Sri Lanka spy chief, president blamed for Easter attack lapses

Parliament inquiry says bitter feud between president and prime minister led to security lapses before attacks.

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard outside a closed church in Colombo on April 28, 2019, a week after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Church be
The report accused President Maithripala Sirisena of 'actively undermining' national security apparatus before Easter bombings [File: Jewel Samad/AFP]

A Sri Lankan parliamentary committee that investigated last April’s Easter suicide bombings has concluded the country’s spy chief was primarily responsible for the intelligence failure that led to the death of 259 people in the attacks.

In a report released on Wednesday, the committee said Nilantha Jayawardena, chief of the State Intelligence Service (SIS), received information on possible attacks as early as April 4, 17 days before the suicide bombings took place, but there were delays on his part in sharing the intelligence with other agencies.

According to the 272-page document, Jayawardena’s responsibility was compounded by the fact that he had asked higher-level officials nearly a year earlier to bring investigations into the ringleader of the bombings, Mohamed Zahran, under his sole purview.

Sri Lanka’s National Security Council met on April 9, with the defence secretary asking Jayawardena for a briefing on Zahran, to which he responded that he would send a note later, the report said.

“If the matter was discussed, steps may have been taken to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks,” the report noted. 

“This failure by the SIS has resulted in hundreds of deaths, many more injured and immeasurable devastation to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans and that must not be treated lightly,” it added. 

Zahran, leader of a local Muslim group, was among the suicide bombers who allegedly participated in the attacks on three churches and three hotels. Five of the six attacks took place in and around Colombo, the capital.

‘Bitter fight’

The cross-party committee also said “a bitter fight” between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that led to a political crisis last year contributed to the security failures.

The two are from different political parties, and deep differences over policy and a clash of personalities led to Sirisena sacking Wickremesinghe in October. But the president was forced to reverse that decision weeks later amid opposition from legislators and a series of court interventions. 

Wednesday’s report said Sirisena “failed on numerous occasions to give leadership and also actively undermined government [security and intelligence] systems”. The president, who is also the minister of defence, had excluded the prime minister and the police chief from crucial National Security Council meetings, it added.

Sirisena has long blamed police chief Pujith Jayasundara and Ministry of Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando for lapses, and initiated criminal prosecutions against them.

The inquiry acknowledged they shouldered some of the blame, but said the director of the SIS, who reported directly to Sirisena, bore “the greatest responsibility”. 

The report also said further investigation was “needed to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instil fear and uncertainty” in the leadup to the presidential election, due to be held on November 16, the report said. 

The committee recommended reforms in the security and intelligence sectors, improved monitoring of financial transactions, and the monitoring and controlling of religious extremism.

The report also said there was no evidence linking the National Thowheed Jamath, which was blamed for the blasts, with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), despite the latter claiming responsibility days later.

The committee has no powers to indict, but its findings can form the basis of criminal prosecution or civil action against those identified as being responsible for serious lapses.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies