India seemed to know about the Easter attacks before Sri Lankans even knew what was going on. CNN-News18 published names of the attackers within hours, a report that was decried as fake until it turned out to be true. Narendra Modi and the BJP immediately and callously folded the attacks into their re-election campaign, before the dying had even stopped. How did they know?
The answer was that Indian intelligence had been aware of these threats and had warned Sri Lanka months, weeks, days and even hours before. The real question for Sri Lankans was how didn’t we know? The answer to that is simpler.
If I may be blunt, the core reason is that our President is a weak and incompetent leader.
A dysfunctional government
Last October, President Maithripala Sirisena tried and failed to overthrow his own government in an abortive Parliamentary coup, ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. This wounded political animal nevertheless held on the the ministry of defence and, in another possibly un-constitutional move, took control of the police. In other words, he was entirely in charge of the security forces, despite being politically isolated and having little popular support.
As the head of the National Security Council, he kept the Prime Minister out of all major decisions and basically subverted the agenda of security and focused on palace intrigue and what he thought would be a winning campaign issue – a war on drugs. In the meantime, multiple reports from Indian and other foreign and local intelligence went unheeded, even after 100 kg of C4 were found in a raid.
The Sri Lankan Muslim community had also warned intelligence officials about the suspected terrorists, as they had been for years, but this also went unheeded. A detailed police warning was circulated on 11 April, with names, numbers and locations, but this was also ignored. The dysfunction was such that even when the Prime Minister called a Security Council meeting after the attacks, but the members refused to attend. This was a colossal failure of the security apparatus squarely under the President as the minister of defence. The failure is more pronounced because he has destroyed the independence of the law & order ministry.
None of this is to say that the Prime Minister or previous governments should escape blame. No one treated ISIS terrorism as a major threat except the local Muslim community who had been protesting and reporting about these groups for years. The Sri Lankan security apparatus was still geared around LTTE terrorism and attacks on VIP targets. When two policemen were killed in Batticaloa in November last year, the police detained some former LTTE cadres. These killings are now being tied to the Easter attackers. When warnings of the Easter attacks were received, they were forwarded to the VIP security heads, not to those in charge of public security.
Notwithstanding the institutional failures, the proximate cause of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka was a president who had taken over the entire security apparatus only to fall asleep at the wheel. Even as the death toll went up, the President dawdled on a vacation in Singapore, making only a 10-line statement and taking only the third flight available, and emerging to talk to people the next day. Even then, his statements made no sense and accepted no responsibility – saying that he didn’t know, or that drug dealers were involved, or that human rights activists were to blame was basically nonsense.
At the same time, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who said that he was out of the loop, must also share the blame for not moving to impeach the weakened President after his un-constitutional coup attempt and instead leaving him weakened, bitter, and in charge of the entire defence of the country.
Not identifying the threat
But that’s only the proximate cause. The other question Sri Lankans are asking is – how didn’t we know that ISIS was here? In the days since the serial suicide bombings took place, our security forces have found shocking amounts of bombs and bomb-making materials and terrorist cells across the country. It seems that this is not an isolated incident but the tip of a gelignite iceberg whose true scale we are unaware of.
The fact is that until Easter 2019 Sri Lankan Muslims were the only major community that hadn’t tried to overthrow or attack the state. In 1962, there was the attempted Ceylonese Coup, led mostly by Christians. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were multiple JVP insurrections from the Sinhala youth in the south. From the ‘80s onwards, there was the LTTE institutionalising and carrying out suicide bombings in the service of Tamil nationalism.
Despite multiple mob attacks and violence against Muslims, the community had stayed calm. There were visible signs of increasing Saudi-influenced fundamentalism, such as more veiled women and separation of the communities. There were also reports of people going to join the ISIS in Syria, but the numbers weren’t many. In fact, the suggestion that terrorists could come from the Muslim community was seen as racist in some liberal circles. Such a threat was low on the public as well as the government’s radar.
In fact, weeks before the Easter attack, Sinhala Buddhist mobs had been attacking churches in Anuradhapura, so when the serial bombings took place many connected it to that. But once the security forces kicked into gear and started following up on the many intelligence leads, it emerged that there were terrorist cells seemingly everywhere.
Which brings us to the here and now. Now that Sri Lanka knows, the question is what it does with that information.
Who to blame?
Many people blame Muslims in general – in a few instances, pushing them out of buses and grocery stores and kicking Pakistani and other refugees (many of them actually Christian) out of their homes. These people, who I will go ahead and call racists, think that this is a Muslim problem and treating the entire community with suspicion is the way to ensure safety. Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who now plans to run for the president in the elections, seemingly blames the arrest of intelligence officials for human rights violations for the rise of Islamist terror, implying that a ‘tough’ policy including torture, extra-judicial detention and murder is the way to go.
At the same time, steps outlined by speaker of the house Karu Jayasuriya and the Human Rights Commission have called for communal harmony, interfaith dialogue, integrated schools, more Tamil-speaking police personnel in the force, and more cooperation between communities in general. This is the ethical, legal and, in my opinion, logical course of action.
One must not forget that the Muslim community gave ample information to the officials regarding the Easter attackers and provided much of the intel that led to subsequent raids on terrorist safe houses.
It was not the intelligence and security apparatus at fault, but the lack of political will to act on the intel. And, it would be a shame if the average Muslim in Sri Lanka has to suffer because the country’s political leadership neglected the warnings.
Sri Lanka is at crossroads. We still have a divided government, a weak and incompetent commander-in-chief, simmering racial tensions, with terrorist cells being discovered almost every day. It is a very difficult time for the country and its people.
ISIS has attacked the all-too-fragile foundation of this country. Do we fall into their trap and push our Muslim population away, or do we draw them closer and fight the ISIS together? Do we hold onto our ethics and values or throw them away for a semblance of security? These are the questions Sri Lanka is asking today.
The author is a food-tech entrepreneur and was a semi-retired blogger until traumatic events pulled him back in. Views are personal.