They knew the attack was coming, but they could not avert it

Hemasiri Fernando

Security agencies could not piece together vital intelligence that could have possibly averted or minimised the casualties from the Easter Sunday attacks even at the eleventh hour due to systemic failure in the national security apparatus.

This was revealed this week during the hearing by the Parliamentary Select Committee probing the attack.

It was also revealed that a lack of coordination between different agencies and a lacklustre attitude towards national security by the country’s political leadership also played a major role in warning signs being missed.

Giving evidence before the PSC, suspended Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara and former Defence Ministry Secretary Hemasiri Fernando acknowledged that intelligence indicating a possible suicide attack by Zahran Hashim and his associates was available since April 9. Intelligence relating to terrorists blowing up a motorcycle in Kattankudy as a trial run on April 16 was also received, though the authorities were not able to make any arrests before Easter Sunday.

Testimonies by both witnesses also revealed they had received calls from Director, State Intelligence Service (SIS) Nilantha Jayawardena on the eve of the attack (April 20) and on Easter Sunday morning itself warning of an imminent threat.

On April 20 evening, between 6.30 p.m. and 8 p.m, the IGP said he received a phone call from the SIS Director warning of an imminent threat. “In his call, the SIS Director told me that tomorrow will be dangerous and something can happen. But he did not give any details. Then Defence Ministry Secretary (Hemasiri Fernando) also called me not long after and inquired whether I got a call from Nilantha. I was puzzled as even the report sent by the SIS Director earlier in the day did not speak of an imminent attack. But, I again informed the Senior DIGs about the threat. There was nothing more I could do without specific information.”

The SIS Director called again between 6.45 a.m. and 7.15 a.m. on Easter Sunday and said “something can happen today,” but said nothing more, the IGP added.

Former Defence Ministry Secretary Hemasiri Fernando told the Committee that the SIS Director also called him on April 20 evening and said “Something will happen tomorrow. Tell the IGP.” Next day, just an hour before the suicide bombers detonated their bombs, he said the SIS Chief called again to ask how many Methodist Churches there were in Colombo. “I told him I’m a Buddhist and asked why he was inquiring. He replied that attackers were likely to target these churches instead of Catholic ones. I told him that I would ask some friends and contact him. When I tried to reach him later, his mobile phone was engaged continually. I left a message. A short while later, I heard that a bomb had gone off in a hotel.”

Mr. Jayasundera confirmed that he had received a ‘Top Secret’ letter dated April 9, 2019 from Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis warning of an alleged plan of attack by Zahran Hashim and his associates. Though the letter mentioned about suicide attacks targeting important churches and the Indian High Commission “shortly,” it was not specific, he stated. Meanwhile, a letter sent by the SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardena on the same day (April 9) claimed that they had so far not observed Zahran specifically calling for attacks on Catholic Churches or the Indian High Commission, though he had called for violence against non-Muslims.

“Though the information was not specific, the CNI’s letter was signed by him on behalf of the Defence Ministry Secretary. I treated it as an order. I took measures to inform senior officers as there were dangerous words in the letter. I disregarded the ‘Eyes Only’ label at the top of the letter as I knew nothing could be done without sharing the information,” he said.

The IGP said he took steps to forward the CNI’s letter to four selected senior officers for their attention. The officers were SDIG – Western Province Nandana Munasinghe, SDIG – Crimes, Organized Crimes, Police Narcotics Range and Commandant STF M.R. Lateef, DIG – Special Protection Range Priyalal Dassanayake and Director, Counter Terrorism Investigation Division – SSP Waruna Jayasundare.

The IGP admitted that a special STF detachment was also deployed to the Indian High Commission.

He also said he received three reports on April 18, 19 and 20 from Director, SIS regarding activities attributed to Zahran and his associates, though again there was no mention of an imminent threat. “The reports related to the blowing up of a motorcycle at a remote location in Kattankudy on April 16. They identified a close associate of Zahran as suspected of being involved and stated that it was possible the explosion was an experiment, but there was no specific information regarding suicide attacks that were mentioned in the April 9 letter (by the CNI),” he told the Commission. He added that the reports noted that SIS was still investigating the incident.

PSC member Rauff Hakeem pointed out that the letter on April 9 stated that churches were going to be attacked. “If a proper review of that information had been done, it should have become clear when the warning came on April 20 evening that the next day, April 21, was Easter Sunday where services were to be held at churches island-wide. How is it that it did not register?” he queried. Mr. Jayasundera maintained that he did all he could under the circumstances,

The suspended IGP also said he had been excluded from meetings of the National Security Council (NSC) – the decision making body on national security matters, for nearly six months from October, last year on the orders of the President. He said he was even told there was no need to send an officer to represent him.

Insisting that the IGP is one of the permanent members of the NSC, Mr. Jayasundara stated that when he queried from then Defence Ministry Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, he was told “Sorry Pujith, I didn’t want to embarrass you. This is what happened. HE has told me not to take you for NSC meetings.”

“Who is HE?” Acting PSC Chairman Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne asked Mr. Jayasundera, to which he replied “His Excellency- the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.”

Mr. Jayasundara said he had been kept out of the NSC meetings since October 23 last year. That was the day the NSC took up the transfer of CID Inspector Nishantha Silva. While acknowledging that transfer and the termination of that transfer originated from his office, he said political pressure was brought on him from the President and the Defence Ministry Secretary to transfer the senior officer.

Committee member M.A. Sumanthiran intervened to ask whether IP Nishantha Silva was heavily involved in certain important cases such as the abduction and disappearances of eleven Tamil youths in Colombo. “I know his capacity and the workload he was engaged in, along with his performance. I know his integrity,” Mr. Jayasundera said, noting that he made that decision reluctantly.

The role of the SIS also came in for scrutiny during the hearings. During questions posed to Mr. Jayasundera by both Mr Sumanthiran and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, it was claimed that even when the SIS came under the Law and Order Ministry, the SIS Director reported directly to the Defence Ministry Secretary, not to the Secretary to the Law and Order Ministry, unless it was necessary. The suspended IGP also said that even after he assumed duties as IGP, he had not been able to visit SIS Headquarters.

Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who was appointed on October 30 last year said he learned soon after he assumed duties that there was a separate communication line between the President and the SIS Chief. “Sometimes they used to speak three to four times in a day,” he said, adding that for this reason, he believed the SIS Director would have kept the President informed about intelligence reports related to Zahran and the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).

Noting that he convened just four NSC meetings during the period he was Defence Ministry Secretary, Mr Fernando told the PSC that hardly any matters related to national security were taken up for discussion there. Most were just typical administrative issues or related to notorious underworld drug kingpin Makandure Madush. There was even one instance where the NSC discussed introducing spear gun fishing in Hikkaduwa to attract more foreign tourists, he revealed.

Responding to a question raised by Committee member Sumanthiran over the selection of persons to be invited for NSC meetings, Mr. Fernando said the President advised him only about the persons who should not be invited. When asked whether the President specifically instructed him not to invite the Prime Minister, the IGP and the State Minister of Defence to NSC meetings, Mr Fernando said, yes.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jayasundara, who was sent on compulsory leave by the President, claimed the President offered him an ambassador post if he would take the responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks and resign. He claimed that, at a private meeting held on April 23 evening, the President also told him that were he to resign, he would be exonerated by the Presidential Committee appointed by him to look into the attacks. “If I choose not to resign, he warned that I would be found guilty by the inquiry and so to decide whether I was prepared to go home without my pension.”

Mr. Jayasundera said he was sent on compulsory leave after he chose not to resign. He argued that it was unfair to single out the police for what he called a “system failure” and claimed he was being made the scapegoat for all lapses that occurred.

Mr Fernando said he chose to resign from his position out of a sense of duty after he learned that the IGP was asked to resign.

In his testimony before the PSC on Tuesday, former Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) Director Nalaka De Silva told the PSC that the TID had been monitoring Zahran Hashim since 2016 after he came to their attention for extremist activities.

DIG de Silva said they could see that Zahran was moving towards violent extremism and, as such, took steps to file a B Report at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court and obtain an open warrant for his arrest in July, 2018.

After the anti-Muslim violence in Digana early last year, the authorities noticed a surge in Zahran’s social media activities. He gravitated towards violent extremism and posted frequently on social media calling on Muslim youths to engage in violence, DIG de Silva said.

DIG de Silva, though, said he was unaware of what happened to the investigations into Zahran and his associates after his arrest in October last year, just three months after the TID obtained the open warrant.

(Source: The Sunday Times – By Sandun Jayawardana and Sandran Rubatheesan)