Armies in the midst of combat learn incredibly fast. This isn’t the case with peacetime militaries, as has been evident in Sri Lanka.
During the 25-year-long war that it waged against the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan military came up with a strategy and a series of tactics in the last phase of the war that enabled it to inflict a comprehensive defeat on the terror outfit. The Sri Lankan intelligence services efficiently identified targets and eliminated them, stymieing LTTE operations, and making rear areas safe.
However, ten years after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan defense establishment, pampered by a decade of peace and hampered by political squabbling between President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, proved incompetent. It was unable to prevent suicide bombers of the Islamic State group-affiliated National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) from carrying out a string of deadly attacks across the island on Easter Sunday of 2019.
On that day (April 21), bombs ripped through three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing around 279 people and injuring over 500 others.
The island is no stranger to terror attacks; its 25-year-long civil war was often punctuated by suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas. Yet the Easter Sunday attacks as they are known were unprecedented. Not only did they lay bare the vast jihadist network on the island but they also underscored the abject failure of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment to secure the Sri Lankan people.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka was roiled in intense debate and discussion over why a country with an oversized security apparatus and enormous experience in fighting terrorism failed to prevent the attacks.
A recent Supreme Court verdict provides some insights. Last week, a seven-judge bench ruled that President Sirisena and other senior officials failed to prevent the deadly attacks although they were in possession of credible and actionable intelligence. The Supreme Court noted that “the want of attention on the part of the important players heading the security apparatus of this country is unpardonable. The apex court has said that those in charge of the country’s national security worked in silos and acted with lethargy, without vision, and were mainly interested in protecting their fiefdoms.”
This is remarkably similar to the observations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday Attacks.
Issuing a verdict on 12 fundamental rights petitions alleging that leaders of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government (2015-2019) and those in charge of national security failed to take action to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite receiving sufficient intelligence, the apex court pointed out that “reasonable men” would have behaved differently.
Casting aside arguments of presidential immunity that most Sri Lankan leaders use to evade responsibility for what transpired during their tenure, the Supreme Court ordered Sirisena to pay 100 million Sri Lankan rupees (around $270,000) to the victims of the attacks. Several other top officials including former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, former State Intelligence Service (SIS) director Nilantha Jayawardena, former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, and former Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis have been ordered to pay monetary compensation to victims as well.
Sirisena has said that he did not know about the attacks. “I was abroad when the attacks happened. I have told many times that I was not informed of the intelligence any officer received. Even the court found no evidence of this,” he said.
The former president has asked why he needs to pay the victims compensation. “The Supreme Court says that if an official appointed by the President makes a mistake, the President is also to be blamed. I have no money to pay. I will have to collect money from my friends,” he said.
The verdict dampens Sirisena’s political aspirations. He is the head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was expecting to make a comeback in the upcoming local council elections.
The Supreme Court has drawn attention to the “pinpointed allegation” leveled by petitioners against Sirisena’s “executive inertia” and his failure to take “steps to avert the mayhem and destruction,” when “it was within his powers to have ensured the personal liberty and security of the people and prevented the precarious slide into anarchy.”
The Court also pointed out that as early as 2015, the security establishment was aware of a growing threat from Islamic extremism and NTJ chief Zahran Hashim. However, nothing was done to neutralize these threats.
During an earlier appearance at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks, SIS director Jayawardena had said he received intelligence on April 4, 2019 from a foreign counterpart about a possible terrorist attack by April 20 by Hashim and his associates. By April 9, Jayawardena had informed the IGP and the CNI about the information he had received. The CNI, too, had written to the IGP on SIS intelligence. The IGP then sent both these letters to the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) (Western Province and Traffic), the SDIG (Crimes and STF), the DIG (Special Protection Range), and the director of the Counter Terrorism and Terrorism Investigation Department with a note for demanding necessary action.
Not only did the IGP not provide pointed instructions to his subordinates, but he also didn’t share the information with the DIG of the Eastern Province, the hotbed of Islamic extremist activities. In fact, the NTJ carried out a dry run on April 16 at Palamunai, Kattankudy, which baffled the policemen there as they were not privy to information that the NTJ was readying for a terror attack.
SDIG Jayawardena said that the SIS had been informed in 2017 of the danger Hashim posed and that he had urged the relevant agencies to arrest him. However, Jayawardena said that he did not inform the political authorities about the possible attacks. He reiterated this in his statement before the Supreme Court as well.
Importantly, Jayawardena did not bring up the intelligence input he had received during his weekly intelligence meetings, where all senior military and law enforcement officers as well as representatives of the political authority are present. The Court noted that if the former SIS director has spoken about the imminent attack at this meeting or presented the information he had on the suspects to the tri-forces, the disaster could have been averted with a series of quick arrests.
Although several key officers in charge of national security were aware of an impending terror attack, no NSC meeting was summoned between April 4 and 21. The officers did not inform the president of the threat posed by the NTJ although Sirisena visited Batticaloa, a town which is near Kattankudy, Hashim’s hometown.
Jayawardena received further intelligence from his foreign counterpart on April 20 at 1642 hours, information he classified as “most vital, specific and reliable intelligence.” The court observed that he used WhatsApp and SMS to notify the secretary of defense (at 1653 hours), SDIG in charge of the CID (1654), CNI (1702) and IGP (1707) He proceeded to call the secretary of defense (1802), IGP (1703), SDIG in charge of the Western Province (1755), SDIG in charge of the CID (1657), SDIG in charge of the Special Task Force (1927 and 2009), and the DIG Colombo (1909 and 2124). However, it seems that no one took the initiative to beef up security near the main churches and hotels or to reach out to the Catholic Church to explore the possibility of canceling Easter Sunday religious activities.
In its verdict, the apex court says, “the intelligence received proved true but the mobilization of counter terrorism measures or its facilitation through an effective dissemination of forebodings to stem the impending disaster was totally absent and this clearly shows how security mechanisms in the country remained fragile and in shambles.”
President Sirisena was in Singapore for a medical check-up on April 20. Jayawardena told both the court and the Presidential Commission that he could not contact the President.
Throughout the court proceedings Jayawardena insisted that he did not inform the president of the imminent threat because his reporting officers were the IGP and the defense secretary. This is a position that the Supreme Court did not accept. The court said that senior officials in charge of national security are obliged to consult the defense minister on matters of extreme importance and that they cannot evade responsibility by stating that they do not have direct access to him.
It must be noted that in late 2018, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe from the prime minister’s post. While Wickremesinghe regained his position through judicial means, the relationship between the two men was strained and Wickremesinghe was not invited to NSC meetings again.
Sirisena’s failure to act was also partly an outcome of his suspicions of any intelligence coming from India. He was convinced that India wanted to assassinate him.
Given that the court focused only on the fundamental rights violations of the victims, it did not make recommendations on streamlining the intelligence apparatus. However, the Presidential Commission on the attacks had made several recommendations on preventing the recurrence of such incidents. The final report of the Commission was handed over to then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on February 2021 and to Parliament a year later. So far, nothing has been done to address the gaps in intelligence gathering, dissemination, and coordination.
The Easter Sunday bombings underscored Sri Lanka’s extreme and continuing vulnerability to religious extremism and terrorist violence. Importantly, it underscored shortcomings in the way individuals in positions of authority and key institutions allow personal bias and politics to prevent action to secure the country.
What Sri Lanka needs is a mechanism whereby various stakeholders involved in national security are compelled to share information in a way that vital information flows to concerned agencies and institutions unimpeded.
Will the government address the problem laid bare by investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings and underscored by the Supreme Court verdict? It is unlikely as the government is preoccupied with the economic crisis. Importantly, with elections around the corner, the Supreme Court verdict has become an issue for parties to draw political mileage and score political points. Consequently, security will suffer.