Sri Lanka’s perfect storm of failure
This article is more than 5 years old

Sri Lanka’s perfect storm of failure

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The horrific terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 killed more than 300 people and injured 500 more. Sri Lankan officials have identified a little-known local group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as behind the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks, while the Islamic State has just claimed responsibility.

There are questions surrounding exactly who sponsored this attack, but the real question is whether it could have been stopped. Although more evidence will emerge over time, the information trickling out paints a damning picture. The attacks were preventable, but compound failures let them happen. Sri Lankan authorities failed to anticipate the threat from Islamist groups with potential international networks, ignored warning signs, and failed to share information among themselves.

The bombings represent an intelligence failure of massive proportion. But a failure this big is not just confined to Sri Lanka. Jihadi terrorism is a global threat. When the networks are international, attacks in one country demand concerted action to prevent such mistakes from happening again.

At least two weeks ago, intelligence officials from India and the United States warned Sri Lankan officials about a potential plot against churches and tourist sites in the country. A week later, the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry advised the inspector general of police of the potential plot—complete with a list of names and addresses of potential suspects, several of whom turned out to be the real attackers. Nothing was done.

Another detailed memo released by the deputy inspector general of police to several government directors, including the heads of the Ministerial Security Division, Judicial Security Division, and Diplomatic Security Division, also laid out the threat and a list of suspects.

Sri Lankan officials had also received previous warnings about NTJ from the Sri Lankan Muslim community. The vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka claimed that he warned military intelligence officials about the group as far back as three years ago.

Why did no one act on these advance warnings? Probably because the Sri Lankan government remains bitterly divided, with the president and prime minister at war with each other.

Sri Lanka is still feeling the reverberations of the constitutional crisis last year, where the president (and defense minister), Maithripala Sirisena, attempted to remove Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from office and replace him with the authoritarian former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Although this political coup failed, the division between president and prime minister continues, and control of the security services has been a key potential battleground. In an environment where information has become a political tool, and where Sirisena has taken the defense and police ministries under his own control and excluded the prime minister from the national security council, it’s hardly surprising that lower-level officials were reluctant to take action unilaterally.

Nevertheless, the various national security officials who were aware of the threat should have acted. And at least two other ministers—Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando and Minister for National Integration Mano Ganesan—also said they had advanced warning. In a divided government, everything becomes somebody else’s problem.

Despite advance warning of a potential terrorist attack against churches and tourist destinations, there was no increased security presence or additional protocols followed to protect sites at risk during the public holiday nor was access limited to these sites. No warning was given to either churches or the public at large.

That’s a strange failure given the country’s history. Sri Lanka has long experience with terrorism, albeit of the sectarian variety during the brutal civil war, where the Tamil Tigers perfected the use of the suicide vest. Yet it had not previously been a target of jihadi violence, although there has been tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, as in when Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims last March.

Sri Lankan officials may have been caught in that perpetual problem of fighting the last war. As Sameer Patil, the director of Gateway House’s Centre for International Security, said in an interview with Bloomberg: “The Sri Lankan security agencies still go on their long experience with the bloody insurgency. … Their mindset is still attuned to any future terrorist attack coming from Tamil Tiger extremists.”

Given the growing intercommunal violence—and the known Islamic State presence in neighboring Maldives, Bangladesh, and India—the Sri Lanka Easter bombings also present a failure of anticipation.

However, Sri Lankan security officials were aware of a cache of explosives and a training ground earlier in the year. According to open-source reporting, they seized 100 kilograms of explosives from a remote farm compound in Wanathawilluwa, nearly 100 miles away from the capital, which was also believed to be a training camp for jihadis planning to blow up Buddhist monuments. Even though Sri Lankan security officials conducted some surveillance and seized the explosives, there appears to have been no follow-up investigation into the broader activities or the links to wider networks of those arrested.

NTJ has not claimed responsibility for this attack. But even given its probable involvement, there is little to indicate that NTJ had the capability to carry out such sophisticated coordinated attacks. It’s wise to remain circumspect regarding the Islamic State’s claim to these attacks absent additional evidence, but it would be highly unlikely that there was no direction or coordination from more experienced jihadis with global reach.

Coordinated attacks of this level of sophistication require funding and logistics networks. These networks, if properly identified and monitored beforehand, could have offered a trove of valuable intelligence that could thwart such attacks.

Missing these signs was another failure on the part of the authorities. Sri Lankan authorities should not have been caught unaware by international jihadi violence, especially in the aftermath of the defeat in conventional warfare of the Islamic State, which has dispersed experienced fighters—and funding—elsewhere. Officials should have been monitoring international connections long before these attacks and heeding warnings from international partners such as India and the United States.

At least 36, possibly up to 100, individuals from Sri Lanka are known to have spent time in the Islamic State’s caliphate. Terrorism analysts, intelligence professional, and policymakers around the world have warned that Islamic State foreign fighters would present a threat to their home countries and neighboring countries on their return and that there is a pressing need to understand the networks that these individuals have formed, the routes out of Syria and Iraq, and their intentions once they have left the battlefield.

The cohort of foreign fighters emerging out of Syria is the most operationally experienced, lethally skilled, and highly networked group of jihadis to date—and their ties to Sri Lanka had already been demonstrated. Mohammad Muhsin Nilam, also known as Abu Shurayh, was a Sri Lankan Islamic State adherent who was killed in an airstrike on Raqqa in 2015. Nilam was believed to have close contacts with the NTJ network. Sri Lankan intelligence and security should have been following that network closely.

It is not yet known if Nilam, his network, or anyone else connected to the Islamic State was involved in these attacks. Sri Lankan authorities know who these individuals are, what part of the country they are from, and who their families are. But they should have been actively monitoring these individuals or identified their current whereabouts.

The fallout from this intelligence failure will be severe. The constitutional crisis and political competition that helped contribute to this disaster will likely get worse as the country searches for who is to blame. As Sri Lanka grapples with its own dysfunction, investigators from around the world are flocking to the country to help piece together who was behind this attack.

There was a lack of appreciation that Sri Lanka could be a target of international jihadi attack. And as with other major attacks, coordination among security services was seriously lacking. Sri Lanka failed spectacularly on this front, but it also failed to warn the public, who could have aided investigations or thwarted attempted attacks.

But fundamentally, the Easter bombings laid bare the dangers of Sri Lanka’s lingering political crisis and unresolved sectarian tensions. The country’s complacency in the face of such dire warnings demonstrates that political leaders were lulled into believing that Sri Lanka’s terrorism problem was over after it had defeated the Tamil Tigers — and failed to see the dangers round the corner.


Areas of expertise: Terrorism and violent extremism; digital technology; disinformation; authoritarianism; national security; emergency management and countering violent extremism; crisis and natural disasters; radicalisation; counterterrorism; policy; Middle East; US national security