Questions are being raised about how the Sri Lankan authorities could have closed down an investigation resulting from a January tip-off from India about an ISIS cell planning a series of attacks, despite initial police work leading to the recovery of a huge cache of explosives, Asia Times has learnt.

This comes as Sri Lanka investigates deadly Easter Sunday terrorist attacks that claimed more than 250 lives. Earlier estimates of fatalities have been revised from well over 300 to around 250 after an “accounting error”.

On January 17 this year, the criminal investigation department (CID) of the Sri Lankan police carried out raids in the north-western district of Puttalam, which led to four arrests and the seizure of 100 kg of explosives. The raids also uncovered 20 liters of nitrate acid, 100 detonators, two weapons, and a laptop. However, their key suspect, Moulvi Zahran Hashim, gave them the slip. Following the Easter bombings, the Sri Lankan authorities have said they are convinced that Hashim was the mastermind of the attacks.

An assessment of the Easter attacks by security officials in New Delhi reveals several alleged lapses on the part of their Sri Lankan counterparts. The first tip-off about the attack had come from Indian investigators who managed to track down an ISIS cell in Tamil Nadu. Information on the cell had come from former ISIS members from Kerala, India, who were deported from Afghanistan last year. Following leads provided by the former ISIS members, Indian security officials picked up several suspects from Coimbatore and Madurai, two towns in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. By December 19, Indian investigators had found CDs, emails and call records linking the ISIS cell to Hashim in Sri Lanka. They also found Hashim’s video lectures on CDs that were used to radicalize potential recruits.

On Monday, reports emerged that Indian police have started carrying out raids in the southern state of Kerala. This is following information that one of the Sri Lankan bombers spent time there.

Major lapses

Indian security officials later formally passed on more detailed intelligence on April 4, April 20 and finally on April 21, only hours before the attacks. Subsequent analysis by India seems to indicate that the Sri Lankan inertia was due to paralysis caused by infighting between the Sri Lankan president Mathripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wikremesinghe.

The Indians were not the only ones trying to alert Sri Lanka to the threat of attacks. According to at least two officials, the Australian government’s security services had also alerted them about a possible attack. When one of the Easter bombers, Lathief Jameel Mohammed, traveled to the UK and Australia, his activities drew the attention of Australian security officials. Their concerns were passed on to the Sri Lankans, who seemingly did nothing with the information.

“Besides the infighting we also believe that the Lankans had become overconfident,” a senior Indian security official told Asia Times. “After they had defeated the LTTE, they believed that they had bested terrorism,” the senior official said. “This not only made them lax, they also refused to accept that the Muslims would target churches and not the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Traditionally, the Sinhala Buddhists have been known to target Muslims and their businesses,” the official said.

The Sri Lankans now believe the location that yielded explosives and detonators in the Wanathawilluwa area of Puttalam in January was a training ground for terrorists involved in the Easter atrocities. However, when they failed to apprehend the real bombers, the Sri Lankan authorities appear to have given the chase. The fact that some of the bombers came from affluent families also reportedly led them to search in the wrong places.

In response to The Easter Sunday terror attacks, Sri Lanka has banned face coverings. Representational photo: iStock

Burqa ban

President Sirirsena, who last week forced the reluctant resignation of defense secretary Hemasiri Fernando, struggled in his attempts to do the same with Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara. Despite reports that Jayasundara had tendered his resignation and that Deputy Inspector-General Chandana Wickramaratne had been named as acting police chief, according to one official quoted by AFP, “Jayasundara has defied the president and stayed on.”

Sirirsena has also announced a “burqa ban” across the island nation. This is being promoted as a way to increase security and ensure that terrorist suspects do not hide behind the burqa. Sirirsena said that the burqa was a “security risk and a flag of fundamentalism” and declared that the measure was being enforced to “protect the public”.

Muslims make up nearly 7% of the population of Sri Lanka. A detailed notification was handed over to the general secretary of Parliament to enforce the new burqa ban. The government has also classified the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) as a banned terrorist outfit, for supplying the cadres to the ISIS who carried out the suicide bomb attacks.

The Sri Lankan police have been carrying out raids across the country targeting other plotters. Last week, a wife of one of the alleged bombers blew herself up with her children as the police arrived. On Friday night, Sri Lankan police got into a firefight with suspected ISIS cadres in the Kalmunai area. At least 15 suspects are believed to have been killed in the operation, including two brothers and the father of key bombing suspect Moulvi Zahran Hashim.

In related news, Sri Lankan authorities have announced the suspension of a plan to introduce visa-on-arrival status to citizens of 39 countries commencing on May 1. Sri Lankan Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs John Amaratunga, in a statement released on the Sri Lanka tourism agency’s website, said: “Although arrangements were in place to issue visa on arrival for citizens of 39 countries we have now decided to hold it for the time being in consideration of the current security situation.”