Sri Lanka Was Warned of Possible Attacks. Why Didn’t It Stop Them?


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The confidential security memo laid it all out: names, addresses, phone numbers, even the times in the middle of the night that one suspect would visit his wife.

In the days leading up to the devastating suicide bombings that killed at least 310 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the country’s security agencies had been closely watching a secretive cell of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a little-known radical Islamist organization that security officials in Sri Lanka now say carried out the attacks and may have received help from abroad.

They knew the group was dangerous. They had collected intelligence on the whereabouts of its leaders in the April 11 security memo, which warned of Catholic church bombings. They had been warned even earlier by India that the group, also known by the spelling National Thowheed Jama’ath, was plotting church attacks. They knew as far back as January that radical Islamists possibly tied to the group had stockpiled weapons and detonators.

And within hours of when three churches and three hotels were bombed, Sri Lankan security services swooped down on at least 24 suspects, suggesting that they also knew exactly where the group had been operating.

“We are ashamed of what has happened,” said Rauff Hakeem, the minister of city planning. “If the names of the persons involved were already known, why were they not arrested?”

He called the attacks a “colossal failure on the part of the intelligence services.”

Several ministers are now calling for the national police chief to resign. Others questioned how such a homegrown group could have acted alone.

“There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded,” said Rajitha Senaratne, the health minister.

Sri Lanka’s president has not provided any satisfying answers about why the security services did not do more to thwart the bombers. Shiral Lakthilaka, a senior adviser, denied that there had been any security lapses. “Everyone has done their job,” he said. “These kinds of alerts are coming time to time. Even U.S. or anyone will not try to panic people.”

The warnings appear to have gone back even further.

India, a close ally of Sri Lanka’s, has been watching the entire South Asia region for any sign of activity by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. And Indian security agencies had been scrutinizing the movements of National Thowheeth Jama’ath’s leader, Mohammed Zaharan, a known extremist who has spent time in both India and Sri Lanka, and who in recent years has preached hateful messages online.

As early as April 4, the Indians provided the Sri Lankans with cellphone numbers and information about Mr. Zaharan and his lieutenants who they said were planning suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka, several Sri Lankan and Indian officials said.

The Sri Lankan security services then ran down addresses and put several members of the group under close surveillance.

The April 11 memo included precise information, such as the observation that Mr. Zaharan’s brother, an avid recruiter for the group, “visits his wife and children in the nights (2300hrs -0400hrs)” and it listed an exact address, down to a house number and cross street.

But with Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister feuding for months, leading to a political breakdown last year, it seems that the president excluded the prime minister from top security briefings and that the prime minister’s office had no inkling of the warnings of imminent suicide attacks.

Whether sharing that information would have made a difference is unclear. But the prime minister and his allies are claiming that had they known, they would have insisted on more security at the targeted sites.

“There’s no reason for local extremist groups to attack churches, and little reason to attack tourists,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a specialist in Sri Lankan extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counterterrorism research group in London. “The target selection and attack type make me very skeptical that this was carried out by a local group without any outside involvement.’’

No warning seemed to have been communicated to any target. Managers and employees of some of the fanciest hotels in Colombo said they had not received any alert. That included the waterfront Galle Face Hotel, which is next door to the Indian High Commission and is frequently visited by senior officials and foreign dignitaries.

“No one told us anything,” said Shafraz Nawaz, who works at the Galle Face. “It was normal operation. But security has increased after the attack now.’’

Sri Lankan officials said they did not know Mr. Zaharan’s whereabouts on Monday. Indian intelligence officials suggested that he might be hiding in eastern Sri Lanka.

In Washington, intelligence and counterterrorism analysts were scrutinizing possible ties between the Islamic State and the attackers, but as of Monday afternoon had not yet reached any definitive conclusions.

Nicholas J. Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that the presence of some Sri Lankan fighters in Syria and Iraq raised the prospect of informal connections with members of National Thowheeth Jama’ath.

“It’s hard to imagine an attack of this complexity without some form of organization and support from a group that has done this kind of thing before,” he said in an email.

Lisa Monaco, who served as Homeland Security adviser for President Barack Obama, said that if the attacks in Sri Lanka were inspired by the Islamic State, they should serve as a stark reminder to the Trump administration.

“We should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate with that of the virtual caliphate,” Ms. Monaco said.

“It’s a movement,” she said. “And it, as we’ve seen, can take hold around the world.”



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