Authorities Failed to Crack Down on FETO Operatives in SL

By Buddhika Samaraweera | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 9 2021

By Buddhika Samaraweera

Although the Turkish Government had, on several occasions, informed the Sri Lankan authorities that certain individuals affiliated with FETO, also known as the Gülen movement, terrorist organisation operating in Turkey had come to Sri Lanka and carried out various business activities, the authorities failed to take adequate steps to deport them or to shut down those businesses. This was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the bombings on 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday and several witnesses testified before the PCoI in this regard. It was also revealed that some politicians had links with individuals and business ventures associated with FETO and the PCoI, in its final report, has presented its findings about FETO.

The PCoI conducted an investigation into the FETO movement in Sri Lanka, to ascertain whether National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) leader Mohamed Qasim Mohamed Zaharan alias Zaharan Hashim’s group had been associated with or supported by any foreign personnel, institution, organisation or country.

According to the Embassy of Turkey in Colombo, FETO, also known as the Gülen movement, is a terrorist organisation. Its leader was Fethullah Gülen, who initially built the ideological foundation of his movement on the teachings of Said Nursi, an Islamic scholar, but later parted ways. Subsequent to a trial that charged him with attempting to topple the Secular State in 1999, he left Turkey and moved to the USA. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf had passed resolutions against FETO. The Turkish Government accuses a clandestine faction led by FETO of attempting to stage a coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 to overthrow the democratically-elected government, the President, and the constitutional order of Turkey.

However, there are other commentators and experts who claim that FETO is not a terrorist organisation. Gülen himself has highlighted his agreement with the secular modernising vision of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, to separate himself and his movement from more radical Muslim groups in Turkey. The PCoI heard the testimony of a Sri Lankan expert on FETO, Prof. S.K. Hettiarachchi, who testified that FETO was not a terrorist organisation. 

The PCoI does not make any findings on whether FETO is in fact a terrorist organisation. However, the PCoI is concerned about the attitude of the then Government in relation to an organisation which was claimed to be a terrorist organisation by a foreign Nation. 

The concerns of FETO and its presence in Sri Lanka was raised for the first time by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during his bilateral meetings with the then President and Minister of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) in June 2016 in Colombo. The Sri Lankan delegation was informed that Turkey will, in due course, submit documents on this issue through the MoFA and through foreign missions.

It appears that the Foreign Ministry’s Secretary was informed of this issue, so that it can be raised at the National Security Council (NSC) meeting on 4 August 2016. It appears that this issue was in fact discussed at that meeting, although the details of the actions taken thereon are unclear.

The Turkish Ambassador to Sri Lanka formally submitted a note verbale dated 5 August 2016 to the MoFA, containing a detailed report on FETO, the failed coup attempt, the alleged involvement of FETO in it, and information about the presence of several individuals aligned to FETO and their activities in Sri Lanka. A request was made from the MoFA to forward the request of the Turkish Government to the relevant Sri Lankan authorities to freeze the activities of FETO-related organisations in Sri Lanka, and deport its members who were residing in Sri Lanka.

The Foreign Secretary, by letter dated 24 August 2016, wrote to the Secretaries of Ministry of Law and Order and Southern Development and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) requesting for observations on the alleged links between the organisations and individuals identified by the Turkish Embassy. The Secretary of the Law and Order Ministry, by letter dated 30 August 2016, requested the then IGP for his observations in this regard, to enable the Government to consider the submission made by the Turkish Government. The IGP had, by letter dated 6 September 2016, referred it to the Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS). However, there are no records at the IGP Office of any reply received thereto. 

However, the SIS Director, by letter dated 6 December 2016, informed the Defence Secretary that investigations conducted by the SIS revealed that there are organisations functioning in Sri Lanka funded by FETO and that Turkish officials are of the view that the income earned by those organisations is used for terrorist activities. The SIS Director sought the opinion of the MoFA regarding the legality of the Turkish request for assistance to curb the activities of FETO. The MoD forwarded this request to the MoFA on 9 December 2016. When this matter was raised, the Foreign Secretary had indicated that the issue was discussed at the NSC meeting on 4 August 2016 and that it was very important that Sri Lanka is provided with hard evidence as to what terrorist organisations are being funded with revenue earned by FETO-affiliated businesses in Sri Lanka and to put on hold further action until such evidence is submitted. 

The concerns of the Turkish Government of the presence of FETO-linked persons and organisations in Sri Lanka were once again raised by Ambassador Fazil Carman, Director General for Bilateral Political Affairs (South Asia) during a meeting with the Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Turkey on 19 January 2017. It was conveyed that the Turkish Government expects friendly countries to take action against the entities with alleged links to FETO. 

During a bilateral meeting between the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ambassador of Turkey in Sri Lanka on 22 June 2017 in Colombo and at a discussion between then State Minister Wasantha Senanayake and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on 4 August 2017, the issue of FETO was once again raised.

On 9 October 2017, a meeting was chaired by Tilak Marapana, then Foreign Minister, with then Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne PC and SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardena, to discuss the way forward to address the concerns formally raised by the Turkish Government regarding alleged FETO associated business, charity and academic activities in Sri Lanka. Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam and the Acting Director General, West Division of the MoFA were also present.

The concerns raised by the Turkish Government through the Turkish Mission in Sri Lanka were discussed. The Foreign Secretary informed that the Turkish Embassy and the Department of Immigration and Emigration were coordinating on the concerns related to issuance of visas. Accordingly, the expired visas were not extended or re-issued. He further clarified that Sri Lankan visas could not be denied to Turkish applicants in the absence of hard evidence that they have carried out terrorist attacks in Turkey, which would then need to be submitted by the Government of Turkey to the Sri Lankan authorities.    

The SIS Director informed about two senior Cabinet Ministers having business contacts with alleged FETO-run businesses. They were Rishad Bathiudeen, who had the majority involvement, and Kabir Hashim. The Foreign Secretary informed that given the sensitive political nature of the issue, it was best left unaddressed. So much so their names were withheld in the meeting minutes and that information was obtained by the PCoI only through one of the participants at the meeting. This appears to be the last meeting held on the FETO issue before the 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday Attacks. Both the former Ministers, Bathiudeen and Hashim, during their testimony, denied any connection with business establishments of FETO in Sri Lanka. 

The PCoI states in its final report that it appears that at some stage there was an informal administrative arrangement, where the Turkish Embassy was working with the Department of Immigration and Emigration and SIS on screening visa applications of Turkish nationals visiting Sri Lanka. 

In February 2019, the Turkish Government once again raised the issue of FETO in Sri Lanka with the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Turkey. It was informed that the Turkish Embassy in Colombo had provided a list of individuals and details of their revoked passports to the Sri Lankan authorities (SIS on 15 March 2018 and Defence Secretary on 7 January 2019) and that the Turkish authorities were dismayed that Turkish nationals who are connected with FETO are continuously receiving extension of visas by the Sri Lankan authorities even after their passports were cancelled by Turkey. 

The PCoI further states that nothing further has been done by the Government on the FETO issue until the Easter Sunday bombings.

The Foreign Secretary, by letter dated 22 July 2019, wrote to the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration with a list of names and Turkish passport numbers received from the Turkish Embassy and inquired whether those individuals have left the country. The Controller General, by letter dated 2 August 2019, provided the Foreign Secretary with the details in terms of which out of the 50 persons named there were no records of 5 persons. One person was shown as being out of the country for one passport number, while for the other passport number there were no records. Only one person was said to be in the country. 

The PCoI had the benefit of hearing the testimony of Deputy Controller (Visa) of Department of Immigration and Emigration, Keerthi Wijeratne Elapatha, on this issue. The witness said the Department of Immigration and Emigration has established Electronic Travel Authorisation (hereinafter referred to as ETA) for issuing visas. The Department has introduced three methods for obtaining ETAs.

Under the first method, a foreigner may log on to www.eta.gov.lk and apply for visa. Secondly, the foreigner may apply for visa through the Sri Lankan Embassy in their country. Thirdly, an agent of such foreigner may apply for visa from the Department of Immigration and Emigration. The witness further testified that the ETA is open for all countries and the visitors from Maldives, Seychelles, and Singapore could obtain visas on arrival without entering data to ETA. 

The witness stated, however, that data of visitors who come under ‘visa on arrival’ is entered in the Border Control System. He also said the ETA and Border Control System are two separate systems which are, however, connected with each other. ETA is used to issue visa and Border Control System, for confirming the Immigration and Emigration data of visitors. 

Elapatha also said when a person arrives in Sri Lanka, he/she has to submit the passport to the Immigration and Emigration counter. Such passport is then checked by a ‘watch list’ internally maintained at the Immigration and Emigration Department. Such watch list consists of information provided by government institutions and the public. In addition to the watch list, there is a black list. This list is prepared by using the information provided by law enforcement authorities such as SIS, CID and TID. There is also a prosecution list which consists of the Court Orders regarding immigration and emigration. In addition to those lists, there is also an Interpol list and the UN sanction list.

The witness said there are ten countries where visitors cannot apply for visa through ETA. They are Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, North Korea and Myanmar. He added that a person from Syria cannot obtain visa through ETA or by visiting to the Embassy. An agent of such person has to personally visit the principal office of Immigration and Emigration Department and submit an application to obtain a visa. The witness, however, said when a Sri Lankan who has obtained a valid visa departs to Syria, presently there is no procedure to inquire into the purpose of such visits. 

Testifying further, Elapatha said there were two types of visas that can be obtained under ETA, namely tourist visas and business visas. Visitors who intend to participate in religious events may apply for visa under business category. The visa application, however, does not contain information as to which party sponsors or facilitates such visitor during their visit in Sri Lanka. 

When the witness was shown the document which contained 158 names of Turks, he said except for 13 persons, all other Turks (145 in number) had stayed in Sri Lanka under a valid visa. There were no records for said 13 persons in the Border Control System. Around 20 persons out of said 145 persons had arrived under tourist visa category and the rest had been under residence visa category.  

Attention of the witness was drawn to several names in the said list and invited him to give his remarks as to whether such person is still in Sri Lanka or has left the country. According to him, two such persons were still in the country at the time of his testimony before the PCoI. When this evidence is compared with the contents of the letter dated 2 August 2019 of the Controller General, a serious question arises on the veracity of the database of the Department of Immigration and Emigration. This matter needs to be examined expeditiously, the PCoI has recommended in its final report.  

By Buddhika Samaraweera | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 9 2021

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