Did Sri Lankan officials know the attack was coming?
In a word, yes.
They knew the group was dangerous, mostly thanks to a confidential security memo laid out a treasure trove of information: names, addresses, phone numbers, even the times in the middle of the night that one suspect would visit his wife. They had collected intelligence on the whereabouts of its leaders in the April 11 security memo, which warned of Catholic church bombings. They had been warned even earlier by India that the group was plotting church attacks. They knew as far back as January that radical Islamists possibly tied to the group had stockpiled weapons and detonators.
And within hours of when three churches and three hotels were bombed, Sri Lankan security services swooped down on at least 24 suspects, suggesting that they also knew exactly where the group had been operating.
Why the security agencies failed to act aggressively on the information before the bombings is a massive question, to put it mildly. Early reports suggest that a bitter feud between the president and prime minister caused a lapse in communication that left the prime minister ignorant of the information the security agencies had. The rift between the president and PM is nothing new, but it’s unprecedented for it to have caused a breakdown in actionable intelligence-sharing.
Sri Lanka’s president has yet to provide any semblance of a satisfying answer as to why the security services did not do more to thwart the bombers. Shiral Lakthilaka, a senior adviser, denied that there had been any security lapses and said that a reason for inaction was not to shake people up. No, I’m not kidding.
“Everyone has done their job,” he said. “These kinds of alerts are coming time to time. Even U.S. or anyone will not try to panic people.”
He did, however, reassure everyone that the president had appointed a special committee, led by a Supreme Court judge, to investigate the matter. And he acknowledged that the warnings about NTJ— disclosed in the April 11 memo posted above — had been circulated only among police officials in charge of “VIP security.”
Apparently, Christians in Sri Lanka don’t qualify as “VIP’s.”
The tracking of NTJ goes back further than recent warning memos, though. India, a close ally of Sri Lanka’s, has been watching the entire South Asia region for any sign of activity by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State for upwards of a year. And Indian security agencies had been scrutinizing the movements of NTJ’s leader, Mohammed Zaharan, a known extremist who has spent time in both India and Sri Lanka, and who in recent years has preached Islamist messages online.
As early as April 4, the Indians provided the Sri Lankans with cellphone numbers and information about Mr. Zaharan and his lieutenants who they said were planning suicide attacks on Catholic churches and the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan security services then ran down addresses and put several members of the group under close surveillance.
The intel-sharing, which later manifested in the form of a memo, included precise information, such as the observation that Mr. Zaharan’s brother, an avid recruiter for the group, “visits his wife and children in the nights (2300hrs -0400hrs)” and it listed an exact address, down to a house number and cross street.
Believe it or not, it gets even worse.
in January, Sri Lankan officials said that evidence had emerged revealing that homegrown Islamist groups presented an even graver threat than the statue-destroying they’d witnessed months earlier. Investigations connected to the statue destruction led police officials to a remote coconut plantation in northwestern Sri Lanka where officers discovered an elaborate weapons cache with more than 100 kilograms of explosives, detonators, wire cords, a rifle, bullets, dry rations and Islamist propaganda.
Those same officials say that discovery still couldn’t help them predict an attack on the scale of what we just witnessed, however, explaining again that they must have had outside help. Even so, A WEAPONS CACHE DISCOVERY IN CONJUNCTION WITH ACTIONABLE INTEL FROM A REPUTABLE SERVICE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ENOUGH TO SHUT THE GROUP DOWN LONG BEFORE THEY HAD THE CHANCE TO SHOW WHAT THEY WERE CAPABLE OF.
But again, officials blame the months-long feud between the president and prime minister of causing a political breakdown, which led the president to exclude the prime minister from top security briefings, which in turn left the prime minister’s office with no inkling that suicide attacks were imminent.
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