Terrorists attacks rarely come out of the blue. Once the dust of the attack has settled it is often found that the clues were there in the intelligence all along, it was just that no-one joined the dots in time. A Congressional committee concluded that this was true of the 9/11 terrorist attack and it now appears to be true of the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on 20 April.
There were eight suicide bombers and the attacks on churches and hotels killed 359 and wounded more than 500. At first it was thought that there had been no warning of the attacks and that Sri Lanka was a highly unlikely location for a Muslim extremist incident. We now know differently.
The Sri Lankan State Intelligence Service (SIS) circulated a warning about an imminent Muslim terrorist attack as early as 9 April. That is eleven days before the incident. This intelligence came from India although the original warning that initiated the Indian enquiries is believed to have come from the NSA who were monitoring Daesh communications.
It was already known that Sri Lanka Thoweeth Jama’ath (SLTJ), a small, but aggressive militant Muslim group was stockpiling high explosives. Four members of the group were arrested and an amount of explosive was discovered in January of this year. The potential of a link to Daesh within Sri Lanka was also known: the Sri Lankan Parliament was informed in November 2016 that some Muslim Sri Lankans were travelling to Syria to fight with Daesh. It was only a small number (at that stage, thirty-two were reported), but it was still a significant link.
So given all these indications why was more not done by SIS and the police?
The answer seems to lie in the open warfare between Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister. The President, Maithripala Sirisena, tried unsuccessfully to sack the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, in October 2018. The two have been at war ever since. Vital information has not been shared. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet were not invited to security briefings. This would be bad enough. But Sirisena is claiming that this didn’t matter as he says that the security services did not pass on the intelligence about the terrorist threat to him. He claims that the security services were monitoring the group, but did not believe that the group was powerful enough to launch sophisticated, simultaneous attacks. Whether this was true or not we may never know, but it seems unlikely.
As elsewhere in the world of intelligence, the real problem was not in gathering the information – in our modern hyper-connected world the clues are often out there – but it is in the processing and analysing of the intelligence that the problems arise.
The Sri Lankan intelligence and security services are riven with corruption and inefficiency. This attack could have been far worse: a further 87 bomb detonators were found discarded at Colombo’s main bus terminal shortly after the attacks. The fact that the SLTJ could assemble and train personnel as well as gather a large amount of high explosive and still have equipment to spare is a sign of how poor the security services have been. Sirisena has promised a thorough overhaul following their failure in this case. We shall see.