On December 26 last year, scores of Buddhist statues in Mawanella were vandalized. A Criminal Investigation Department (CID)investigation led to the arrest of seven suspects, including one who was caught by the locals, allegedly while undertaking the act of vandalism. Suspects were accused of being members of a radical Islamic group. They were charged under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, produced before the Mawanella Magistrate and were remanded.
Interrogation of suspects led to an 80 acre-coconut cultivation in Wanathawillu in Puttalam, where CID sleuths uncovered a large cache of explosives buried in the plantation. The cache included 100kg of C4 explosives, 75 kg ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride and 6 cans of 20 litre nitrate acid, which investigators believed was meant to make Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Four individuals were arrested, however, the key suspects who were not in the plantation at the time, remained at large.
The arrests and seizure of explosives raised serious concerns within intelligence circles of an active network of Islamist cells. Concerns centred on a minority of Muslim fanatics who were indoctrinated by Salafi preachers and plotting attacks on followers of other faiths. At least two Muslim political bigwigs were blamed on maintaining contacts with these extremist groups, probably unaware of the evil they had been courting. One had offered to the Police to facilitate the surrender of an extremist preacher who was in hiding in return for an assurance.
In a shocking revelation, Minister Kabir Hashim has now told a media conference that one or two persons who were arrested at Wanathawillu were released due to political pressure. One of the released suspects was now being identified as Easter Sunday suicide bomber, he said.
Two months later in mid March, Mohamed Razak Taslim, the Coordinating secretary of Highways and Investment Promotions Minister Kabir Hashim was shot at a point blank range at his residence in Dhanagama Mawatha, Kandy by two assailants. Taslim (37) has helped the CID investigation to nab the Mawanella attackers to the fury of Islamic extremists. The attack was blamed on the Islamic extremists, but again, it was hushed up.
For many in the political circles and Muslim community leaders, the prospect of an armed and violent Islamic extremism was a bitter pill to swallow. Their immediate concerns led the threat being downplayed - worst still being ignored at the expense of lives of many hundreds of Sri Lankans. This tendency to soft peddle over monstrosity was alive as of yesterday as the government, and the police repeatedly refused to identify the perpetrators, despite mounting evidence.
Then days before, - the Avurudu eve, on April 11 - DIG Priyalal Dasanayake in a security memo addressed to Directors of Ministerial Security Division, Judicial Security Division, retired Presidential Security Division, and Ambassador’s Security Division warned that the State Intelligence Service (SIS) had alerted by a foreign intelligence service that the Nation of Thawheed Jamath was planning suicide attacks targeting Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka.
The memo titled, “Information of alleged planned attack,” was based on an intelligence report submitted by the State Intelligence Services, reportedly based on a tip off from the Indian Intelligence Services.
The English translation of the intelligence brief, originally in Sinhala is produced below.
“Regarding information received on an alleged suicide attacks planned by the leader of National Tawheed Jamath, Mohamed Sahran in Sri Lanka”
- Arrests and seizure of explosives raised serious concerns within intelligence circles of an active network of Islamist cells
A foreign intelligence service has informed that the leader of National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zahran alias Zahran and his followers were planning suicide attacks in the country. It has also been informed that famous Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission were likely targets. Preliminary investigations conducted based on these information have identified several individuals who are involved in the alleged planned attacks
Zahran Hashim and Shahid: the two individuals have fled Mawanella after attacks on Buddhist statues there on December 26 and are believed to be hiding in Oluwil, Akkaraipattu.
Rilwan, the younger brother of Zahran has acted to mobilize followers to Zahran. The suspect has been identified as Mohamed Casim Mohamed Rilwan (NIC: 903432624V) of registered address at No 6, Kudaikaran Veedhi, Mohideen Mosque road, New Kaththankudi. The suspect had fled Kaththankudi after a clash with a rival religious group and is in hiding. He and Zahran are believed to have travelled in Akkaraipattu, Kuliyapitiya, Puttalam, Mawanella and Thihariya and are reportedly taking refuge in a house of a follower in Oluwil at the moment.
Rilwan is reportedly visiting an address at No. 300/B, Farinas Road, Second Cross street, Arampathi East, Arampathi in the night. His wife and the child are living in the said address.
Mohammed Milhan alias Milhan is operating a social media account and has been active on social media, instigating followers against other faiths. The suspect, a student of Zahira College, is using cell phone number 0767788353.
Badurdeen Mohamed Mohideen alias ‘Army Mohamed’, an ex- army soldier of registered address, No. 3 Kaththankudi ( NIC: 750683126V) is an associate of Zahran. The suspect had fled Kaththankudi after the aforementioned clash with a rival group and is currently living in an address in Kurudumula road, Pasikkudah, Valaichchenai and is reportedly visiting the family at No 3, Kaththankudi in the night.
It is not yet confirmed by local investigations that Zahran has instructed his followers to target Catholic churches and the Indian high commission. However, the suspect had all throughout preached destruction of followers of other faiths.
Further investigations are continuing.
The intelligence alert was not acted upon. Then in the morning of Easter Sunday, a series of explosions rocked the country, killing, as death count stood yesterday - as many as 290 civilians, and wounding over 500 others.
A suicide bomber walked into the morning mass of a church in Katuwapitiya Church in Katana, and blew himself up, unleashing carnage. At least 90 were reported dead and the death toll is rising. Two more bombs, also believed to be of suicide attack ripped through the St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade and Zion church in Batticaloa.
In the lazy morning, a suicide bomber carrying a plate at the morning buffet of Kingsbury hotel blew himself up as he was about to be served. Two others checked into the Shangri-La hotel on Saturday (20) and were caught on CCTV cameras as they blew up in a third floor cafeteria where locals and foreign families were having their breakfast.
Later in the afternoon, two explosions ripped through a hotel in Dehiwala and an apartment in Dematagoda. Two locations are believed to have been used as safe houses by the terrorists. Three police officers, including one sub inspector were killed in an explosion in the house in Dematagoda. There were also still unverified reports of an exchange of firing between the residents in the house and the security forces. It has also been alleged that a government Muslim minister was the owner of the house in Dematagoda. The Minister in question has evaded the question as to whether he is the owner of the house.
The Government Analyst has now confirmed seven suicide bombers (two in Shangri-La) and one each in other locations) have been used in the multiple attacks. In contrast to previous belief that the attack had a significant foreign involvement, all suicide bombers have been reported as locals.
As of last night, a night time curfew continued for the second day. The national security council has also announced emergency regulations with immediate effect.
However, as mayhem unfolded on the Sunday morning, the initial knee jerk reaction was denial. Soon after the attack, the leaked intelligence memo (mentioned earlier) resurfaced in social media. Coterie of social media warriors called it fake and accused it of targeting a particular community. The government blocked popular social media sites (not necessarily to hide its intelligence failure, but, rightly so to prevent a possible communal riot). Soft pedalling of the identity of the attackers, and obviously religious and extremist affiliation of the group continued for the day one of the attack.
However, the gravity of the situation and the potential danger of cover up are now gradually sinking in. Various stakeholders of the government have acknowledged having prior information, and not acting upon it. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said the Cabinet was not privy to intelligence information, but, nonetheless, there had been an intelligence information of a pending attack, and promised to investigate the intelligence failure. To make matters worse, his close associates have now revealed that the prime minister has been kept out of the National Security Council meeting during the last four months since the constitutional coup. The security council has refused to meet him on Sunday after he convened a meeting in the absence of President Maithripala Sirisena who was on a private visit in Singapore.
Minister Rajitha Seneratne has told a media conference that a foreign intelligence had tipped off the impending suicide attacks on April 4 and the report had cited the tourist destinations and churches as targets. He has claimed Thawheed Jamath was behind the attacks.
Ministers Harin Fernando and Mano Ganeshan were among the first to acknowledge the existence of prior information about the attack. Harin posted the intelligence memo on his twitter account.
The big picture of the threat
Serial monstrosity on Easter Sunday is the coming of age of Islamic extremism is in Sri Lanka. The writing was on the wall for quite some time. This correspondent among many others has repeatedly warned that Sri Lanka could not evade the ugly-face of Islamic extremism if it turned a blind eye to the on-going radicalization of Muslims in the country.
Political leadership of all sides, the community elders and political bigwigs of the Muslim community and chattering classes in Colombo’s cocktail circuits have all ignored the ominous signs of the growing tentacles of Islamic fundamentalism. On occasions, Muslim political leaders have mobilized and nurtured extremists to their own political advantage. Community leaders have turned a blind eye to the growing Arabization of local Muslims. Islamic preachers trained in the Middle East and Pakistan are preaching a doctrinaire Wahabism in their mosques. Unregulated Madrasas which a growing number of young Muslim men attend pose a mortal threat to social fabric in this country. More women are hiding themselves behind Burkas and Muslims as a community are self-alienating from the wider society. Parallel societies are gradually emerging in Muslim majority places such as in the East and Puttalam.
Sri Lankan Muslims as a whole do not need to apologize for crimes of a few, however, the Muslim leadership has a responsibility to come to terms with the monstrosity breeding amidst the community and cooperate to root out the evil. They themselves should confront the alien ideology of hate that is being implanted in their community. Letting security agencies to do that exclusively would only widen the gulfs among communities and further radicalize the Muslim youth.
The government has to take stocks of its repeated mishandling of Islamic extremism in the country. Precious little was done to reverse the ominous trend since it was first revealed that over a dozen Sri Lankans have gone to live in Islamic State-controlled Syria and Iraq where one man from Matale was killed fighting for the Islamic State terrorists. Arabizationwas overlooked. Social media chatter of extremists was not adequately monitored.
Sri Lanka’s intelligence services that have some of the most eminent Muslim officers have also failed to crack into the shadowy groups of Islamic fanatics and mosques and preachers who propagate hate.
As a whole, Sri Lanka cannot live in a state of denial of Islamic extremism in its amidst. If it persists on its old habit of indifference, more lives will be destined to slaughter.