. The PSC called for structural reforms to ensure that critical decisions are not left to one individual in future. It added that the State Minister for Defence should have raised the issue in Parliament and also written to the President about his exclusion from the NSC meetings.
While it is difficult to say if better relations between the President and Prime Minister and the multiple intelligence agencies could have averted the tragedy on Easter Sunday, it seems evident that Sri Lanka’s fractured political leadership contributed in no small measure to the mental paralysis that scotched an effective response to the timely and actionable intelligence received by the country. The Parliamentary Select Committee has stressed the need for urgent structural reforms in the security and intelligence set up, on both the civilian and military sides, to cope with evolving global threats and challenges.
The fact that the country received clear intelligence inputs and its leading intelligence official simply sat on it and did not share it with other agencies and colleagues in real time, is without parallel anywhere in the world. Even the President and Cabinet were not informed. The schisms in the polity added to this witches brew as favourites of the last regime are reportedly active, fishing in troubled waters. The ultimate responsibility lies on the shoulders of the President, who played favourites on the critical issue of national security, including and excluding invitees to the National Security Council at will, and disturbing the nation’s institutional integrity to score points in his own private game.
(The writer is a senior columnist)