Carnage on a holy day

A series of deadly bombings in Colombo has left Sri Lanka’s government with some serious questions to answer. Neville de Silva reports

Not since the 2009 military defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, has Sri Lanka dominated the international media headlines as it did last month.

Since Easter Sunday the media spotlight has been on this island nation, to which peace had returned. The reason? Arguably Asia’s worst terrorist attacks. At the time of writing over 350 people have been confirmed killed and over 500 others wounded ina series of suicide bombings that hit prominent churches in and around the capital Colombo and two coastal towns, as well as three high-end hotels.

Even for a people accustomed to Tamil Tiger suicide attacks on civilian targets during nearly 30 years of war, the Easter Sunday bombing of Christians at prayer and foreigners enjoying a sunny holiday was too much carnage to bear.

Nor is the news interest likely to fade away soon. As long as the attacks have an external security dimension and impact on strategic concerns, particularly to the West – which has in recent years suffered from Islamist extremist attacks – Sri Lanka will remain on the media radar screen.

Who masterminded the catastrophic attacks and engineered their execution remains the question to which answers are urgently sought. This was not a home-made disaster.

While Sri Lanka was in mourning and preparing to bury its dead, emerging informationincreasingly began to point to security lapses and in-fighting within the coalition government,which denied the prime minister and his cabinet vital intelligence.Not even intelligence alerts from friendly governments warning of possible terror attacks and information from the country’s own security services were available to them.

Had that information been shared when it was first passed on by Indian intelligence about two weeks before the Easter tragedy, the attacks might have been blunted and many lives saved.

It has now been revealed that Indian intelligence had warned of impending attacks on churches and possibly the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The Police Chief passed on this information and a memo from a subordinate went out on April 11. Yet it appears that little action was taken to beef up security and put the police on ‘red alert’, as should have been done.

This laxity is confirmed by Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who crassly admitted that although Sri Lanka’s intelligence services had been informed of possible attacks on churches, they did not expect it to be of ‘such magnitude’.

The question increasingly being asked where people gather is:who did not expect the attacks to be so widespread and ferocious? Who was responsible for this assessment that proved so grossly wrong?

The initial grief endured by the families of the dead and wounded is now finding its voice as anger at the failure of the authorities to protect the innocent, even after information was made available by friendly nations.This rising anger was clear at funerals, where wailing survivors and other family members were asking why the government had failed to take cognisance of the information passed on to it. It was not as though the authorities were taken by complete surprise.

This was not a home-made disaster

And this is not a pertinent issue for Sri Lankans alone.Over 40 foreign nationals from several countries, who had travelled to Sri Lanka for their Easter holidays, are known to have died at the time of writing.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told a special session of parliament that foreign intelligence services had passed on information of possible attacks as early as April 4. But positive action did not follow. He euphemistically labelled it a lapse in security.

What it inexplicable is his statement in parliament that he, as prime minister, and his cabinet ministers were denied any information relating to this potential terrorist attack. Even worse is that since last October, President Sirisena has stopped Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the Minister of State for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, from attending the National Security Council meetings where all essential security matters are discussed and decisions taken.

Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando said the attacks were not expected to be of ‘such magnitude’
Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando said the attacks were not expected to be of ‘such magnitude’

Moreover,the president does not appoint acting ministers of defence and of law and order whenever he goes abroad, which is often. When the Easter attacks happened, he was on another visit to Singapore and did not return immediately after the bombers struck, as any responsible leader would have done. He was, after all, just four hours or so away, and there are regular flights.

Increasingly, people are pointing the finger at the president, who claimed while addressing the Colombo-based diplomatic corps that he was unaware of the intelligence passed on by Indian security and also the US.

If that was so, it is tantamount to a very seriousbreakdown of communications and failure to keep him abreast of vital information concerning state security.

Within a couple of days of the attacks the US, UK and others, including Interpol, sent teams of experts to help the Sri Lanka authorities with their investigations. One of the key issues troubling major western countries and others faced with the threat of terrorism is who helped the local organisation to mount this attack.

Some evidence seems to suggest it could be an off-shoot of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ). Local intelligence has identified this small radical Islamic group, which was hitherto known for vandalising statues in and outside Buddhist temples in a town with a substantial local Muslim community. Some of its members had also previously beenarrested by police for these acts.So far, over 60 suspects have been arrested.

But the coordinated Easter attacks, the almost simultaneous timing of the bombings and the sophistication that went into the planning and the essential logistics involved is not something the NTJ was capable of handling.

By the third day, Islamic State accepted responsibility

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said they were looking for the ‘foreign hand’ that set up the bombings, for it would have taken at least a couple of months to do so. By the third day the extremist Islamic organisation Islamic State (IS), on the retreat now, accepted responsibility, posting some videos which do not necessarily buttress its claim.

It is this possible IS involvement and its expanding footprint in South Asia that is worrying regional nations,as well as western countries that have been victims of attacks by IS-trained and radicalised youth from the global south.

While western and regional intelligence digs deep to unearth the extent of the IS operational capability and their radicalisation of vulnerable Islamic youth, President Sirisena will need to seriously rethink his policy of ignoring his major coalition partner,and dispense with his secretive and narrow-minded governance that has lost him the people’s faith and confidence.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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