Bombing intelligence row exposes tensions in Sri Lanka government
A family puts flowers on the grave of a victim killed by a suicide bomber on Easter Sunday [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]
Colombo, Sri Lanka – Nearly four days after churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were attacked in series of suicide bombings that left at least 359 people dead, the government is facing mounting criticism over its failure to act on detailed warnings that an attack was imminent.
The furore surrounds a memo from the police chief that was sent to various security officials on April 11, warning that National Thowheed Jamath, a locally based Muslim group, was planning suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in the capital, Colombo.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS) on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attacks, releasing a video in which the bombers, standing side-by-side with NTJ leader Zahran Hashmi, pledged allegiance to the armed group.
The memo was the result of a tip-off a week earlier from India‘s intelligence agencies and included names, addresses, and even phone numbers of the suspects.
Sri Lanka suspects NTJ and its link to ‘international network’
When the attacks happened, the government’s two top officials – President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – both stated they knew nothing about the warnings.
The two men previously worked together to defeat Sri Lanka’s long-time leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections, but their relationship has since soured.
Last October, Sirisena tried to sack Wickremesinghe, prompting a constitutional crisis. The attempt was overturned by parliament and the courts, but the leaders have continued in an uneasy coalition ever since, sometimes deliberately avoiding each other.
Sirisena said he was not aware of the police memo despite being commander-in-chief of the armed forces, head of defence, and head of government. Wickremesinghe said he had not been “kept informed” about what was going on, noting he had been excluded from security briefings since October.
“They failed all the people of this country,” veteran journalist Chandani Kirinde told Al Jazeera. “There’s so much distrust between the prime minister and the president after what happened in October. They just don’t see eye-to-eye. Saying that, you don’t know is not a good excuse.”
State minister for defence Ruwan Wijewardene acknowledged there had been a “major lapse” in intelligence sharing in relation to the Easter attacks.
“The government has to take responsibility,” he told journalists at a briefing on Wednesday.
“If the sharing of the intelligence information had been given to the right people at least this could have been avoided or even minimised. The government cannot say that they are not responsible.”
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Political tensions mount
Sri Lankan president vows security shake-up over attacks
As the death toll continued to rise and traumatised communities buried their dead, the country’s parliament on Wednesday evening approved emergency legislation giving the military the power of arrest and detention, a move that revived memories of the decades-long fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers armed group, that ended a decade ago in May.
In the debate over the bill, former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who led the final offensive against the Tigers, said attacks of such a scale could not have been planned overnight. He called on the president to step down.
“In any other country the entire government would have had to resign for making a mess of things like this, but it won’t happen here,” he told his fellow members of parliament. “Security has become a joke.”
In its battle against the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka built a formidable intelligence operation, based largely on field agents and informants, according to a former military commander who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“We were a country that fought the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world, the LTTE,” the commander said. “By the end of that battle, we had built an excellent security culture because national security was at the fore.”
Security developments were closely monitored and intelligence shared in an integrated structure, that would have made it difficult for the Easter Sunday bombers to plan their attacks without being discovered, he said.
The intelligence services and armed forces were also implicated in human rights abuses during the long-running conflict with the Tigers.
On Wednesday, the Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando was under pressure from the president to resign, as was the inspector general of police. Wijewardene insisted to the media that the government was determined to show it was in charge of the situation.
“We are asking the people to be vigilant,” he said. “I’m not saying that the country is 100 percent at the moment – there are still a few people out there – but within the next few days we should have the situation totally under control.”
Scores of arrests
The government said earlier said the terrorists involved in the attacks were mostly well-educated and one of them had studied in the UK and Australia.
Police spokesman Rohan Gunasekara confirmed there were nine bombers involved in the attacks, including the wife of one of the bombers who blew herself up when security forces raided their home in the south of the capital. Eight of the bombers had been identified, he added.
Some 60 people have been arrested and 32 were in the custody of the Criminal Investigation Department, while the others were detained at local police stations, he said.
The commander said the Easter Sunday attacks should be a wake-up call to the government.
“We have to treat this as a serious threat, not a one-off incident,” he said. “When an event this bad happens there can be complacency – that nothing worse could possibly happen. But we still don’t know how many people are really involved. We know there were nine suicide killers, but there could be many more.”