Strategic dimensions of Sri Lanka Jihadi attacks - II
by R Hariharan on 26 Aug 2019 2 Comments

Systemic Failures


The Sri Lanka government had been a divided house due to a schism between the President and the Prime Minister ever since President Sirisena made an abortive attempt to remove Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from the government in October 2018. Apparently this has resulted in lack of coordination between the ministries and different arms of the government. This was evident when, immediately after the attacks, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe denied any prior knowledge of the information about the impending attack received from Indian sources and disseminated by the State Intelligence Services (SIS), 12 days before the attack.


After the attacks, the President declared a state of emergency, sacked Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and asked the Inspector General of Police, Pujith Jayasundara, to resign for their failure to prevent the attacks. The IGP refused to do so and was sidestepped by posting another officer in his place. After some administrative hiccups, NTJ and TMI were proscribed. The President also appointed a presidential inquiry into the attacks. The SIS chief, Sisira Mendis, resigned after the attack on health reasons.


The controversy over the Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya’s call for a PSC to probe the attacks delayed its start by five weeks. The move to constitute the PSC was opposed not only by the President, but also the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Joint Opposition, on grounds of compromise of national security. The President said he would not allow intelligence officers to testify before the Committee. However, testimonies by former Defence Secretary Fernando, sacked IG Jayasundara and former SIS chief Mendis have revealed serious gaps in communication and coordination between the SIS and other security arms of the government, though all of them functioned under the President. Former defence secretary Fernando said he was a ‘helpless’ Defence Secretary who had to wait for weeks to get an appointment with the President. Mendis said that though he had briefed the defence secretary on the impending terrorist attack, the National Security Council (NSC) had not met.


He said the last NSC meeting was held on February 19, 2019, two months before the attack, implying that if it had been held, the NSC could have taken measures to avert it. Mendis informed the IGP in a letter, giving information about the plans for the attack and follow up action as advised by the defence secretary. Mendis further added that the impending attack was not even discussed at the regular intelligence coordinating meeting attended by the defence secretary, the three service chiefs and IG Jayasundara.[27]


Suspended IG Jayasundara filed a complaint before the Supreme Court accusing President Sirisena of failing to prevent the Easter bombings.[28] In his complaint, Jayasundara said he had been sidelined by the President since the political rift between the President and PM Wickremesinghe in October 2018. He added that he refused a diplomatic post offered to him if he agreed to step down, as he was not responsible for “the catastrophic intelligence failure”. He added that the SIS which reports directly to the President wanted the TID to stop all inquiries into extremist Muslim factions including NTJ, which was involved in the Easter Sunday bombings.


President Sirisena, who is also defence minister, issued a statement refuting Mendis’ testimony and said he held NSC meetings twice a week. It is significant the PM was not invited to participate in the NSC meetings. The President said he met the national police chief and his top brass 13 days before the Easter Sunday attacks and no officer raised warnings received from India. Overall, the President’s handling of national security was presented in poor light by the testimonies.


It is evident that everyone in the bureaucratic chain had treated the information about the planned attack 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.


It is evident that the intelligence structure that helped the country to successfully defeat the powerful LTTE insurgents a decade ago does not exist now. This is not surprising as a number of cases of misuse of intelligence and police resources to serve personal and political ends during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule are now pending in various stages of prosecution.


In an apparently well-organized move, Sinhala hardliners seem to have used the public outrage in the wake of the blasts to fan anti-Muslim hate campaign. Anti-Muslim backlash broke out a week after the Easter Day attacks, mobs brought in trucks from other places attacked Muslim-owned shops and houses in three towns in Northwestern province while police watched on helplessly.


Strident demand was made for removal of Muslim governors Azath Salley and MLAM Hizbullah and cabinet minister Rishad Bathiudeen for alleged support to the NTJ, even though the allegations were not borne out by evidence. After Buddhist monk Athuraliye Rathana Thero went on indefinite fast in Kandy with the demand and thousands of people marched in support, the two Muslim governors and nine ministers resigned en masse. A lot of uneasiness prevails among Muslims as they feel the security measures taken after the attacks are being used to curb normal life of Muslims in the name of fighting extremism.


In these circumstances, President Sirisena sent a wrong message by 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 prelate of Asgiriya Chapter, one of the most influential Buddhist orders in the country, addressing a temple ceremony in Kandy, accused Muslims of destroying the country and called for a boycott of Muslim-run shops and businesses: “don’t eat from those [Muslim owned] shops”. Except for finance minister Mangala Samaraweera, who came down heavily on the prelate for his comments against Muslims and urged ‘true Buddhists’ to unite against “Talibanisation” of the religion, other political leaders have been muted in their response.


This has kindled a feeling of déjà vu among liberal segments and civil society that political priorities are once again overtaking the urgent need for ethnic and religious amity in Sri Lanka. This does not augur well for the country as it provides space for the spread of IS extremism.  


International Dimension


PM Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to visit Sri Lanka after the deadly Easter Day terror attacks at the start of his second term. His trip indicated India’s show of solidarity with Sri Lanka in times of distress and assured the neighbourhood will continue to be India’s foreign policy priority. During his brief visit, Modi held discussions with all the main actors including the President, the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition and also addressed the Indian community. He met with President Sirisena and the two sides agreed that terrorism is a “joint threat” that needs collective and focussed action. Translating the “jointness” is likely to be the priority of both countries in their fight against terrorism.


In this context, the signing of Sri Lanka, Japan and India agreement to jointly develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo Port in May 2018 assumes significance as the countries had been negotiating the deal since last year. The ECT is located some 3 km away from the China-backed international financial city, known popularly as “port city”, being built on reclaimed land on Colombo’s sea front.


Intelligence and security personnel from India, the US and UK have reached Sri Lanka to help investigations into the IS inspired terrorist strike. According to a Daily Mirror columnist, China, perhaps unnerved by the US and UK security agents landing in Sri Lanka in the wake of the blasts, sent “a message for President Sirisena from Chinese President Xi Jinping asking him to visit Beijing. When he arrived in Beijing, President Xi chaired a joint Sri Lanka-China bilateral meeting on security co-operation with Colombo. One of the key decisions taken was on ‘strengthening co-operation in the defence sector and sharing intelligence between Sri Lanka and China’ - an aspect that has been incorporated into the new defence agreement. President Sirisena briefed the meeting on the Easter Sunday massacres carried out by pro-IS Muslim extremist groups”.


According to the article, before he left Colombo, President Sirisena explained that Sri Lanka did not have the technological expertise and equipment “to trace persons who were promoting terrorism and spreading false information. President Xi agreed to provide both expertise and equipment. He will also send a technical team to Sri Lanka to train personnel”. President Sirisena also agreed to a government-to-government deal for hi-tech surveillance of Colombo City on the lines of “smart cities”. The article said this will also cover the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City, both constructed with heavy Chinese funding.




To summarise, Sri Lanka is probably now part of IS’ decentralized Syria-centric operations to expand its footprint into South Asia using local affiliates. South Asian countries, particularly India and Bangladesh, had been facing the threat of Pakistan-supported Jihadi terrorist groups for long and are highly vulnerable to any escalation of Jihadi threat.


Investigations carried out in the wake of the Sri Lanka suicide bombings show that attacks must have been planned well in advance to inflict maximum casualties. The IS modules in Kerala and Tamil Nadu seem to have been using the social media actively in tandem with the NTJ leader Zahran in propagating IS radicalism in both countries. Action to dismantle such threats would require not only greater coordination and cooperation between security agencies of both countries, but also policy convergence. Sri Lanka would also require technological support from India in fighting the terrorist threat.


Sri Lanka was probably selected because there is around 10 percent Muslim population with wide exposure to radical Wahhabi philosophy at home and among expatriates working in Gulf countries. Apart from reasons of real politic, Sri Lanka had probably been soft pedaling on the issue of Islamic extremism for political reasons as major parties are wooing the Muslim minority for support. Collectively these factors have enabled the NTJ to carry out its suicide bombings successfully.


Under these circumstances, there is an urgent need for political parties to curb their tendency to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments through Sinhala nationalist fringe elements. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo will have to redeem their credibility which has been tarnished by tardy handling of the national security apparatus that led to the Easter Day attacks. This has caused enormous damage to the image of the country. They will also have to push through the reforms they had promised during the run up to the elections, including the drafting of a new constitution that meets the aspirations of everyone and upgrading of accountability in governance including rule of law and human rights.


The Indian Ocean Region, and as a corollary Sri Lanka, has become the focus of the ever-increasing global power play between China and the US and its allies as well as India, the dominant naval power in the region. Escalation of IS-inspired terrorist threat in Sri Lanka could affect IOR. Greater cooperation in enforcing counter terrorism measures among not only Sri Lanka, India, China and the US and its allies, but also other Indian Ocean Rim Countries, has now become a necessity to discourage further growth of terrorist threat.




Notes & References

27)            ‘Easter carnage PSC: NSC didn’t meet till April 21 attacks’ May 29, 2019 The Island  

28)           Pujith petitions supreme court…SIS blocked TID probes into ISIS factions, June 3, 2019

AFP , Ceylon Today


Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987- 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai.

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