The horror of the new reality that the Islamic State (IS) terror group has chosen Sri Lanka for its operations – for whatever purpose – is yet to fully register with many. While that is understandable against a backdrop of 10 years of peace, the government’s response to this new crisis, with its dire security dimension, shows a level of internal dysfunction that has left citizens aghast.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has sought to shift the blame to President Maithripala Sirisena while the President has pointed fingers at the former Defence Secretary and the IGP who refuses to step down (leading to speculation as to whether he has protection from some quarter). Now, both the prime minister and the president are with one voice saying that Sri Lanka ‘needs the help of foreign intelligence agencies.’ This odd concurrence of opinion needs to be examined more closely. Is there external pressure at work?
The prime minister had been reiterating the need for foreign intelligence support in his several statements from the time of the attacks. The president echoed that view on May Day, when he said he had just received the interim report of the commission he appointed to look into the causes of the tragedy. The call for assistance from foreign intel agencies needs to be seen in the light of the US and UK already having sent in teams to assist in the investigations, and Indian media reports mentioning Indian assistance in the probe. It comes at a time when Sri Lankan police and military are doing brilliant work in swiftly tracking down suspects, detecting weapons, explosives and information in almost every province. The US embassy statement said the US had sent in teams from both the FBI and the US Navy’s USINDOPACOM. One needs to ask, why is the US Indo-Pacific Command, which is part of the US military, included?
In his April 26 special statement the PM, no less than six times, mentioned the need for foreign assistance and a new counter terrorism law. “Sri Lanka has a very narrow definition of aiding terrorism” he said. “Therefore, we find that our existing laws are insufficient to deal with the extraordinary situation we are faced with.” He told Sky News UK in an interview that “In our country to go abroad and return or to take part in a foreign armed uprising is not an offence here.” And that “We have no laws which enable us take into custody people who join foreign terrorist group.” In subsequent statements the PM urged the swift passage of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), claiming that had it been passed the Easter Sunday massacre could have been prevented.
The prime minister’s claims regarding the existing anti-terrorism law have been challenged, both by the Opposition and by the public. An academic from the Law Faculty of Colombo University in a widely circulated tweet titled ‘Don’t lie Ranil!’ listed the laws that cover involvement with foreign terrorists: the 1887 Penal Code (Section 2), the 1987 Prevention of Terrorism Act (Section 11) and the April 2019 Emergency regulations 2120/5 (Sections 26 and 27). Given below is what the recently enacted regulations say, according to a Gazette Extraordinary on the Public Security Ordinance dated 22.04.19. Readers may decide for themselves whether the prime minister’s claims are correct.
No person or groups of persons either incorporated or unincorporated including an organization, shall either individually or as a group or groups or through other persons engage in -(a) terrorism ; (b) any specified terrorist activity ;or (c) any other activity in furtherance of any act of terrorism or specified terrorist activity committed by any person, group or groups of persons, and any such person or group of persons who act in contravention of this regulations shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction by a High Court be liable to a term of imprisonment of not less than ten years and after exceeding twenty years.
(1) No person shall :-(a) wear, display, hoist or possess the uniform, dress, symbol, emblem, or flag of; (b) summon, convene, conduct or take part in a meeting of; (c) obtain membership or join; (d) harbour, conceal, assist a member, cadre or any other associate of; (e) promote, encourage, support, advice, assist, act on behalf of; or (f) organize or take part in any activity or event of, any person, group, groups of persons or an organization which acts in contravention of regulation 26 of these regulations.
(2) Any person who acts in contravention of paragraph (1) of this regulation shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction by a High Court be liable to a term of imprisonment of not less than five years and not exceeding ten years.
The government’s proposed new Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) has been opposed on the grounds that it could be used to suppress student unions, trade unions, media freedoms and the Opposition. It is also faulted for being lax in respect of terrorists, unlike the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Critics argue that the government’s real objective is to get rid of the PTA in compliance with the Geneva resolutions. Strangely, in cases where the terror suspect is a foreigner, the new law is said to prohibit action being taken without the consent of the country in which the suspect is a citizen. The consideration that such a provision could help protect ex-LTTE elements or sympathisers domiciled abroad, raises questions as to whether the drafting of this law had external inputs.
The lie about US intelligence
Another questionable development in the wake of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, relates to how the government tried to float the idea that intelligence warnings had come from the US – in addition to India. The only confirmed report pertaining to foreign intelligence warnings so far, relates to the ignored police memo saying that a foreign intelligence source had warned of attacks being planned by NTJ leader Mohamed Zahran targeting churches and the Indian High Commission. Indian media reports indicated the warning had come from India.
Minister Harsha de Silva however told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that intelligence warnings had come from both the India and the United States. The following day Amanpour interviewed the US ambassador in Colombo Alaina Teplitz, who denied there had been any US intel warning. The relevant sections from the interviews, as reported on CNN’s website, went as follows:
CNN interview with Harsha de Silva on 22 April 2019:
Q. Minister can you tell me which foreign intelligence briefed you, can you tell me how you got the information?
A. From what I understand it came from both India and the United States. That’s what I hear.
CNN interview with ambassador Teplitz on 23 April 2019:
Q. Yesterday on this program the Sri Lankan minister of economic reform said it was the US and India – their intelligence and your intelligence – that warned Sri Lanka. Could you confirm that that is the case?
A. Christiane we had no prior knowledge of these attacks. The Sri Lankan government has admitted lapses in their intelligence gathering and information sharing.
Both Minister De Silva and National Integration Minister Mano Ganesan are reported to have said that ‘Intelligence authorities of the United States and India’ gave warnings (Daily Mirror 23.04.19).
One needs to ask whether the government, by trying to circulate disinformation suggesting the US had offered helpful intelligence, seeks to prepare the ground for revelation of a much larger CIA presence in the country than people are aware of. Is it more than a coincidence that not one, but two ministers made the same incorrect claim in the immediate aftermath of the bombings – one of them on a mainstream American TV news channel?
Parliament and the public are yet to be informed as to whether the Sri Lanka government has renewed the lapsed Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) or entered into a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. All that is known is that military ties with the superpower are being strengthened at a rapid pace. The latest manifestation of this was the so-called ‘temporary cargo transfer operation’ in January where the US military used the BIA airport and Trincomalee in an operation to fly in their military aircraft and ferry supplies to an aircraft carrier of the 7th Fleet operating in the Indian Ocean. This exercise was misleadingly sought to be portrayed as a ‘commercial’ activity although it is clear such an operation could not have taken place without some bilateral military agreement being in place.
It is against this backdrop that the PM, and now the President, are making public announcements of the need for the assistance of ‘foreign intelligence agencies.’
On 29.04.19 a video, that experts believe to be authentic, was released showing IS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi making reference to the Sri Lanka attacks. Soon after its release the prime minister in a press release said: “…Sri Lanka should join hands with the rest of the world to deal with jihadism. It will work with all countries that are against terrorism and share intelligence and expert knowledge.”
The prime minister would surely know that ‘all countries that are against terrorism’ do not necessarily agree on who ‘their’ terrorists are, and do not necessarily work towards the same goals in the strategies they adopt in relation to terror groups. Big powers work with their allies or their client states to serve their own global strategic interests. Even though it’s declared policy is to fight Islamic terrorism, the US is accused of having armed and trained jihadi groups in Syria, against the Assad regime. The US’s strategic goal in the Pacific and Indian Oceans is, in the last analysis, to counter China with the help of its allies. Sri Lanka, on account of its strategic location, is now in the crosshairs of dangerous power games among these big powers.
The defeat of IS in Syria was announced after the bombing of Bagouz, where the group made its last stand. Baghdadi is seen in the video telling his followers that the Sri Lanka attacks were ‘revenge for brothers in Bagouz,’ and thanking God ‘that there were Americans and Europeans among the dead.’ It is significant that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement on the Sri Lanka attacks said “this is America’s fight too.” This pledge is a two-edged sword as far as Sri Lanka is concerned.
Even as the US fights Islamic terrorism, it is accused at other times of using IS as an asset. Analyst Saeed Naqvi in a comment on the Easter Sunday attacks published in The Economic Times, refers to a New York Times interview with Barack Obama, where the then US president admitted to having delayed bombing IS when it reared its head in Iraq, so as to put pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to sign a SOFA agreement. “In other words, ISIS was an American asset at that juncture,” Naqvi noted.
The point here is not to say that Sri Lanka does not need the help of other nations. Sri Lanka as a Non-aligned state has had the support of countries in all regions of the world. The 2015 coalition (‘yahapalana’) government however while paying lip-service to Non-alignment, capitulated to the West and especially to the US, to a degree that put sovereignty on the line, paved the way for proxy wars on its territory and made the country needlessly vulnerable to big-power conflicts that Sri Lanka itself has nothing to do with.
It is this vulnerability that has become the biggest threat to national security now. “A ghastly tragedy can shake a nation” wrote Naqvi. “That is precisely when powerful intelligence agencies move in with help, advice which, over a period of time, becomes the kind of deep penetration which begins to navigate policy.”