Sri Lanka Perspectives: April 2019
by R Hariharan on 12 May 2019 2 Comments

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the elusive chief of the Islamic State (IS) in a rare video released after five years on April 28, 2019, has claimed that the IS was responsible for carrying out the Easter Sunday serial suicide blasts in Sri Lanka that left 253 people dead and over 500 injured. The video said that the attacks were in retaliation for the loss of Baguz, IS’ last stronghold in Syria. It said it was a “small part of the response prepared by the Islamic State.”


Nine members of a small local radical Islamic outfit - National Towheed Jamaath (NTJ) led by Zahran Hashim - carried out the attacks that targetted three churches and three luxury hotels frequented by foreign tourists. Later, the IS released a video of seven men including Hashim, thought to be the bombers, pledging allegiance to the IS. Only Hashim showed his face.


The Sri Lanka government was in total disarray after the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Priyalal Dassanayaka confirmed that he had sent a letter ten days ago (April 11) with information of NTJ’s planned attacks, received from a foreign intelligence agency, to the Ministry of Defence and the Police. The letter based upon information received from a foreign agency warned that Zahran Hashim and a few others were planning suicide attacks or knife attacks targetting churches and the Indian High Commission.


President Maithripala Sirisena, who was on a private visit to Singapore when the blasts took place, returned on hearing the news. However, he denied knowledge of the intelligence reports. He accused the defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando and IGP Jayasundara of failing to brief him about the threat.


But President Sirisena’s credibility has come under a cloud on the issue. Colombo web Daily FT quoted “multiple sources with close knowledge of the inner workings” of the Defence establishment saying that the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director, Senior DIG of Police Nilantha Jayawardana, had provided detailed reports on the planned attack to the President on at least three occasions, including one on April 11. 


The Ministry of Defence had relayed the latest report from India on the evening of April 20 that the attack was imminent. When the last minute reports came, the SIS had transmitted the warning to the IGP, who “failed to alert churches about the threats”, according to the report.


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to evade his responsibility by saying that he was unaware of the warnings as he was out of the loop. He told the BBC, “if we had any inkling, and we had not taken action, I would have handed in my resignation”. However, he did not explain what effort he made when the President excluded him from attending the National Security Council (NSC) meetings held to discuss national security. 


President Sirisena in a damage control mode sacked defence secretary Fernando and appointed General SHS Kottegoda in his place. The President chaired a meeting of the NSC and declared a state of emergency after two days. The government banned the NTJ and Jamathe-i-Milathu Ibrahim Seilani (JMI) – a little known organization – under the emergency regulations. Many Muslim leaders have said they had earlier warned the government about the NTJ’s nefarious activities many times.


In the follow up operations, security forces were able to round up over 150 suspected NTJ members and sympathisers. In Ampara district, NTJ leader Hashim’s two brothers and their 12 member family had moved to a village near Kalmunai in eastern province. Local Muslim villagers confronted them when they saw a weapon and one of the terrorists exploded a device killing all the family members, barring Hashim’s wife and daughter who were injured. Police have also recovered a cache of weapons and explosives.


For better coordination, army, navy, air force and police within the Western province and Puttalam district have been placed under command of the Overall Operational Command, Colombo, for operational purposes.


It is a tribute to the Sri Lanka people that all religious leaders, particularly Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, have counseled peace and prevented a religious backlash after the attacks.  The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the apex religious body of Islamic theologians providing community leadership, has appealed to the members of the community to maintain peace and cooperate with security forces in their work. It also appealed to women members not to cover their face by wearing a niqab to facilitate easy identification. Officially face covering by women has been banned.


However, in the coming months, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother and presidential aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa are likely to take advantage of the serious security failure of  President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in handling the IS threat. With the presidential poll scheduled for the year end, political turbulence is likely to increase between the President and the PM. 


There is a growing demand for taking action against Muslim politicians who were alleged to have had connections with the NTJ. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran has demanded that Eastern Province Governor MLAM Hizbulla must be investigated for connections with NTJ. Similarly, SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara has alleged that Muslim Religious Affairs Minister MHA Haleem had issued permits to set up 40 National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) dens in Kandy District and 400 others countrywide since 2015. How the government proposes to handle the sensitive issue of minority Muslims in the coming months is a moot point.


There are indications that there might be more attacks by IS in Sri Lanka. The State Intelligence Service has received information of an attack targetting the Buddhist temples by the NTJ using female bombers. According to a Reuters report, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, said the US believed members of the militant group blamed for Easter Sunday attacks may be at large and planning more assaults. “We do believe that the terrorist threat is ongoing and there may be active plotters. Active members of the attack group that carried out the terror attacks on Easter Sunday may still be at large,” Ambassador Teplitz said. “We certainly have reason to believe that the active attack group has not been fully rendered inactive. We do believe that there is active planning underway,” she said.


Unless the government cleans up its security coordination preparedness fast, Sri Lanka can be plunged into a period of instability.


Col R Hariharan served as head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai.

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, May 2019 | 

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