Featured image courtesy Reuters

April 21, 2019

A series of coordinated bomb explosions killed hundreds in Sri Lanka as they congregated for Easter Sunday mass.

As at 8.20 am on April 22, 2019, 290 were reported dead and 500 injured in the attacks.

Foreign Secretary Ravinath Aryasinha confirmed that as at 5.30pm on April 21st, 27 foreigners were among the dead, with another five reportedly missing.

Several countries including Switzerland, the US, the UK, Canada, India and Pakistan have issued statements on the attacks. The UK and Canada have also issued travel advisories.

St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade was the first to be hit by an explosion, followed by St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo and the Zion Church in Batticaloa. There were also explosions at the Kingsbury, the Shangri-La hotel and the Cinnamon Grand.

An explosion in Dehiwala killed two – the Government has not confirmed whether this attack is related.

At 3:30 pm, there was an 8th explosion in Dematagoda. STF officers entered the house wearing protective masks. Three police officers died, while 2 suspects were detained.

State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said that 7 suspects had been arrested in connection with the bombings in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, adding that “most of them” were suicide bomb attacks carried out by one group. The State has remained tight-lipped as to the identity of the group carrying out the attacks. At 8.20am on April 22nd, it was reported that a total of 24 suspects had been arrested in connection with the incidents.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that information about these attacks had been received in advance, but attempted to sidestep responsibility. “We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken. Neither I nor the Ministers were kept informed.”

This raises the question as to why, as Minister of Defence, President Sirisena did not see fit to act on the intelligence received.

Wijewardene has said that a State of Emergency will not be announced until after his meeting with the President today, on April 22. Those who are catching flights have been advised that visitors will not be allowed inside Bandaranaike International Airport. An islandwide curfew was imposed on the afternoon of the 21st, and lifted at 6am this morning.

Access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber has been blocked within Sri Lanka, in an attempt to stop the of misinformation. This is the second time that a block was put in place – in March 2018, violent riots in Ampara in the Eastern Province and in Digana in the Central Province led to the State blocking social media in an attempt to curb the spread of hate speech.

April 22nd 2019

A Government Analyst speaking to the media on April 22nd confirmed that the explosions at St. Anthony’s Kochchikade, St. Sebastian’s Katuwapitiya, Zion Church Batticaloa, Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand were carried out by suicide bombers. 24 persons have been arrested so far, and police believe most of them are part of a ‘radical Islamist group’.

In a press conference held later that day, Cabinet Minister and government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne confirmed that information about possible suicide attacks at Christian places of worship and tourist areas had been shared prior to the attacks by foreign intelligence and local intelligence, including with the DIG of the Special Security Division of the Sri Lanka Police. Intelligence had been shared two weeks, four days prior and even ten minutes prior to the attack, Senaratne said. He named the radical group as the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ); all those arrested have been locals, and the government does not know if it has any international connections.

The information reflects what was carried in a letter, initially debunked as false, that was reported to have come from the IGP, warning about the planned attacks by the NTJ. No official government source has confirmed its authenticity. Minister Harin Fernando tweeted the letter publicly, while Mano Ganesan said his ministerial security personnel received intelligence on a threat one week prior to the attacks.

The rest of his press conference highlights the continued division within the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe government after the political crisis of October 2018. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has not been invited to a national Security Council meeting since the crisis. Following the attacks, he had invited the Security Council for a meeting, which they refused to attend. He himself therefore went to the defence establishment to join their meeting, and was kept waiting for some time before he was able to participate.

The letter containing the information on the attacks was issued from IGP Pujith Jayasundera, chief of Sri Lanka’s police, to local intelligence as well. All these institutions currently fall under the purview of President Sirisena, who is the Ministry of Defence. Constitutionally, he holds the Defence portfolio, but after the crisis last year, he ordered that the Police Department be brought under the Defence Ministry, in an extension of his executive power.

Senaratne apologised to the families of the dead and injured for the huge lapse on the part of the Government for failing to follow up on this information. However, the apology does not eradicate the government’s failure to act, and the many lives lost as a result.

The National Security Council has gone on to impose a conditional State of Emergency with articles on combating terrorism to come into effect at midnight on April 22nd. The details of these clauses and their implementation is yet unknown.

A contained blast was reported at 4.25pm this evening, when security forces personnel attempted to defuse a bomb in a van parked close to the Kochchikade church.

Funerals for the deceased have begun to take place in Kotahena and Negombo.

April 23rd

As at 9.04am on April 23rd, 310 have been reported dead, with 26 individuals arrested in connection with the incidents. The day was declared a national day of mourning for the deceased, and a 3-minute silence was observed islandwide at 8.30am.

Families, communities and clergy across faiths came together at the St. Sebastian’s church in Katuwapitiya, the site of the second blast, to perform last rites for the dead. Bodies left the church premises for burial at various cemeteries around Negombo.

While these mass burials have begun for victims of the attacks, Sri Lankan politicians continue to pass the buck ever since revelations on April 22nd that top officials had received intelligence about a possible suicide bomb threat, but failed to act.

A Parliamentary session that took place almost concurrently was a disappointing display of negligence and incompetence on the part of government officials to answer questions put before them, and take responsibility for the serious lapse in security that allowed these attacks to happen.

State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardena reiterated that he and the Prime Minister were not informed of the threat, and were therefore not able to take any necessary action to prevent them. He then called for the National Thowheed Jamath to be proscribed as a terrorist organization. He also stated that the attacks were carried out in retaliation for the shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. No evidence was provided to support any of these claims, and Jacinda Ardern’s office has responded noting that it has not received any information to substantiate the connection.

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa slammed the government for wasting its time ‘troubling war heroes’, after all he had done to end terrorism in Sri Lanka during his time in office. Rajapaksa’s statements reflect a rhetoric often used in response to local and international calls for military personnel to be held accountable for human rights violations during the end of the war. He also claimed that these attacks would not have taken place if Sarath Fonseka had been leading Sri Lanka’s defence apparatus.

Fonseka was arrested for treason after he unsuccessfully tried to challenge Rajapaksa in his pre-election bid in 2010 – following explosive allegations he made of human rights violations during the last stages of the war. It was President Sirisena who used his executive powers to clear Fonseka of the allegations, and who conferred him with the rank of Field Marshal.

Rajapaksa also addressed arrests made earlier this year in the North-Western town of Wanathawilluwa, where a large cache of explosives was found, and asks what happened to the individuals taken into custody. Information regarding the Wanathawilluwa explosives haul was obtained from interrogating the suspects arrested for vandalising several Buddhist statues in Mawanella area last December, and Rajapaksa linked all these incidents. At the April 22 press conference, UNP General Secretary noted that those arrested were released on bail on instruction from higher officials – another serious lapse.

Social media is now populated with photos of protests in 2017 that took place in the eastern town of Kattankudy against individuals who set off the blasts, for their hand in spreading extremism within the community. Activists also note how politicians and officials were kept notified of the threat the NTJ posed. Ministers’ claims of ignorance must not clear them for their inaction in questioning what appears to be fissures in the intelligence apparatus.

This lack of accountability among Sri Lankan lawmakers is not new, as evidenced from the constitutional crisis that took place last year.

Police units in the city of Colombo were placed on high alert for a lorry and a van suspected to be carrying explosives. This saw several offices and establishments close early, with citizens making their way home. Curfew was imposed from 9pm till 4am on April 24th.

At 4.30pm, reports broke that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had claimed responsibility for the attacks, via their Amaq news agency. No information or background was given to substantiate the connection between the bombers and the ISIS. As many have noted, the group has made a series of opportunistic and unreliable claims of responsibility since its loss of territory in the Middle East.

There remains no information on the provisions of the emergency regulations enacted nearly 24 hours ago, when the President Gazetted a State of Emergency. Human rights defenders are concerned that this urgency will be used to bring in regulations that impede civil liberties, which many have been pushing against for decades. These provisions are to be debated in Parliament on April 24th.

A claim from Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake adds to the concern that has set in with the declaration of Emergency – that the Forces must be given more power to investigate and arrest.

President Sirisena has also declared that there will be changes affected to the heads of the security forces within 24 hours, compounding the uncertainty and fear that is growing among people.

April 24th

At a press conference this morning, State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene claimed that the bomb blasts on Easter Sunday were not carried out by the National Thowheed Jamath, but a splinter group. This follows Wijewardene’s statement yesterday that the attacks were carried out in retaliation for the Christchurch shooting. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office has since claimed that they do not have the adequate information to link the two attacks. Wijewardene continues to make claims without providing any factual basis for them. With several reports of controlled explosions being carried out on suspicious vehicles, and in a situation where citizens feel increasingly concerned about their security, this does not inspire confidence.

Shortly after this press conference, Lakshman Kiriella noted to the media that senior officials deliberately withheld intelligence about the potential for attacks. For this statement to come from the leader of the Parliament, and a Government minister, is a continued highlight of the division between State officials and intelligence personnel.

The Sri Lankan Parliament convened to debate new Emergency Regulations that had been drafted to respond to the bomb blasts that took place on Easter Sunday. The session’s highlight appeared to be an impassioned speech by MP and Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka.

“In any other country, the entire government would have had to resign for making a mess of things like this, but it won’t happen here’ he said, claiming that security has become a joke and the military intelligence apparatus has failed this country.

The Prime Minister and the State Minister of Defence claimed that the prior information on the attacks had not reached them as they have not been part of National Security Council meetings for a long time. Fonseka raised a pertinent question; why did it take a terrorist attack, and a tragedy of this magnitude for them to reveal this? Given their duties, it is blatantly negligent for them to allow this to continue for as long as it has, and use it to attempt to evade blame in the face of a crisis.

Wijewardene’s claim that the attack was in retaliation to the Christchurch mosque shootings was also called into question. According to Fonseka, the Easter Sunday attacks were at least seven or eight years in the making, and didn’t happen overnight.

“Politician and heads of the armed forces must not wait until terrorists’ strikes to protect the country. That responsibility lies with them whether we are at war or not.” Fonseka’s speech appears to have struck a chord as it is the first instance where a representative has unequivocally stated that the country’s leaders are answerable for what happened. ’We as the government are at fault; excuses are not acceptable, we are accountable for this tragedy’; he has accepted blame in a way that no other politician has, but it is likely his speech may have been politically or self-motivated.

Addressing the blame game that has ensued since the day the attacks took place, MP Kumara Welgama noted that all 225 Ministers should take responsibility. ‘We all come here and we fight each other, we only think about ourselves and not about the country” he stated at the session.

MP of the Tamil National Alliance M.A Sumanthiran stated that those responsible for withholding the information on the attack should resign, at a minimum. By unlawfully having control over the Police Department in his charge, he claims President Sirisena has now become the first person who should take responsibility for attacks that could have been prevented.

He raises the continued attention that the Muslim community, especially those residing in the East, have drawn to the extremist activities of the perpetrators of these attacks. These warnings, compounded with the reported three warnings issued for Sunday’s attacks, calls into question Sirisena’s ability and accountability to retain his duties as Minister of Defence.

At this session, the newly-drafted Emergency Regulations were passed without a vote. Experts warn that it is an extremely draconian set of regulations; that in expanding the National Security State, adversely affect protected fundamental rights. Human rights activists and lawyers also claim that the regulations mirror the problematic draft Counter-Terrorism Bill,that has been met with widespread opposition.

Sirisena has also since kept to his deadline to affect changes in the heads of the security forces. He has asked IGP Pujith Jayasundera and Defense Secretary Hemasiri to resign from their posts. Soon after, he appointed Former Army Commander Major General Daya Ratnayake to the post of Defense Secretary, to replace Fernando.

There is little actual accountability with the removal of these two individuals from their posts. The issues that have emerged, such as the apparent divide between intelligence and government, indicates that the existing structure itself is questionable. Sirisena remains Minister of Defence, and his inaction thus far must be taken into consideration even as he makes moves to indicate that change is taking place.

The irresponsible and almost callous response to Sunday’s devastation raises issues of the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of measures that will be put in place to address the security situation, given that individuals are either unresponsive to authority, or wield enough authority to remain unanswerable for their failures.

April 25th

Citizens across the city of Colombo remained on high alert as several warnings about possible explosions were issued.

Sri Lanka Police released photographs of six individuals who they claimed to be suspects in the Easter Sunday bombings, and requested that the public provide any information they had on these individuals.

Within minutes, several Twitter users had recognised one of the young women in these photos as a citizen of the United States, who has a different name, and called into question her presence on this list. The photo appeared to have been taken from an article on the DailyMail, describing an open letter that the woman had written to US President Donald Trump on her experience of racism in the country. Media personnel who had got in touch with the Police soon noted that the photo was now being ‘double checked’ by the CID. Shortly after, the Police issued a statement acknowledging that the CID had made a mistake; the woman in the photo was not the woman they had named, and she was also not the person they were looking for.

This debacle occurred after the Government Information Department and several other authorities urged citizens to refrain from sharing misinformation. It is also ironic that this error happens on the part of the Police and CID when the President has ordered for social media platforms to be blocked because citizens are sharing misinformation.

The aftermath of the bombings on Sunday have already questioned the work of the Sri Lankan intelligence services, given revelations that they had prior knowledge of the planned attacks. This incident, that not only misidentified a young woman as a potential terrorist but has now opened her up to a stream of racist and sexist online abuse, is not lost on citizens already fearing for safety.

Shortly after the clarification was issued, news broke that the death toll from the bombings, which had been previously reported as 359, was revised to 253. Initial reports noted a ‘calculation error’.

This revision has been met with backlash, that a deduction in the death toll by close to a hundred was a sign of incompetence on the part of medical officers. However, this number was declared in a letter from the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, who explained the process of identifying bodies in the wake of such an incident, and why the numbers were changing.

“In bomb explosions like this, where the body is subject to extreme harm, it can be extensively damaged and broken into several parts, and cannot be identified as a single body. As it is therefore difficult to arrive at a death toll, the number that was reported daily was a closest possible estimate.”

Joe Hefner, a forensic anthropologist who assisted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, told the Washington Post that ‘when a death toll jumps and then comes back down, it typically isn’t due to negligence’. He cites reasons similar to Dr. Jasinghe’s in the nature of the explosion that took place and the damage done to the bodies.

Dr. Jasinghe’s letter ends noting that ‘the number of deaths recorded in last Sunday’s terrorist attacks are around 253, and has reduced from our initial estimate of 290. It is not 359 as is being reported in the media”. This is where concerns lie, and could point to negligent miscommunication on the part of medical services to the media.

Communication is not the government of Sri Lanka’s strong suit, and they regularly come under fire for the lack of effort and resources dedicated to keeping citizens aware of both basic and crucial matters. Mistrust of part of state officials and authorities is already prevalent, in regard to intelligence reports on the attacks that went ignored. Given the unfolding nature of the crisis situation, miscommunication will only serve to increase the doubt that citizens have of the government’s ability to prevent or respond to a crisis situation.

In an interview to Sky News, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe revealed that the government knew there were IS returnees in Sri Lanka, but that they could not be arrested as ‘joining a foreign terror organisation is not against the law’. Lawyers have since clarified that it is possible for the President to proscribe any organisation under Section 27 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Steps were not taken to proscribe ISIS in Sri Lanka, which would have made it possible to hold these individuals to account.

April 26th

A ’10 point special proposal’ was put forward by Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, in order to defeat Islamic radicalisation. Ranawaka’s proposals include a ban on the niqab and burka worn by Muslim women, and orders that institutional activities of Muslim places of worship be brought under the government. The suggestions must be analysed alongside the fact that Ranawaka is a member of the nationalist, right-wing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), and has a record of making Islamophobic comments, on occasion referring to Muslims as ‘outsiders’.

Military intelligence has also confirmed that the leader of the National Thawheed Jamath, Mohamed Zahran Hashim who masterminded the bombings died in the explosion at the Shangri-la hotel.

President Maithripala Sirisena spoke to the media during which he claimed that his nationwide campaign against drugs might have played a role in the bombings, seen as how ‘terrorism and the drug mafia are connected’. He also noted that there is information of around 140 ISIS fighters in Sri Lanka – 70 had been arrested, and the rest would be brought to book soon. Sirisena provided no sources to back his claims. He reiterated that there were no laws that allowed the NTJ to be proscribed or banned, and claimed that new laws were being drafted. Lawyers have since claimed that 5 regulations promulgated under the PTA in 2011 would actually allow for the NTJ to be proscribed.

Christians in locations across the city came forward to volunteer to protect mosques as people gathered for Friday Jummah prayers.

Based on a tip-off from the local community, the Army, Police and STF conducted a raid on a house in Sainthamaruthu in Kalmunai. A cache of explosives used to produce bombs, an ISIS banner and and ISIS uniform similar to the video released that supposedly depicted the bombers pledging baya’an to the flag. Curfew was imposed in the surrounding areas of Kalmunai, Sammanthurai and Chavalakadai – the gun battle ensued for a significant amount of time, and explosions were reportedly heard.

A few hours later, it was reported that the bodies of four suicide bombers were found in the area. A total of 15 dead bodies were recovered from the house. Police spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara later confirmed that similar to the incident that took place in Dematagoda on April 21st, the suspects detonated while surrounded by their families when security forces tried to enter the premises.

In this backdrop of violence, fear and a crackdown on citizens by security forces, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that he would be running for president in the upcoming elections. In the interview to Reuters, Rajapaksa says he is running to tackle radical Islam, and will do so by ‘rebuilding the intelligence service and surveilling citizens’.

‘Law and order’ under Gotabaya Rajapaksa harkens to a period of censorship, crushing of dissent and close surveillance of citizens. Desire for a strongman to solve issues with Sri Lanka’s law and order system are prevalent, and Rajapaksa’s announcement of his candidacy at a time when fear is high is a calculated and opportunistic move.

April 27th

The President Media Division said that National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), a group believed to have assisted in the attacks. would be banned under the Emergency Regulations. This is despite lawyers noting that 5 regulations under the PTA would allow for the NTJ and JMI to be proscribed.

Meanwhile, reports were received that Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera was refusing to step down from his post despite the President’s request. Sirisena blamed Jayasundera and Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando for not sharing advance warning of the attacks. Jayasundera had not reported for work on Saturday but an officer confirmed he had not resigned.

In a media release, the Ministry of Defence also warned that those inciting racial hatred and violence would be strictly dealt with under Emergency Regulations. The release noted that action would be taken against those disseminating false information in order to mislead.

India issued a travel advisory noting that those traveling to Sri Lanka were advised not to undertake non-essential travel, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. The advisory noted that night-time curfews were in place which would make traveling within Sri Lanka more difficult. The US on the 26th of April also upgraded its advisory to a Level 3 and advised tourists to reconsider travel.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the Sainthamaruthu, Kalmunai attack on April 27, saying that 17 policemen had been killed in the attack. Once again, as with the Easter Sunday bombing, there was a delay in making the claim.

ISIS’ statement also differed from the police’s account of the gun-battle – no policemen had been killed, they said.

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This post will be regularly updated as the situation evolves.