By Meera Srinivasan
Sri Lanka’s probe into the April 2019 Easter terror bombings is in its “final stages”, authorities have said, while raising suspicion that the suicide bombers were funded by “two foreign outfits”.
The Colombo Crime Division, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID), who are investigating the attacks of last summer, have arrested over 200 suspects since.
The coordinated bomb blasts at three luxury hotels in Colombo and three churches in Colombo, nearby Negombo, and the eastern city of Batticaloa, were the deadliest attacks in Sri Lanka’s post-war decade, claiming 279 lives.
On what remains to be found out in the ongoing probe, police spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Jaliya Senaratne said investigators are focusing on the financial networks connecting the suicide bombers.
“We have to trace the flow of finances. We have nearly established the network within Sri Lanka. Once that is completed, we may seek INTERPOL’s support to look into the two foreign organisations that we suspect funded the suicide bombers,” he said, speaking to The Hindu at the police headquarters.
So far, police have seized millions — in Sri Lankan rupees and U.S. dollars — in cash, some 130 acres of land and eight vehicles.
Bank accounts with funds over LKR 134 million have been frozen. “We hope to complete the basic investigation within the next month,” Mr. Senaratne said.
The current investigating team took charge after the November 2019 presidential elections that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fought on the plank of national security and won decisively, with 52.25 % of the vote. His campaign squarely blamed the predecessor President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe government for the failure to act on the prior intelligence tip off, including from India, on a likely terror attack.
Proceeding with the investigations, Mr. Rajapaksa’s newly formed government recast the CID. Soon, more arrests began making news.
The outgoing CID team had arrested some 100 suspects already. With support from the Australian Federal Police and the FBI, its officers had also recovered and analysed data from all the phones and gadgets seized from the suicide bombers’ network, according to a former official. It helped the CID map out the command structure, he told The Hindu, asking not to be named, given the sensitivity of the probe.
A ‘supreme council’ led by radical preacher Zahran Hashim — the mastermind of the IS-inspired Easter attacks — had a second rung of “military leaders” in Sri Lanka’s nine provinces. In addition to coordinating the April bombings, they had identified a few more targets, the CID had then deduced, corroborating evidence from the huge cache of explosives they unearthed in Wanathawilluwa town, near Wilpattu national park, in January 2019.
Once “all key suspects” were nabbed, the CID “was reasonably certain” that a second attack by Zahran’s group was unlikely, though they were watching other “potential radical networks”, a top source familiar with the probe told The Hindu.
The then CID made submissions on the eight key suspects to the magistrate court. Three files were submitted to the Attorney-General’s Department on what in retrospect are seen as preludes to the deadly bombings — the killing of two police constables in Vavunathivu, Batticaloa in late November 2018; the vandalising of Buddha statues in the central Mawanella town in December 2018 and the shooting of Mohammad Razak Taslim, in Mawanella in March 2019, after he helped investigators probe the statue incident.
Despite multiple attempts, The Hindu was unable to obtain a comment from the AG’s Department on the status of the files.
‘There is continuity’
Meanwhile, the new CID team with all its senior officers replaced, has said Zahran’s radical Islamist outfit had “planned a second attack”. The bombers had attempted to mislead intelligence agencies by staging split in group, police spokesman Mr. Senaratne told media in April this year.
All the same, the current investigators were drawing upon the findings of the outgoing CID team, Mr. Senaratne told The Hindu, adding: “so there is continuity.”
However, a few crucial questions remain. One, how and where exactly did the lapse occur, leading to the failure of the former government acting on prior intelligence? Two, what were Zahran Hashim’s specific motivations to carry out the attack? While the network reporting to Zahran Hashim has been established, was there a structure above him?
On the first question, a Presidential Commission appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena continues to investigate the attacks. Its members — mostly senior and retired judges — have submitted at least two reports to President Rajapaksa.
Further, a parliamentary panel set up last year released a report on the Easter attacks in October 2019, based on testimonies from 55 persons, including President Sirisena and former PM Wickremesinghe, collected over 24 sittings.
It accused President Sirisena of “actively undermining” government and security systems, leading to serious lapses ahead of the Easter attacks. But Mr. Sirisena has refused to take any blame. “Why should I take responsibility? Those who are responsible should take responsibility,” he told BBC Sinhala in a recent interview.
A year after the Easter bombings, for which his government was blamed, Mr. Sirisena has realigned with his former rivals, the Rajapaksas, and is widely expected to contest from their coalition in the parliamentary elections scheduled in August.