Appearing before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) investigating the Easter Sunday attacks, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted that the entire Government, including the Cabinet of Ministers should be held responsible for lapses that contributed to the attacks taking place. The PM was one of four senior government ministers who gave evidence before the PSC this [...]


We as the Govt. cannot run away from a serious breakdown in security apparatus: PM


Appearing before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) investigating the Easter Sunday attacks, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted that the entire Government, including the Cabinet of Ministers should be held responsible for lapses that contributed to the attacks taking place.

The PM was one of four senior government ministers who gave evidence before the PSC this week. The others who testified were State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, Ports and Shipping & Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayaka and Public Administration, Disaster Management and Livestock Development Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara. Ministers Ratnayaka and Madduma Bandara appeared before the PSC in their capacity as former Ministers of Law and Order.

Following are highlights of their testimony:

State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene

The National Security Council (NSC) discussed Muslim extremism in 2017 following a clash between two rival Muslim groups. The issue of Sri Lankans going to fight for ISIS in Syria was also discussed at the NSC. There was no indication then that there were any plans to mount a terrorist attack.

The armed forces and the intelligence agencies don’t come under the State Minister of Defence. Only institutions such as Ranaviru Seva Authority, Civil Defence Force, Rakna Lanka and Cadet Corp come under me. My duties as per the gazette, is to support national security. I was doing that in addition to the subjects assigned to me.

I was part of the NSC till the 51-day constitutional crisis in October, last year. I was not invited to NSC meetings from then on. I spoke with the then Defence Secretary as to why I was not being invited and he told me that there were no longer NSC meetings per se and that the President meets the security forces commanders and intelligence heads when he wants to. I was not informed about the weekly Intelligence Coordination Meetings either after the constitutional crisis. When I asked the then Defence Secretary, he promised to invite me to the next meeting.

The lapses in coordination led to this happening. I felt that the intelligence agencies, rather than working together, had their own autonomy. At the Defence Ministry, there was also a question mark regarding stability as since 2015 up to now, there have been five different defence secretaries.

There were several occasions where the attacks could have been prevented. For example, if the Kattankudy Police had done their job properly after the clashes in 2017 and if the Mawanella Police had conducted their investigation properly, the disaster may have been averted.

I did not see the letter sent on April 9 (by Director of the State Intelligence Service to the Chief of National Intelligence and Inspector General of Police warning of an impending attack) till after the attacks.

I regret that an intelligence tip-off warning of such an attack did not reach me. I believe the reason was due to a lapse in coordination. No information related to an impending attack ever reached me until after the attacks. The information should have been conveyed to me in my capacity as State Minister of Defence.

Minister of Ports & Shipping and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayaka

I served as Minister of Law and Order from November 12, 2015 to February 25, 2018. The State Intelligence Service (SIS) did not report directly to the Minister of Law and Order but to the Ministry of Defence. The SIS however, worked with me to provide intelligence reports related to the law and order situation. I received 407 such reports from the SIS during my tenure as Minister of Law and Order. The SIS Director used to also inform me of important intelligence information over the phone.

The SIS provided 13 reports related to Islamic State (ISIS) activities during my tenure. The Defence Ministry Secretary also submitted a separate report based on a query I had made. I received my first report on Zahran and the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) on November 2, 2016. It stated that the NTJ was engaged in religious extremism and justifying ISIS’s ideology on social media. The report received from the Defence Ministry on August 16, 2016 was a concept paper on countering potential threats to Sri Lanka from ISIS .

In February, 2017, we also formed a unit at the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) to track religious extremism. They were instructed to look into Zahran. I also ordered the IGP to obtain advise from the Attorney General’s Department on taking action on social media posts under the ICCPR Act.

I believe rather than blaming everyone, we should look to identifying the lapses which paved the way for the attacks.

Minister of Public Administration, Disaster Management and Livestock Development Ranjith Madduma Bandara

I served as Law and Order Minister from March 7, 2018 to October 25, 2018. I received two reports from the SIS on May 17 and May 19, 2018 regarding threats from Islamic extremism. One report was on the activities of ISIS in the Asian region and the other was on the NTJ and its leader. The report by SIS said the NTJ and its leader were promoting extremist ideology on social media and attempting to create communal disharmony.

The TID obtained an open warrant for Zahran’s arrest in July, 2018 when I was Minister of Law and Order. The TID sent several teams to arrest Zahran to various locations where he was said to be hiding, but they could not apprehend him. The probe was led by the then Director of the TID (DIG Nalaka Silva). However, his arrest impacted the investigations.

The first reports on Zahran and NTJ related to them engaging in religious extremism. It was thereafter that they moved towards terrorism.
I believe it is better to have a full-time Minister and Secretary to the Law and Order Ministry to look into such things and work together with the various security agencies.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

The NSC discussed extremist activities on several occasions. I also obtained information from the Law and Order Minister from the reports forwarded to him by the SIS. The reports spoke about ISIS sympathizers in Sri Lanka. We were also informed about the deaths of a couple of Sri Lankan ISIS fighters in Syria. However, we did not receive any information that anyone was moving from extremism to terrorism.

Most of the information I obtained through the Law and Order Ministers. The information tends to take a few weeks longer to come to the NSC. The ministers would brief me on the information they got from the SIS and police.

I was notified of NSC meetings up until October, 2018. I was not invited to NSC meetings afterwards. The IGP told me he too had not been invited. When I checked, I was told that NSC meetings would cease from February, 2019.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: "My security division did not get the letter warning of an impending attack". Pix by Ishanka Sunimal

Kattankudy was identified as a centre for extremism. I spoke to political parties about it and took steps I could take politically. We also instructed in 2018 to arrest Zahran, but he was absconding.

There was an issue regarding two Muslim mosques, one of which was a Sufi mosque. The TID was tasked with investigating this. As far as I know, the AG’s Department was also informed by police. As a result, the TID obtained an open warrant for Zahran’s arrest in 2018 under the provisions of the ICCPR Act. However, there was suspicion that he had illegally left the country via sea to India. There was only evidence against Zahran at the time.

At Cabinet meetings Minister Kabir Hashim did raise the issue of his Coordinating Secretary being shot. We also discussed the killing of two policemen in Vavunathivu. But, at the time, there were no reports to link this group to that act. I also made inquiries about the attacks on Buddha statues in Mawanella and the detection of explosives in Wanathavilluwa. Investigations were still ongoing at the time.

My security division did not get the letter warning of an impending attack. The IGP later acknowledged that the letter had not been sent to the Prime Minister’s Security Division. If such a letter had been sent to my security division, I would have inquired about it.

There was a severe lapse in the security apparatus for both the Prime Minister and State Defence Minister to have been kept in the dark regarding such intelligence.

(After being sworn in again in December) I recommended to the President the appointment of a separate Law and Order Minister as I thought that was the best way to deal with the security situation. However, the President said he wanted to first finish with the investigation regarding the assassination conspiracy against him.

I learned of the Kattankudy explosion on April 17 or 18. I inquired about it and was told investigations were underway. But since I had no knowledge of the April 9 intelligence note, I treated it as a separate incident.

I should have been informed of the contents of the April 9 letter. No one has been able to give me a satisfactory explanation as to why I was kept in the dark about that.

I can’t say for certain what happened between the President and myself contributed to the intelligence information not being acted upon. The relationship has not been as cordial as it was before. This is why I thought it was better that this incident be investigated by an independent Parliamentary Committee. This is why I supported the motion to set up a PSC.

Under the Constitution, the Cabinet is in charge of the Government machinery. When there is a serious breakdown in the security apparatus, we as the Government cannot run away from it.

According to the information I have, up until October, 2018, intelligence agencies had not uncovered any evidence that these individuals were engaged in terrorism. They did have information that they were engaged in extremism and propagating extremist ideology. There seems to have been a period where they transitioned from extremism to terrorism after November, 2018. We need to find out why this was not picked up.

The PSC comprises Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri, Rauff Hakeem, Ravi Karunanayaka, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, M.A. Sumanthiran and Dr Nalinda Jayatissa.

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