Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State (IS) chief, made a rare appearance in a propaganda video on 28 April 2019. The video claimed responsibility for Easter Sunday serial suicide blasts on 27 March in Sri Lanka. The deadly attacks had 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 called it 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. They targeted three churches and three luxury hotels frequented by foreign tourists. Later, the IS released a video of seven men including Hashim, pledging allegiance to the IS. Only Hashim showed his face.
Easter Sunday Blame Game
Needless to say, the Sri Lanka government was in total disarray. Matters worsened after the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Priyalal Dassanayaka confirmed sending a letter on 11 April, to the Ministry of Defence and the police, providing information of the NTJ’s planned attacks. The intel was reportedly received from a foreign intelligence agency. The letter warned of planned attacks targeting churches and the Indian High Commission.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who was visiting 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 Came Under a Cloud
Colombo web Daily FT quoted “multiple sources with close knowledge of the inner workings” of the Defence establishment. It said 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 sent the latest report from India on the evening of April 20 that an attack was expected. 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.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to evade his responsibility. He said 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.
Several Warnings but No Action
President Sirisena, in a damage-control mode, sacked the Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and appointed General SHS Kottegoda in his place. Furthermore, he 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. Interestingly, many Muslim leaders have said they had earlier warned the government, local authorities, and the police, about NTJ’s nefarious activities. However, it appears that little heed was paid to such warnings.
Later, in the follow-up operations post the attacks, security forces rounded 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 the eastern province. Local Muslim villagers confronted them when they saw a weapon. Then one of the terrorists exploded a device killing all the family members, barring Hashim’s injured wife and daughter. 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.
The Community Stands United
It is a tribute to Sri Lanka people that all religious leaders stepped up for peace.
- Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has counselled peace and prevented a religious backlash after the attacks.
- The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) has appealed to members to maintain peace and cooperate with security forces in their work.
- ACJU 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 month’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother, and presidential aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa are likely to take advantage of the situation. With the presidential poll scheduled for the year-end, political turbulence is likely to increase between the President and the PM.
Noticeably, 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 investigation of Eastern Province Governor MLAM Hizbullah. Similarly, SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara has alleged that Muslim Religious Affairs Minister M.H.A. Haleem had issued permits to set up 40 NTJ dens in the 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 the moot point.
More Threats in the Bag
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. Additionally, she said that they did have reason to believe that the active attack group has not been fully rendered inactive.
Unless the government cleans up its security coordination preparedness fast, Sri Lanka can be plunged into a period of instability.