A major and extraordinary failure of intelligence appears to have preceded the murderous terrorist suicide bombings claiming at least 290 lives in Sri Lanka, with the country’s government announcing an investigation amid recriminations between ministers and security officials about an apparent failure to act on vital information.
Warnings of impending multiple attacks, stating that a number of churches as well as the Indian High Commission in Colombo would be targeted, were said to have been received by Sri Lankan officials from a foreign intelligence service.
The authorities in Colombo have not named the foreign source, but two security officials claim that at least some of the information had come from the Indian foreign intelligence service RAW (Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat) through agents infiltrated into Islamist groups.
The officials stressed that other foreign services may also have provided intelligence about the bombings.
Cabinet spokesman and health minister Rajitha Senaratne said the Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath had carried out the attacks.
An internal Sri Lanka police document produced 11 days ago, which The Independent has seen, also notes threats of an attack from a group which it calls “Nations Thawahid Jaman”, seemingly referring to the same group named on Monday.
The group, which has desecrated Buddhist statues and shrines, is connected, according to security sources, to Tamil Nadu Thawheed Jamath, an extremist group based in southern India.
Senaratne also stated that the attacks had international links. The police had initially held that “local men” were the perpetrators. Isis has celebrated the Easter massacre, but has not claimed credit for the killings.
As the death toll from the suicide bombings continued to mount, the bitter internal political divisions in the country were being openly laid bare with allegations that infighting for power may have contributed to the warnings being suppressed or ignored.
Senaratne claimed on Monday that information had been available about the attacks as early as 4 April but was not passed on to the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
He went on to say: “On 9 April, the chief of national intelligence wrote a letter and in this letter many of the names of the members of the terrorist organisation were written down. The prime minister was not informed by these letters and revelations.
“We are not trying to evade responsibility but these are the facts. We were surprised to see these reports. We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country. There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”
The cabinet spokesman added: “This is the only country where, when the prime minister summons the security council, they don’t assemble.”
The president, Maithripala Sirisena, who has the portfolio of defence and heads the security council, had attempted to sack the prime minister six months ago, triggering a prolonged constitutional crisis.
Wickremesinghe had confirmed that there was information about possible attacks but he had not been informed about it. Harin Fernando, the minister for telecommunications, tweeted: “Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored.”
And Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said that security officers within his ministry had been warned that suicide bombers would target politicians.
The terrorist threat was the subject of a memorandum on 11 April sent by Priyalal Dissanayake, the deputy inspector general of police. The document was addressed to: director, ministerial security division; director, judicial security division; director, retired presidents security division; acting director, diplomatic security division; and acting director, retired presidents security division.
Questions are bound to be raised as to why urgent security measures were apparently not taken and the prime minister and senior members of his cabinet were not kept informed despite the memorandum being widely disseminated among senior officers.
The document states: “We would like to draw your special attention to the page no 2 to 4 of the statement of the State Intelligence Service stating that information has been received regarding an alleged plan of suicidal attack by the leader of ‘Nations Thawahid Jaman’ Mohomod Saharan.
“According to information of that statement would like you to give special attention and inform your staff to provide special security measures to the areas covered by your division.”
Twenty-four people have been arrested so far, say Sri Lankan police, for the attacks which included suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Colombo.
There are no known close links between National Thowheed Jamath and Isis; however, around 35 Sri Lankans are said to have joined Isis and fought in Syria.
In January, Isis claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 20 people at a church in the Philippines when worshippers were gathered for mass.
Last May the group claimed responsibility for carrying out attacks at three churches in Indonesia, killing 12 people and injuring dozens more. And, in 2017, on Palm Sunday, twin Isis bombs killed 49 gathered for Mass at two churches in Egypt.