By Sandun Jayawardana
The authorities failed to take adequate and effective steps to meet the threat from Islamic extremism in the critical build-up phase from 2016 to 2019 prior to the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that investigated the attacks has noted in its final report.
Volume 1 of the final report, a copy of which has been seen by the Sunday Times, describes in extensive detail how Zaharan Hashim, the ringleader of the terror cell that carried out the attack, had transformed over the years from a radical preacher to fully-fledged terrorist and how repeated warnings made to the authorities regarding his radicalisation fell on deaf ears.
It also notes how he travelled to various parts of the country, recruiting followers, giving sermons and conducting training camps where participants were given weapons training in addition to being indoctrinated in extremist ideology. Much of this took place despite Zaharan being well known to law enforcement authorities and despite him being sought after by authorities from March 2017.
The report also specifically identifies that it was from an Indian counterpart that the then Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Nilantha Jayawardena had received an intelligence warning of an impending suicide attack by Zaharan and his followers.
The warning, received as a WhatsApp message on April 4, 2019, had noted that the group was “planning to target some important churches.” It had also stated that the group had conducted reconnaissance of the Indian High Commission of Sri Lanka and that it is one of the targets for the planned attack. The message specifically named six individuals including Zaharan (identified as Zaharan Hashmi in the message) and his brother Rilwan.
On April 5, a second Indian counterpart had confirmed to the SIS Director, the intelligence given by the first source the day before, the COI notes, adding that one of the Indian counterparts had messaged the SIS Director again on April 20, 2019, asking him for feedback on the earlier input and giving him warning that an attack was due to take place on or before April 21, 2019, noting that a dry run had already been carried out in Kattankudy.
While the Indian counterpart had requested that their input be “enquired into on priority and a feedback given to us,” the COI has concluded that the SIS Director did not give feedback to either of his Indian counterparts.
The COI has noted that then Secretary of Defence Hemasiri Fernando, Director SIS Nilantha Jayawardena and then Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis must be held accountable for their failure to discuss the Indian intelligence at the Intelligence Coordinating Meeting held on April 9 despite their knowledge of it. This was because officers from Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), which also possessed substantial intelligence on Zaharan and his group, attended this meeting. The failure to discuss the Indian intelligence at the meeting “prevented a coordinated attempt at thwarting the attack,” it adds.
The authorities also missed several other opportunities to thwart Zaharan’s plans over the months leading up to the attacks. In one example, on May 8, 2018, police arrived at a house in Shanthipura, Nuwara Eliya where Zaharan’s group was conducting a training camp. They had been alerted by a suspicious neighbour.
Zaharan’s wife Fathima Hadiya, who gave evidence before the Commission, stated that police officers who arrived at the location had even searched a bag where a pistol was hidden but failed to find it. The pistol had been hidden along with jewellery in a laptop bag belonging to Zaharan. The police had only taken the jewellery out without finding the pistol. A T56 weapon that had been used to give training to those at the camp had been hidden in a well situated within the premises, she testified.
Zaharan’s brother Rilwan, meanwhile, suffered life threatening injuries on August 27, 2018 whilst experimenting with explosives at Palamunai, Kattankudy. He had thereafter been transported to Colombo by accomplices and admitted to the National Hospital for treatment under a false name of M.I. Shahid.
Hospital authorities had been informed that the injuries were due to a gas cylinder explosion. The doctor at the Emergency Treatment Unit who examined the patient, however, had noted that the injuries were not consistent with the patient’s history and had given an endorsement that police should be informed.
Rilwan’s bed head ticket, however, had been taken by an individual claiming to be his guardian to the hospital’s police post with an endorsement in Tamil claiming no further action was required. Accordingly, no action was taken, though the Police Sergeant on duty at the time had admitted before the COI that he could not read Tamil.
The Commission has noted more information regarding the incident and preparations for the violent activities of the group may have been uncovered, had action been taken on Rilwan’s bed head ticket. It has also expressed concern that Rilwan had been able to obtain treatment without divulging his true identity.
The discovery of the large stock of explosives and weapons in Wanathawilluwa in January, 2019 had led Zaharan to expedite his plans for a suicide attack.
Wanathawilluwa had been part of a massive plan to turn the country into “one bloodbath,” as one suspect had told CID investigators. It appears that the plan had been to launch a major attack in 2020, but the discovery of the explosives at Wanathawilluwa had brought the plans forward, the Commission observes.
The five-member COI was headed by Supreme Court Justice Janak de Silva. Other members of the Commission were Court of Appeal Judge Bandula Karunaratne, retired Court of Appeal Judge Sunil Rajapaksa, retired High Court Judge Bandula Atapattu and retired Justice Ministry Secretary W. M. M. R. Adikari
How Zaharan spread his terror ideology while in hiding
Zaharan went into hiding with his wife and children after a clash between members of his National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and Sufi Muslims from the Ishtihad Sunnathul Wal Jamath at Aliyar Junction in Kattankudy on March 10, 2017.
While in hiding, he had created a group called “Ansar Kilafat” on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The group had more than 200 members. He also reactivated his Facebook profile on August 18, 2017 and resumed posting pro-IS (Islamic State/ISIS) material and encouraging violent activities.
Towards the latter part of 2017 and early 2018, Zaharan began criticising the democratic governance structure of the country. Some of his speeches had violent undertones directed towards the judiciary. This was based on his understanding that there is no room for democracy in an Islamic State.
“There is strong evidence, both direct and circumstantial, that by early 2018, Zaharan had taken a decision to launch attacks in Sri Lanka with a view to create a path towards the establishment of an Islamic State, (Province Willayath Ceylani) in Sri Lanka,” the report states. This had been fuelled by several factors. The primary driver of this was IS ideology and its activities around the world, along with Wahhabist ideology.
In order to attract followers, Zaharan was planning to attack the Kandy Esala pageant and create disturbances among Sinhala and Muslim communities and then exploit the pressure that the police and security forces will put on Muslims to recruit aggrieved Muslims, the COI states. With these new followers, he had planned to launch attacks on police and army camps in the East and collect weapons. As part of his recruitment strategy, he used incidents targeting Muslims around the world and in Sri Lanka.
Towards achieving this objective, beginning from end 2017, Zaharan held training camps and seminars in different parts of the country although he was on the run from the Police. For example, he held a training camp at Rambewa, Medawachchiya during November 2017. Around 13 persons had taken part in this camp and had given a pledge before an IS flag using a T-56 weapon.
Zaharan exploited violent incidents targeting Muslims to attract disgruntled Muslim youth to his organisation. For example, he uploaded a video to his Facebook page after the Digana incident requesting Muslims to take up arms, attack and kill those who fight against Muslims, and made specific references to Jihad.
The move appears to have been successful as the first training camp held after the Digana incident, at a bungalow in Kandy from March 23 to 25, 2018, attracted about 25 persons, with participants ranging from 15 to 35 persons at three subsequent training camps in Nuwara Eliya.
Zaharan had been gradually evolving his group to begin Jihad (Holy War) as described by him when his plans were unexpectedly disrupted with the detection of the Wanathawilluwa camp by CID investigators probing the Mawanella incident. Accordingly, he had expedited the attacks as he believed investigators were closing in on him.