The real tragedy of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka is that they could have been averted
The decade-long spell of peace that citizens of the idyllic emerald island of Sri Lanka had become accustomed to after a hard-earned, bloody and contentious victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 was jarringly shattered by the senseless carnage that a group of affluent, educated Sri Lankan Muslim youth unleashed in a series of coordinated and synchronized suicide attacks on churches and premier hotels in the country on Easter Sunday. The attacks were among the deadliest worldwide in recent years.
Nine suicide bombers, including at least one woman, carried out as many as 8 high intensity blasts in various parts of the country in which Sri Lankan authorities said 359 people had been killed and over 500 injured. Such was the intensity of the blasts that the number of fatalities was revised downward on 25 April to 253, with authorities explaining that a number of bodies had been double-counted on the basis of DNA and other evidence as they were mangled beyond recognition. Among the dead were 39 foreign nationals belonging to the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), India, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, China, France, Japan, Denmark, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and Australia.
The first 6 near-simultaneous blasts occurred at St Anthony's Church in Colombo, St Sebastian's Church in the western coastal town of Negombo, another church in the eastern town of Batticaloa, and in the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels. These were followed by an explosion outside Colombo Zoo and another in the suburb of Orugodawatta in northern Colombo. The Sri Lankan government said that an obscure outfit called the National Thowheeth Jamath (NTJ), which earlier had come to notice mainly for defacement of Buddhist statues, had carried out the attacks. Zahran Hashmi was the leader of this outfit. Subsequently, State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardena on 24 April claimed that the ongoing investigations had revealed that a more radical splinter faction of the NTJ was behind the attack. Two days after the attacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility and released a video of what it claimed were the suicide bombers involved in the attacks.
The initial condemnation of the attacks and the appeals for calm by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not contain any hint that the turbulence and distrust that had existed between them ever since the former attempted to unconstitutionally oust the latter last year had cast an unsalutary impact on the government’s preparedness to deal with the major security threat that it had been unambiguously made aware of well before the attacks took place. Sirisena expressed shock, deep pain and dismay over the brutal attacks, adding, “I have given instructions to take very stern action against the persons who are responsible for this conspiracy”. Wickremesinghe described the attacks as “global terrorism reaching Sri Lanka”, adding that he apprehended that they could unleash instability. He condemned the “cowardly” attacks and urged the people to eschew unverified reports and speculation.
It was only later that it appallingly came to light that Sri Lankan intelligence agencies had been warned weeks before by foreign intelligence agencies that the attacks were imminent, with some of the inputs communicating invaluable actionable intelligence. Sirisena, under whose ambit the security apparatus of the country lies, was abroad when the attacks took place. Upon his return the following day Sirisena said that security officials who had received foreign intelligence about possible attacks had not alerted him, and he therefore pledged to make “major changes in the leadership of the security forces”. He subsequently asked the Defense Secretary and the Police chief to resign. Wickremesinghe and his cabinet, on the other hand, were not even aware that intelligence had been received warning of the attacks as he had been kept out of intelligence briefings since he fell out with the President. Sri Lankan cabinet minister and spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne revealed, “When we asked about the intelligence report, the Prime Minister was not aware of this”. Further, Wickremesinghe called a Security Council meeting immediately after the attacks took place on 21 April, but its members refused to show up. An incredulous Senaratne said regarding this, “This is the first time in history we have seen that the Security Council refused to come for a meeting with the country’s Prime Minister. I think this is the only country in the world where the Security Council does not like to come when summoned by the Prime Minister of the country”.
Amidst all this, the attacks drew considerable attention from the international community, and condemnation, empathy and pledges of support poured into Sri Lanka. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) strongly condemned the attacks and underlined the need to bring the perpetrators, organizers and financiers of these acts of terrorism to justice. It reiterated that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever they are committed. US President Donald Trump called both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and expressed condolences. He pledged US support in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke to Wickremesinghe and blamed “Islamic radical terror” for the attacks. He pledged “all possible assistance” to Sri Lanka while saying that “this is America’s fight, too”. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and described the suicide bombings as “cold-blooded and pre-planned barbaric acts”. He offered all possible assistance to Sri Lanka for ensuring its security. Leaders of the European Union (EU), the UK, the Netherlands, Russia, the Vatican, Australia and New Zealand were among those that condemned the attacks.
Investigations into the attack are ongoing, and over 90 people have been taken into custody by Sri Lankan security forces using the Emergency provisions that are in place in the country. Teams from INTERPOL and the FBI are among those assisting the Sri Lankan forces in making sense of the attacks in which elements from one minority community targeted members of another minority group with which it has not had any visible grouse in the past. State Minister of Defense Wijewardene told parliament on 23 April that two local groups, the NTJ and an even lesser known outfit called the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, had been involved in the attacks, which were in retaliation to the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month ago. But how these groups were indoctrinated and where they obtained and assembled the high grade explosives for the attacks was not clear. As Rajitha Senaratne put it, “We don’t see that only a small organization in this country can do all that. We are now investigating the international support for them, and their other links … how they produced the suicide bombers here, and how they produced bombs like this”. Quite evidently, these groups were fulfilling the insidious agenda of a larger external terrorist group. Given that some members of NTJ are believed to have cultivated links with ISIL and joined the group in its self-proclaimed Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the finger of suspicion was pointed mainly in its direction.
Two days after the attacks, the ISIL released a statement in Arabic in its mouthpiece Amaq in which it claimed that “the perpetrators of the attack that targeted the citizens of the coalition governments and the Christians in Sri Lanka the day before yesterday were ISIL Inghemasis (fighters)”. However, it is unclear how much of a role ISIS actually played, especially since it has earlier used Amaq to claim responsibility for attacks that simply drew inspiration from it and which it had not played a direct role in organizing. If the 23 April claim in Amaq is indeed correct, it will serve to demonstrate that the influence of the ISIL’s extremist ideology, despite the collapse of its so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, remains dangerously intact. As Lisa Monaco, who served as Homeland Security adviser to former US President Barack Obama, said, “We should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate with that of the virtual caliphate”.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, argued that “Al-Qaeda and ISIS would be logical partners (of NTJ); both have carried out attacks like Sunday's in the past. However, these groups have been badly degraded. They do each boast a South Asia affiliate, with some reach beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where they're largely based. But they're not known to have a track record, much less a footprint, in Sri Lanka”. Hence, “the perpetrators may have received help from partners other than al-Qaeda or ISIS. Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba and Bangladesh's Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, for example, have enjoyed cross-border reach”. Others believe that since the Indian High Commission in Colombo was one of the targets, Pakistani terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) should be added to the list of suspects, as also the ISIL affiliate, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) which as per reports last year has trained Maldivians and Sri Lankans who had been radicalized online by ISIL cadres. Further, media reports suggest that western and Indian intelligence agencies had in recent years uncovered links and communications between the LeT and JeM and the ISKP.
India has also repeatedly cautioned Sri Lanka that it could develop into an operational zone for the LeT and like-minded Jihadi groups. According to Ceylon Today, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has used LeT and its cover organization the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq as proxies to radicalize Sri Lankan Muslims. Madhura Seneviratne of Australia's government owned Special Broadcasting Service revealed Pakistan's motives, “Using Sri Lanka as a staging post, the ISI's primary and apparent objective is to encircle India from all sides. It wanted to use the island nation to access south India, both in terms of finding terror networks as well as for recruitment of cadres”. Indian agencies also pointed to NTJ having a number of associates and followers in Pakistan. Its chief, Zahran Hashim, is believed to have visited Pakistan in 2018.
The detailed and specific intelligence shared on 4 April (and followed up with updates) by the Indian intelligence agencies with their Sri Lankan counterparts on the Easter attacks would suggest that they could not be too far off the reality on the ISI and LeT activities in Sri Lanka. A confidential memorandum issued on 11 April by Priyalal Dassanayake, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Colombo, revealed that India had not only provided information weeks in advance about the impending attacks on the churches, but also the names, addresses, phone numbers, and other operational details of the suspects. Indian intelligence agencies followed this up with updates on the plot as it unfolded, including one day before the attacks that was even more specific than the first one and mentioned the possible targets, and yet another just two hours before the attacks. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe acknowledged that alerts had been sent by India, “India gave us the intelligence but there has been a lapse on how we acted on that... intelligence was not conveyed down the line”.
Families of the victims of the attacks would be justified in believing that the fact that the attacks went ahead as planned, despite such specific intelligence, was a colossal failure that bordered on criminal negligence. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, lamented, “We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?” Several Sri Lankan ministers lashed out at President Sirisena, who controls the security services, for not acting on the detailed warnings before the attacks. Rauff Hakeem, the minister of city planning, called the attacks a “colossal failure on the part of the intelligence services”. He added, “We are ashamed of what has happened. If the names of the persons involved were already known, why were they not arrested?"
Terrorist attacks are occurring increasingly more frequently worldwide and the modus operandi adopted by terrorist groups is getting much more sophisticated. The challenges confronting intelligence organizations in keeping pace with the fast and constantly evolving terrorist methodology in an age of remote, masked and encrypted communications is huge and complex. Several of the terrorist attacks that take place cannot be prevented simply because the intelligence agencies never get wind of them. In other cases, the information gathered could indicate that an attack is in the offing, but there is not enough specificity to launch preventive or counter action.
In the instances, therefore, where intelligence concrete enough to prevent an attack is generated through painstaking analysis of information gathered from human sources and through technical means, inaction due to infighting, incompetence, negligence or a casual approach cannot, and should not, be condoned.