Sri Lanka Muslims had warned officials about jihadist group

National Thowheed Jamath
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/TNS
Security personnel inspect the interior of St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

BY IAIN MARLOW
BLOOMBERG NEWS/TNS

NEW DELHI – For members of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, it’s no surprise that local jihadist group National Thowheed Jamath is being blamed for deadly bombings that killed nearly 300 people on Easter Sunday.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said he warned military intelligence officials about the group and its leaders about three years ago. On Monday afternoon, Sri Lanka’s government said National Thowheed Jamath was responsible for six suicide bombings at Christian churches and luxury hotels.

“Targeting the non-Muslim community is something they encourage — they say you have to kill them in the name of religion,” Ahamed said in a phone interview from Colombo on Monday. “I personally have gone and handed over all the documents three years ago, giving names and details of all these people. They have sat on it. That’s the tragedy.”

The National Thowheed Jamath has broken up into various groups as individual leaders pursued separate funding sources, Ahamed said. Although not all members of the group were radicalized, the group is “extremist in their thinking,” he added.

RESIGNATION URGED

As Sri Lanka continues to treat the wounded, questions are being raised — including by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — about why Sri Lanka didn’t act more promptly on warnings ahead of the Easter attacks.

The government is now investigating possible links to international terrorist organizations as well.

Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne on Monday called on the inspector general of police to resign.

“The intelligence services had done the work, but it was not acted on at higher levels,” he told reporters in Colombo.

Harin Fernando, a cabinet minister, circulated an internal security memo dated earlier this month that warned the group was “getting ready for suicide attacks on popular Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission.” It also said the group’s members were “inciting hatred” among online followers.

“Serious action need to be taken as to why this warning was ignored,” Fernando said.

National police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera did not respond to several phone calls on Monday.

WAR FATALITIES

Sri Lanka only recently recovered from a brutal 26-year civil war between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority. The long-running conflict killed more than 100,000 people before former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa launched a final assault on the group in 2009.

Since the war ended, Buddhist extremists have occasionally led attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka. The most recent flare up was in March 2018 in Kandy and was widely viewed as fueled by Facebook posts that urged deadly violence against Muslims.

One possibility is that Sri Lanka’s authorities, long used to dealing with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatists, did not take seriously the idea that an Islamic extremist group was capable of coordinating such a well-planned and deadly attack, said Sameer Patil, director of the Centre for International Security at Mumbai’s Gateway House think-tank.

“Even though their activity was picked up and the community reported this, the Sri Lankan security agencies still go on their long experience with the bloody insurgency,” Patil said. “Their mindset is still attuned to any future terrorist attack coming from Tamil Tiger extremists.”

He added it’s possible the attack may not have been carried out by the group itself but by an offshoot or members affiliated with the group.

‘BARBED REFERENCE’

Wickremesinghe, who returned to power in December after President Maithripala Sirisena fired him last year amid government infighting, said authorities had received warnings but “not enough attention had been paid” to them. The two leaders, from different parties, rule as part of a fractious coalition.

The premier’s comments amount to a “barbed reference” to Sirisena’s control of the police and military, which fall under the office of the president, according to Jehan Perera, executive director at National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He noted the Tamil Tigers were never able to mount such a coordinated attack in the capital, Colombo.

“The prime minister is making a barbed reference to the president, and what he’s been up to, because his people — the police and military — have not been following up on leads,” Perera said. “The fact that this group was able to come in and do something in such a large scale way means that there must have been a breakdown of intelligence networks.”

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