Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive chief of the Islamic State (IS) made a rare appearance in a propaganda video—the first time in the last five years—on 28 April 2019. The video, released by the Islamic State, claimed that the IS was responsible for carrying out Easter Sunday serial suicide blasts on 27 March 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, the IS’s 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 targeted 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 earlier, on 11 April, to the Ministry of Defence and the police, providing information of the NTJ’s planned attacks which had been received from a foreign intelligence agency. 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 targeting churches and the Indian High Commission.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who was on a private visit to Singapore when the blasts took place, returned to Sri Lanka on hearing the news. However, he denied knowledge of the intelligence reports. He accused the Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and the Inspector General Police, Mr 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 an 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 the Defence Secretary Hemasiri 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 also banned the NTJ and Jamathe-i-Milathu Ibrahim Seilani (JMI), a little known organisation, under the emergency regulations.Many Muslim leaders have said they had earlier warned the government about the NTJ’s nefarious activities and had also given such warnings to the local authorities including the police. It appears that little heed was paid to such warnings.
In the follow-up operations post the attacks on Easter Sunday, 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 Sri Lanka people that all religious leaders, particularly Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, have counselled 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 PM 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 had alleged 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 M.H.A. Haleem had issued permits to set up 40 National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) dens in the Kandy District and 400 others countrywide since 2015. How the government proposes to handle the sensitive issue of minority Mulims in the coming months is the moot point.
There are indications that there might be more attacks by IS in Sri Lanka. The State Intelligence Service has received information on an attack targeting 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.
A veteran of the 1965 and 1971 Indo Pak wars, Col R. Hariharan, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), from 1987 to 90. He was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in June 1963 when he left his career as a journalist with the Press Trust of India to join the Army in a burst of patriotism. He frequently writes in his areas of specialisation – South Asian neighbourhood and terrorism and insurgency. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, blog:http://col.hariharan.info A version of this article first appeared in South Asia Security
Trends, May 2019