Sri Lanka Perspectives May 2019: After The Easter Day Attacks

By Col R Hariharan

 

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) investigations into Easter Day blasts have revealed the following details: On 21 April 2019, St. Anthony’s Shrine Kochchikade, St. Sebastian’s Church Negombo, Zion Church Batticaloa, Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Colombo-2, the Kingsbury in Colombo Fort were targeted in a series of co-ordinated terrorist suicide bombings. Later that day, there were smaller explosions at a housing complex in Dematagoda and Tropical Inn, a guest house in Colombo suburb of Dehiwala. In all 258 people were killed, including at least 46 foreign nationals and three police officers, and at least 500 were injured in these attacks.

As Amarnath Amarasingam in his detailed analysis titled ‘Understanding the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka’ published in the May-June 2019 issue of CTC Sentinel, said “The Islamic State-claimed attack stunned terrorism analysts because there had been no known history of jihadi violence in the country. Several of the attackers were well educated, and two were the scions of a very wealthy family, providing the cell with advantages in its plotting. There were indications, however, from as early as January 2017 that individuals associated with the National Tawheed Jamaat [NTJ] were becoming increasingly supportive of the Islamic State[IS ] and mobilizing to violence that was missed by local law enforcement. The Sri Lanka attacks may be early evidence that the Islamic State is taking an important and renewed interest in South Asia, following losses in Syria and Iraq.”

Though over a month has passed after the attacks, Sri Lanka has not fully recovered from its aftershock. People have been stunned after they learnt that the government had failed to act upon detailed information about the impending terrorist attacks received from Indian intelligence 12 days in advance.

The NTJ attack has exposed lots of grey areas in the leadership at both the national level and administrative level. The President chaired a meeting of the National Security Council and declared a state of emergency after two days of the attack. The government banned the NTJ and Jamathe-i-Milathu (JeM) a social media based radical outfit whose members were also involved in the attack. About 200 foreign Muslim clerics have been expelled and new regulations to bring madrasas under government control are underway.

President Sirisena continues to disown any prior knowledge of the advance intelligence received on the attack, rather than talking about the measures he has taken to prevent such attacks. The President and the PM have been giving contradictory perspectives on the attack. President Sirisena told Parliament “Our intelligence services are doing a good job — 99 per cent of those responsible have been arrested and within the next three days the rest of them will be taken in.”

 

However, the PM declared on the same day, “As I have mentioned on several occasions the threat is not over as yet. This is because we are subjected to global terrorism. Though persons involved have been arrested in Sri Lanka, there are other ways these terrorists can intervene in Sri Lanka.”

On the other hand, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka told the Parliament that it would take a minimum of two years to eradicate the new terrorist organization. Considering the IS connection somewhere down the line which had been inspiring Thawheed radicalism, the FM’s assessment is probably more correct. So Sri Lanka is probably in for a long haul.

Five weeks after the attack , the President summoned a monthly meeting to review the progress of the tasks implemented to strengthen national security, as well as to welcome ideas and suggestions from the participants. PM Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa were among those who attended the meeting. The meeting was attended by relgious leaders, governors of provinces, leaders of political parties, university vice chancellors, professors, chief of defence staff, defence secretary and commanders of tri forces. Apparently, the unwieldy meeting was a more of a PR exercise to assuage public outrage at the tardiness with which the government was acting.

Clearly, the President Sirisena-PM Wickremesinghe standoff that started in October 2018 when the President made an abortive bid to sack the PM seems to haunt the government functioning. Confusion also seems to prevail on a number of procedural issues ranging from the absence of counter terrorism law, proscription of extremist organizations and ministerial responsibilities.

It took five weeks for the parliamentary select committee (PSC) to start a probe into the handling of the terrorist attack. Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) DIG Sisira Mendis informed the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), that after he received information about the attack from Nilantha Jayawardena, Director, State Intelligence Service (SIS), he briefed the Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando the next the next day. The Defence Secretary advised him to inform the IG Police to act upon the information. It is evident everyone in the bureaucratic chain had treated the information without the urgency it deserved.

The newly appointed Defence Secretary General Shantha Kottegoda told the PSC that the suicide bombings could have been averted had the extremist organizations been proscribed on the basis of intelligence reports received in 2014 indicating the casual approach to handling extremist threat.

Probably, there exists no standard operative procedure for handling intelligence or it is not being followed. This is surprising considering the country had successfully defeated powerful LTTE insurgents a decade ago. On the otherhand, it is not surprising if we consider the number of cases of misuse of intelligence and police resources to serve personal and political ends now pending in various stages of prosecution.

 

Even in handling anti-Muslim backlash there seems to an element of confusion. A week after the terrorist attack, mobs brought from outside attacked Muslim owned shops and houses in three towns in Northwestern province, while police watched on helplessly. Leaders from all religious groups have appealed for peace and calm in its aftermath. Police have rounded up around 30 people for rioting. Politicians continue to bay for removal of All Ceylon Muslim Congress leader and Commerce minister Bathiudeen for alleged links to NTJ.

Under these circumstances, it was surprising to see President Sirisena pardoning the well known Muslim baiter Gnanasara Thera, leader of the Buddhist fringe group Bodhu Bala Sena, who was serving a six year sentence for contempt of court. The timing of his pardon was all wrong from the internal security point of view; but perhaps there was a political angle to it.

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