21 May 2019

Bombings intelligence row exposes tension in Sri Lanka government

KONFRONTASI-Nearly four days after churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were attacked in a series of suicide bombings that left at least 359 people dead, the government is facing mounting criticism over its failure to act on detailed warnings that an attack was imminent.

The furore surrounds a memo from the police chief that was sent to various security officials on April 11, warning that National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a locally based Muslim group, was planning suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in the capital, Colombo.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attacks, releasing a video in which the bombers, standing side-by-side with NTJ leader Zahran Hashmi, pledged allegiance to the armed group.

The memo was the result of a tip-off a week earlier from India's intelligence agencies and included names, addresses, and even phone numbers of the suspects.

 

When the attacks happened, the government's two top officials - President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe - both said they knew nothing about the warnings.

Uneasy coalition

The two men previously worked together to defeat Sri Lanka's long-time leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections, but their relationship has since soured.

Last October, Sirisena tried to sack Wickremesinghe, prompting a constitutional crisis. The attempt was overturned by parliament and the courts, but the leaders have continued in an uneasy coalition ever since, sometimes deliberately avoiding each other.

Sirisena said he was not aware of the police memo despite being commander-in-chief of the armed forces, head of defence, and head of government. Wickremesinghe said he had not been "kept informed" about what was going on, noting he had been excluded from security briefings since October.

"They failed all the people of this country," veteran journalist Chandani Kirinde told Al Jazeera. "There's so much distrust between the prime minister and the president after what happened in October. They just don't see eye-to-eye. Saying that, you don't know is not a good excuse."

State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene acknowledged there had been a "major lapse" in intelligence sharing in relation to the Easter attacks.

"The government has to take responsibility," he told journalists at a briefing on Wednesday.

"If the sharing of the intelligence information had been given to the right people at least this could have been avoided or even minimised. The government cannot say that they are not responsible."

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