By Chandani Kirinde
The Easter Sunday bombing could not be averted due to systemic failures within the security establishment, caused by lack of communication and coordination between different agencies tasked with national security, as well as a lackadaisical attitude towards security by the political leadership, two top officials told a Parliamentary Committee yesterday.
The officials, Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Ministry Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) looking into the attacks, painted a picture of national security being heavily compromised, with the IGP kept out of National Security Council (NSC) meetings for nearly six months, and Council meetings held erratically at the whim and fancy of the President.
The IGP, in his evidence, said he had been excluded from the NSC meetings since October last year, over a trust issue that had come up over the transfer of a Police inspector.
“I was informed by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Kapila Waidyaratne that there was no necessity for me to attend the NSC meetings around the end of October. I was told the President had said there was no need for me to attend,” the IGP said.
The former Defence Ministry Secretary, in his evidence, disclosed that between November 2018 and April 2019, the NSC had only met four times, and that too at short notice, with both the IGP and the Prime Minister kept out of them.
Fernando, who took over as Defence Ministry Secretary on 30 October 2018, and resigned from his post after the Easter Sunday attacks, said that neither the National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) or its activities were discussed at any of the NSC meetings he attended, while a large amount of time was devoted to discuss trivial issues .”I remember there was a long discussion on a fishing issue and possible terrorist attacks using drones. Makandure Madush was also discussed at length,” he said.
The former Defence Ministry Secretary said that State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director Nilantha Jayawardena reported directly to the President on all important intelligence matters. “I was told twice by the President that the SIS Director directly reported to him. Thereafter I did not communicate intelligence reports to the President during my five-and-a-half month service in the position of Defence Ministry Secretary,” Fernando said.
The two witnesses told the Committee of the intelligence reports that had come in from early April 2019, warning of possible attacks by the NTJ, but that they were not discussed seriously.
The IGP said that in a Top Secret document dated April 9 2019, information of an alleged plan of attack by Zahran Hashim of the NTJ and his associates was sent to him by the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis. He said he had taken measures to inform senior DIGs about the letter. He said the letter spoke of an “alleged” attack, but did not speak of a specific or imminent threat.
Hemasiri Fernando said that the particular intelligence report had been brought to his attention on 8 April, and he had informed CNI to raise the matter at the weekly intelligence briefing held at the Defence Ministry the following day, which he (Fernando) presided over, but the matter was not discussed seriously, with both the SIS Chief and CNI saying that they would investigate the matter and report back.
The IGP said that on 18 and 19 April, there were two other reports of possible activity by associates of Zahran, but there were no specific details, and no warning of an imminent attack. “These reports were based on the explosion of a motorcycle at a remote location in Kattankudy, which had taken place on 16 April, and the report said that a close associate of Zahran had been involved in it and it was possible he was experimenting ways to carry out a bomb attack. The 9 April report spoke of possible suicide attacks, but these reports that came later made no reference to such attacks,” the IGP said.
The two officials disclosed that they were told by the head of the State Intelligence Services (SIS) hours before the attacks that “something dangerous could happen” on Easter Sunday.
“On 20 April evening around 7.30-8.00 p.m., the SIS Director gave me a phone call and said the following day would be dangerous and something would happen. I conveyed that warning to all relevant Senior DIGs. On the morning of the attacks too, around 6.45am-7.15 a.m., the SIS Director called again that something dangerous would happen on that day. I again informed the Senior DIGs. I did what I could do,” the IGP said.
The former Defence Ministry Secretary said he, too, had been given similar information by the SIS chief on 20 April, who urged him to also speak to the IGP on the matter. “I called the IGP, by which time he had been informed by the SIS chief as well,” Fernando said.
He added that he had received a call close to 8 a.m. on 21 April from the SIS chief, who asked him how many Methodist Churches are in Colombo, saying that attackers are likely to target these churches and not the Catholic ones. “I told him I am a Buddhist and I don’t know, but I would check with someone and get back to him. I got some information and told him, but within a few minutes I heard that there had been a bomb explosion at one of the hotels,” he said.
Both officials said that it was due to system failures that the attacks could not be averted and there must be collective responsibility for the security failures.