Six months ago the country was shaken by the dastardly Easter Sunday bombings carried out by Zahran Hashim’s terror outfit National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ). The April 21 blasts killed hundreds of innocent civilians and injured scores more, leaving people shocked and searching for answers. While the government and law enforcement agencies failed to explain why the attacks were not prevented, the people were demanding the truth. They wanted to know what went wrong and who must be held responsible for not preventing the attacks.
Against this backdrop, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe the Easter Sunday carnage. The much-anticipated PSC final report, based on 55 witness testimonies over 24 sittings, was released on Wednesday, October 23.
The committee headed by Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri revealed hitherto unknown and obscure aspects of the heinous attacks. It also made recommendations to prevent a recurrence of similar attacks. However, the PSC functioned purely as a fact-finding mission and therefore lacks any jurisdiction to convict wrongdoers. Chairman Ananda Kumarasiri said they could only seek a Parliament resolution to refer the report to the Attorney General (AG) for further action.
A key finding was that though prior intelligence information was available regarding the attacks, it was not acted upon. Information related to the attacks was first received by the Director, State Intelligence Services (SIS), on April 4. But he delayed sharing the information with relevant intelligence and security personnel. The report added that though the SIS controlled investigations into Zahran’s activities since April 8, 2018, it had failed in its duties.
“Since April 8 last year, a full one year before the incident, the SIS Director had in writing to the IGP requested for the shutting down of investigations by others into Zahran, which resulted in the SIS becoming the sole investigator into Zahran. But the SIS has missed a series of events that should have alerted the State security apparatus to the impending attacks and demonstrated to them the importance of the intelligence information received. The SIS as the lead intelligence party should have been more vigilant and taken apt measures to keep the Intelligence Coordinating Meeting, National Security Council (NSC) and other relevant parties informed,” the report stressed. “If the matter was discussed at the April 9 meeting, steps may have been able to be taken to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks,” it added.
The report also asked as to why the SIS Director did not properly brief the security and intelligence apparatus, and was slow to share information on an explosion on April 16, 2019. The SIS failure must not be treated lightly as it had resulted in hundreds of deaths, many more injured and immeasurable devastation to Sri Lanka, the report stressed.
The report noted that while the biggest responsibility was with the SIS Director, others too had failed in their duties. Within the security apparatus, the Defence Ministry Secretary, Police Chief, Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) and Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) had failed in their responsibilities. All were informed of intelligence information prior to the attacks but failed to take necessary steps to mitigate or prevent it, the report said.
The PSC further found that intelligence information known to a few was not shared with other relevant parties. It observed that further investigations would be needed to ascertain whether those with vested interests wanted to instill fear and uncertainty in the country leading up to this year’s presidential election.
Panel of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) tasked with probing the dastardly Easter Sunday bombings
Additionally, the PSC observed that President Maithripala Sirisena repeatedly failed to give leadership and undermined government systems by having ad-hoc National Security Council (NSC) meetings and leaving out key persons from these meetings. Inter-government fissures in 2018, which culminated in the October constitutional crisis, also impacted the security apparatus, it said.
Testimonies indicated the attacks may have been prevented if the NSC had regular meetings with relevant parties and steps were immediately taken when intelligence information was received.
While the President was blamed for leaving out persons from NSC discussions, the PSC asked why such individuals did not raise the matter. At no point before April 21 did Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ask why he was left out of NSC meetings. Nor did he keep Parliament informed of the matter, the report said. Similarly, State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene could have highlighted that he was left out of NSC meetings.
Therefore, while the PSC held the President responsible for not including relevant persons in NSC meetings, the PM and other leaders too were blamed for not raising these issues in the Cabinet and Parliament. Responsibility also lay with senior officials who should have ensured the PM was briefed, especially when the President was overseas, the report stated.
The breakdown in communication between the President and PM had a direct bearing on security structures and systems. The President also undermined existing structures and communication channels, thereby weakening systems and preparedness, the report stated. The PSC observed that the ad-hoc nature of NSC meetings and composition, which appeared to be largely influenced by the President, contributed to the breakdown. The PSC added that the President failed to appoint an Acting Defence Minister when he left the country on April 16, 2019, thereby leaving a vacuum.
Pujith and Hemasiri
The PSC noted that former IGP Pujith Jayasundara and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando had failed in their duties by not following up on whether the President and PM were informed of intelligence received. Both the IGP and Defence Secretary should have raised these issues with the President and PM considering the serious nature of the information, the PSC noted.
Another failure was the inaction to keep the PM abreast of these developments. PSC testimonies had indicated that since October 2018 the PM was deliberately kept out of meetings and not provided any information. This could be attributed to the inter-government political fissures, but was not an excuse and was a serious failure, the report stressed.
The PSC also took note of rising extremism in Sri Lanka. Evidence before the PSC indicated that Zahran had started radicalising Muslim youth and directing them towards violence after the March 2018 anti-Muslim riots in Kandy. The increase in extremism occurred in the backdrop of rising Islamophobia, the report stated.
Moreover, the PSC observed that several Kattankudy residents and local Muslim groups had complained to authorities about Zahran in 2013/14. Testimonies revealed that investigations had commenced into some of his speeches and activities. However, investigations to date had not revealed evidence that Zahran had direct ISISlinks.
The PSC also observed increasing levels of Wahabism and Arabisation. A physical change had taken place in recent years in Kattankudy with date-palm trees and Arabic signboards coming up. The Batticaloa Campus buildings showcased Arabic architecture and landscapes, different to any other local university building. The PSC stated such Arabisation commenced and was fostered by former Eastern Province Governor and presidential candidate M.L.A.M. Hizbullah. The PSC noted the spread of Wahhabism and Arabisation of Kattankudy contributed to the growth of extremism in the area.
The PSC recommended forming an independent and robust NSC with a National Security Advisor to address evolving security challenges. It recommended legislative reform to counter fake news and responsible reporting, reforming the education sector and greater Parliament oversight, among others. Below is the full list:
1. Reforms of security and intelligence
It is important to undertake a comprehensive review of national security priorities, identify gaps and weaknesses and areas that require reform/strengthening. Key reforms are needed urgently to reform the NSC, strengthen security and intelligence operations and have a comprehensive system in place to address, mitigate and prevent future security threats.
2. Enhanced financial supervisory mechanism
Establishing an enhanced financial supervisory mechanism to detect, report and action suspicious transactions so as to prevent terrorist financing activities routed through the financial system of Sri Lanka, going unnoticed.
3. Monitoring the rise of religious extremism
Active measures should be taken to counter the growth of religious extremism in the country, especially in areas like Kattankudy.
4. Reforming AG’s Department
The Attorney-General’s Department requires structural reforms and capacity-building to ensure effective and efficient responses and follow up that lead to indictments and prosecutions and avoid long delays and the denial of justice.
5. Action against Wahabism
The PSC notes the increasing trends of Wahabism and Arabisation in parts of Sri Lankaand the steps required to address this. Whilst there must be recognition towards religious and cultural practices, it is essential that such practices do not infringe others’ rights and beliefs.
6. Fake news
The PSC notes that given the dangerous inter-dependency among radicalisation, terrorism and the media, it is imperative to explore the impact, especially of social media on the youth in the country. The PSC urges the authorities to take immediate steps to introduce community media standards which are formulated through a transparent and consultative process and are enforced to ensure media entities are responsible for the reporting/content generation.
7. Accountability of leaders
The PSC notes that the political leadership and Parliament can play a crucial role in preventing politicians and Members of Parliament misusing incidents such as the Easter Sunday attacks for political gain.
8. Educational reform
Recent times have witnessed an increase in the number of young people becoming influenced and involved with violent extremists, both in Sri Lanka and globally. To counter this growing influence and involvement, there is a need to view the role of education and educational institutions in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).
People concerned over the brutal attack were yearning for justice on the part of those killed and injured. So let’s hope that this report will also not be yet another committee report, but take further action at least on available provisions of the law.