Sri Lanka – a catastrophe foretold

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By the morning of 23rd April the death toll from the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka had risen to 310 with the injured counted at over 500. As the toll mounted the back story emerged, and it is one of catastrophic failure at every level of governance and the intelligence and security services. Put bluntly, this was an atrocity that may have been averted, or at least mitigated, had intelligence from foreign agencies, probably American and French been acted upon. An alert was received from external agencies on the 11th April; and a memo to that effect was referred to on the BBC Radio 4 programme on Monday 22nd April by none other than the telecommunications minister Harin Fernando. Heads-up alerts do not come much plainer than that. In a political reference the IM also said the bombings may have been an attempted coup. The memo said there were likely to be attacks on churches and tourist infrastructure as well as other targets. It is widely reported that names were mentioned, as well as the group most likely to be the perpetrator(s). None of these reports has been denied by any member of the Sri Lankan government, indeed the opposite.

In any rational world the reports would have been widely disseminated across the various responsible arms of security and governance and security at possible targets raised. The targets themselves could have been warned, and they would also have had an opportunity to look to their own defences and precautions. But it was not to be, and for whatever reason, and the reason(s) are most likely bound up with the poisonous schismatic politics of Sri Lanka, the reports sat unheeded to become the device that exploded hours after the main events that they foretold.

Let us now consider the group that as yet has not claimed responsibility for the bombings but is widely identified as being the perpetrator – National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Before last Sunday few outside Sri Lanka had heard of the group of extremist Muslims that has in the last six months attacked or threatened to attack Christian, Buddhist and Hindu entities or places of worship. They were not on the radar as a group with sophisticated resources and organisation, neither were they a group that had widespread communal support. They were not a group that at first sight had the capacity to deliver a sophisticated and complex attack, which would have taken months of planning, required large community and logistical resources and with the ability to recruit, train and retain the suicide bombers that were the delivery vehicles for the attacks. There would have to be community safe houses and bomb-making factories and the collection of large quantities of military-grade explosives – none of which is believed to be in the capacity of a small irritant jihadist group.

It is widely assumed that NTJ ‘had help’ from outside though there is no evidence to that effect in the public domain so far, and the two groups said to be most likely partners are Islamic State and al Qaeda. If this were so where were the Sri Lankan intelligence and security agencies? It is a country with the technical capacity to monitor electronic and internet activities, and it is highly unlikely that neither or both would have been unused by those setting up the attacks. If we allow the assumption that IS or aQ were aiders and/facilitators their activity appears to have gone unnoticed by those agencies tasked with the protection of the state, a level of incompetence almost unparalleled in the annals of intelligence failures.

And now what for Sri Lanka? On Tuesday 23rd there were mass funerals for victims, there are 40 people in custody and three days of national mourning have been declared.
There appears to be a consensus among analysts and commentators both in and outside the country that the resilience that developed during the thirty-year civil war which ended almost exactly a decade ago is still present in the national DNA. Sri Lanka will carry on, not regardless because that is impossible, but with the will and capability to rebuild and restore.

The most uncomfortable of truths is that in large part if not in whole it is the politics of the country that allowed the carnage. National politics is rotten to the core, riven by self-interest and careless of consequences. Whether the atrocity will produce any change in the political cesspit is the most open of questions, but given the equivocation already on display by politicians across the spectrum that is to be counted as unlikely. Given all the above the question has to be asked…could it happen again? Yes.