Sri Lanka explosions: Security agencies were warned about plot and suspects

An image from CCTV footage shows a suspected suicide bomber with a backpack on a street in Negombo, about 40km from Colombo, on Easter Sunday. At least 321 people were killed in the suicide bombings that day.
An image from CCTV footage shows a suspected suicide bomber with a backpack on a street in Negombo, about 40km from Colombo, on Easter Sunday. At least 321 people were killed in the suicide bombings that day. PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO • In the days leading up to the devastating suicide bombings that killed at least 321 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the country's security agencies had been closely watching a secretive cell of the National Thowheeth Jama'ath, a little-known radical Islamist organisation that security officials in Sri Lanka now say carried out the attacks and may have received help from abroad.

They knew the group was dangerous. They had collected intelligence on the whereabouts of its leaders in an April 11 security memo, which warned of Catholic church bombings. They had been warned even earlier by India that the group, also known by the spelling National Thowfeek Jama'ath, was plotting church attacks.

They knew as far back as January that radical Islamists possibly tied to the group had stockpiled weapons and detonators. And within hours of the three churches and three hotels being bombed, Sri Lankan security services swooped down on at least 24 suspects, suggesting that they also knew exactly where the group had been operating.

Why the security agencies failed to act aggressively on the information before the bombings is now an enormous question. One of the bombers had even been arrested a few months ago on suspicion of having vandalised a statue of the Buddha in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Several ministers are now calling for the national police chief to resign. Others have questioned how such a home-grown group could have acted alone.

Mr Shiral Lakthilaka, a senior adviser to President Maithripala Sirisena, denied that there had been any security lapses.

But he said the President had appointed a special committee, led by a Supreme Court judge, to investigate the matter. And he acknowledged that the warnings about the National Thowheeth Jama'ath - disclosed in the April 11 memo from a top police official to division heads - had been circulated only among police officials in charge of "VIP security".

They knew as far back as January that radical Islamists possibly tied to the group had stockpiled weapons and detonators. And within hours of the three churches and three hotels being bombed, Sri Lankan security services swooped down on at least 24 suspects, suggesting that they also knew exactly where the group had been operating.

The warnings appear to have gone back even further. Indian security agencies had been scrutinising the movements of National Thowheeth Jama'ath's leader Mohammed Zaharan, a known extremist who has spent time in both India and Sri Lanka, and who in recent years has preached hateful messages online.

As early as April 4, the Indians had provided the Sri Lankans with cellphone numbers and information about Zaharan and his lieutenants, who they said were planning suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka, several Sri Lankan and Indian officials said.

The Sri Lankan security services then ran down addresses and put several members of the group under close surveillance.

 
 
 

The April 11 memo included precise information, such as the observation that Zaharan's brother, an avid recruiter for the group, "visits his wife and children in the nights (2300-0400)", and it listed an exact address, down to a house number and cross street.

But with Mr Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe feuding for months, leading to a political breakdown last year, it seems that the President excluded the Prime Minister from top security briefings and the Prime Minister's office had no inkling of the warnings of imminent suicide attacks.

Whether sharing that information would have made a difference is unclear. But the Prime Minister and his allies are claiming that had they known, they would have insisted on more security at the targeted sites.

No warning seemed to have been communicated to any target. Sri Lankan officials said they did not know Zaharan's whereabouts on Monday. Indian intelligence officials suggested that he might be hiding in eastern Sri Lanka.

NYTIMES

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2019, with the headline 'Security agencies were warned about plot and suspects'. Print Edition | Subscribe