How Blind Extremists Trumped Intelligence
By Buddhika Samaraweera
After 30 years of a brutal war in the North and East that claimed thousands of lives, Sri Lanka saw only ten years of reprieve from that dark era until the threat of civil unrest reared its head again – several hotels and churches were hit by a series of suicide attacks on 21 April 2019 by a set of religious extremists, shocking the nation and sparking much discussion regarding religious extremism.
These attacks were launched by a group led by National Tawheed Jama’ath (NTJ) leader, Zahran Hashim, a resident of the Eastern Province. Likewise, when we hear of extremism and terrorism, we immediately recall the said two provinces, since such extremist and terrorist groups mostly operate in those areas. However, the threat may be more widespread than we would like to admit, as it was recently revealed that religious extremism has begun to emerge in the Southern Province as well.
This came to light on 30 June 2020, when Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) in charge of the Southern Province, Rohan Jayampathi Silva, testified before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing into the bombings on Easter Sunday 2019.
He said that several individuals from the Southern Province suspected to have participated in a training camp in Hambantota run by the deceased NTJ leader are already in police custody, adding that certain groups have been reported to be carrying out extremist activities in Galle, Matara and Hambantota areas.
Testifying further, SDIG Silva said there is a high incidence of extremist clashes in areas such as Gintota and Mahamodara in the Galle district, and such incidents are constantly being monitored. “I discuss such matters with Government officials and intelligence officials every month and give necessary advice,” he added.
When members of the Commission inquired about the measures being taken to obtain information on such extremist activities, the witness stated that they were working in close contact with the Muslim community in the area to obtain such information.
Meanwhile, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), P.S.G. Satharasinghe, who served on the Presidential Security Division (PSD) at the time of attacks, said that even though information regarding the possibility of a terror attack in April 2019 had been communicated to certain institutions, former President Maithripala Sirisena’s PSD was completely unaware about the bombings until they took place.
ASP Satharasinghe, who testified before the Commission on 29 June, said that the then-Head of the PSD was preparing an evaluation report after holding monthly meetings with Deputy Inspectors General of Police (DIGs) and a member of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) regarding the security of the President.
“Current security details of the President are generally obtained through these meetings. For example, if there is any scheduled event that the President is to attend, we take necessary action regarding their security,” he added.
The Additional Solicitor General (ASG), appearing for the Attorney-General (AG’s) Department, then questioned ASP Satharasinghe regarding a meeting held on 12 April 2019 at Weber Stadium in Batticaloa, since it had been reported to the Commission that then-President Sirisena had attended the said meeting.
When the ASG questioned witness as to what measures were taken to ensure the President’s security, he said that then-SIS Director, Nilantha Jayawardana, had sent a letter to the PSD stating that there were no clear security threats to the President reported thus far, but that the PSD should ensure security in certain areas.
“Jayawardana had said certain measures should be taken since there were Islamic State (IS) organisation followers reported within the area. He also said in the letter that there were frequently reported extremist activities in the Batticaloa area,” he added.
Irregular dealings by
During the Commission sessions on 30 June, it was also revealed that during the tenure of former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen in the office of Minister of Industry and Commerce, the Industrial Development Board (IDB) had issued scrap metal in violation of the proper procedure to a factory in the Wellampitiya area owned by Mohamed Ibrahim Insaf Ahmed, who detonated the suicide bomb at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in the Easter Attacks.
This was revealed when the IDB Director – Marketing, Sarath Udayasiri testified before the Presidential Commission.
Adding that a Scrap Metal Management Unit was established according to a Cabinet decision taken on 22 July 2005, he said that through this Unit, a programme was launched to sell the scrap metal to industrialists under three categories. He also said that in November 2013, a set of guidelines on the management of scrap metal was introduced.
He further said that according to the programme, industrialists wishing to buy scrap metal should submit an application to the IDB. Members of the Commission then questioned the witness as to what criteria were taken into account in the process of selling them. According to Udayasiri, there have been three categories on the basis of annual turnover, namely, small scale entrepreneurs (with an annual turnover less than Rs 10 million), small scale enterprises (with an annual turnover between Rs 10-200 million) and medium scale enterprises (between Rs 200-600 million).
“On 17 May 2017, I was removed from the said Unit without any notice and a Deputy Director under me was appointed as the Head of the Unit. Then-Director of the IDB, Mahinda Jinasena, did not give a proper explanation as to why I was removed,” he also said.
Members of the Commission also asked whether an application had been sent to the IDB to buy scrap metal for a factory in Wellampitiya, owned by Insaf Ahmed. In response, Udayasiri said that such an application had been received on 09 August 2017. “I was not in that Unit at the time. Although the factory is located in the Wellampitiya area, it had been registered at a different address,” he added.
Accordingly, 16,856kg of brass and 328 transformers were issued to the factory owned by Insaf Ahmed in 2017. He added that the IDB had issued 150 metric tonnes of copper, 100 metric tonnes of brass and 50 metric tonnes of aluminum to the factory in each month in 2018. The Commission further observed that the IDB had not approved the issuance of copper and zinc to that factory. When questioned regarding this, the witness said he was unaware of the manner in which it was done.
Adding that this factory’s annual turnover exceeded Rs 600 million, Udayasiri said that it belonged to the large-scale enterprise category and was therefore ineligible to purchase the scrap metal from IDB, under the proper procedure.
Confirming Udayasiri’s statement, Industrial Development Board (IDB) Deputy Director, Palitha Dickwella, who testified before the Commission on 02 July, admitted that he had issued scrap metal in violation of proper procedure to Insaf Ahmed’s factory.
When members of the Commission questioned him regarding Udayasiri’s statement that the said factory’s annual turnover put it under the large scale enterprises category and rendered it ineligible to purchase the scrap metal from IDB according to the proper procedure, Dickwella said he had been unconcerned with the turnover of the factory, but instead decided on the category allocation based on the recommendation of the IDB officer that visited the factory and its workforce size.
When the Commission questioned whether it was inappropriate for him to act against the guidelines approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, he admitted he should have not done so.
Asked whether any officer had advised him to do this, Dickwella said that the IDB Director General, P.L.U. Ratnamalala, and its former Chairman, Mahinda Jinasena, on certain occasions had given instructions on the amount of scrap metal to be issued to the said factory. He also presented some documents with regard to those instructions to the Commission.
Meanwhile, retired Court of Appeal judge, Justice Abdul Ghafoor, who voluntarily testified before the Commission on 02 July, said that special attention should be paid to tourists visiting Sri Lanka and their activities to eradicate extremism. He also said that they should not be allowed to engage in religious propagating activities and added that there should be a proper regulation on matters relating to the import of books consisting of religious matters.
A former senior official of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), testifying before the Commission on 01 July, said that although they had on several occasions warned about Zahran’s extremist activities to the National Security Council attended by former President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, proper action was not taken in that regard.
He had also, on nine separate occasions, informed the same to the Defence Secretaries that held the post between December 2017 and March 2019.
Adding that the DMI had substantial information about most of the suicide bombers that carried out the Easter Attacks, he said that the tragedy could have been prevented if the SIS had shared their information about the possibility of an attack with the DMI.
“The DMI had lots of information about some of the suicide bombers. If the SIS kept us informed on information they had, these bombers could have been taken into custody,” he added.
Recalling that the SIS had received information about the attacks in early April and that they had shared the information with certain instructions, the witness said the SIS should have divulged this during the National Security Council too. Their failure to do this posed a serious problem, he said.
He went on to say, “The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) are somewhat reluctant to share information with the DMI. But, if all these units are working together it would be of great benefit.”
On 29 June, Former Director of the SIS and the CID, Senior DIG Darmagupta Gajanayake testified before the Commission that a special unit had been functioning under the Ministry of Defence since 2002 to investigate certain matters pertaining to Islam, since some groups were aggressively propagating the religion.
He said that a separate unit had been established to investigate certain activities related to Islam and another unit to investigate matters pertaining to other religions. According to information revealed by the unit monitoring activities related to Islam, a leader of an Indian extremist organisation who had visited Sri Lanka in 2004 was deported, SDIG Gajanayake added.