Sri Lanka bombings: Political feud led to compromise in national security?

Easter’s bomb explosions in Sri Lanka has threw up newer challenges to the government and people as what has emerged is more frightening than that posed by the LTTE previously

Easter’s bomb explosions in Sri Lanka (Twitter)
Easter’s bomb explosions in Sri Lanka (Twitter)

G Babu Jayakumar

Easter Sunday’s bomb explosions in Sri Lanka did not resonate with the island nation’s past experience with terror and instead threw up newer challenges to the government and people as what has emerged is seemingly a threat that is more frightening than that posed by the LTTE prior to its elimination in 2009.

The quick response of the security agencies exemplified by the detection of 87 bomb detonators at the Colombo main bus stand, improvised pipe bombs close to the airport and the explosion in a van as the bombs were sought to be defused. Though the definitive action – immediate arrest of suspects and crackdown on explosive storages - might help track down the perpetrators and prevent more strikes, one question that is being raised is if the series of blasts in churches and hotels could have been prevented if there had been a proper and better coordination within the government.

That a security alert issued on April 11 about a possible attack was not conveyed to the Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe, leave alone the gross failure of the agencies concerned to act on it, is a serious charge that has exposed the cracks in the government that had created dangerous security concerns.

It is true that President Maithripala Sirisena’s bid for a constitutional coup last year to install Mahinda Rajapakse as Prime Minister was effectively thwarted but that would not justify the exclusion of Wikramasinghe and other ministers of the United National Party from key meetings of the security council, which had been reportedly happening for quite some time.

Since the President had been looking into matters relating to the management of higher defence by keeping the Prime Minister at bay, he has been questioned by people of his own country. For the pre-warning is said to have been specific, saying that churches will be targeted by specific terror groups.

That raises the question as to from where Islamist terror entered the shores of Sri Lanka, which had earlier witnessed some unsavoury incidents of attacks on Muslims by the Bodu Bala Sena, headed by Galagoda Atee Gnanasara. Attacks on the Krunegale Mosque and Muslim shops in Kahawatte town in Retnapura district were just two of the 12 incidents of targeted violence in April-May 2017 that might have created a sense of insecurity among the Muslims.

But how did a gargantuan terror attack involving the use of C-4 explosives can be pulled off all of a sudden? The attacks were so well coordinated and pre-planned for maximum impact - it took a heavy toll of 290 lives and landed over 500 persons in hospital – that it revealed an external hand. It would not have been possible for the locals, even if they had been radicalised, to mobilise the wherewithal to engineer a strike of this proportion. So how did this happen?

Even though Rajitha Senaratne, a Sri Lankan Minister, officially confirmed that the attacks were carried out by National Thowheed Jamaat and that all those involved in the logistics like moving the explosives to the sites, including those who participated in the bombings, were locals, it does not explain from where the explosives came in and who worked out the strategy. And, how were all the locals involved in the attack indoctrinated to take part in such a diabolic crime?

The answer is international Islamic terror groups. Way back in September 2015 itself, Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor reported that over a dozen Sri Lankan Muslims were fighting in Syria. “The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) influence in Sri Lanka came to notice when Sharfaz Shuraih Muhsin, also known as Abu Shireih Seylani, was killed in an airstrike in Syria on July 12, 2015 while fighting for ISIS,” said a report ‘Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses’ published by the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in December 2015.

The same report said, “The emergence of Jihadist networks connected to Lashker-e-Toiba in Pakistan, Al Qaeda and ISIS in the country (Sri Lanka) need to be countered to prevent radicalisation and recruitment of more local Muslims into the global jihadist movement that would significantly broaden the threat of terrorism in the country.”

“Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat (SLTJ), a Wahahabi movement spreading from the east of Sri Lanka since 2009, could be a platform through which Sri Lankan Islamic extremists will join the ranks of groups like ISIS to fight at home or abroad,” said the report way back in 2015 itself. Yet, the Sri Lankan government has been twiddling its thumbs, ignoring such warnings by international agencies, perhaps as it was more preoccupied with its internal political bickering.

Now, the lapse is likely to have serious repercussions. For, after 2009, Sri Lanka had emerged as a favourite tourist destination for global travellers. The facilities, the freedom offered by the beaches and the beauty of the landscape had made many European and western holidaymakers prefer Sri Lanka over Goa in the last few years.

But now, the United States and Canada have already issued travel advisories to its citizens, which means the inflow of tourists might immediately come to a grinding halt, jeopardising the tourism industry and the country’s economy. And that does not augur well for Sri Lanka.

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