Tuesday, 30 April 2019

How shocking police, intelligence services’ failure facilitated Easter Sunday carnage

...first NTJ attack took place in the wake of the Oct 2018 ‘constitutional coup’



President Sirisena, flanked by Lt. Gen. Senanayake and Dr. Raghavan addressing the media at the President’s House

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In spite of being seated next to President Maithripala Sirisena, Northern Province Governor Dr. Suren Raghavan, last week, obviously didn’t hear what the Commander-in-Chief told a group of print and electronic media journalists and proprietors of privately-owned media invited for a special briefing on the Easter Sunday carnage.

The briefing, last Friday (April 26), at the President’s House, began 30 minutes later than the scheduled time.

At the onset of the briefing, President Sirisena rapped his staff for the inappropriate placing of a projection screen. An irate President, while directing the moveable projection screen be placed appropriately, pointed out this reflected the situation in the country. The President didn’t bother to hide his displeasure. President Sirisena was on a three-day holiday, in Singapore, when suicide bombers struck in three different administrative districts.

The briefing began with Brigadier Chula Kodituwakku, the Director of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), explaining the circumstances leading to the worst single security breach ever. His 20-minute, briefing with the help of a power point presentation was followed by President Sirisena’s explanation as to why his government pathetically failed to thwart the terrorist operation. Having declared that he wouldn’t seek to absolve himself of the responsibility for the situation, President Sirisena vowed to finish off those responsible. The President flayed the UNP for weakening the military and the DMI. The Commander-in-Chief expressed confidence the military had the wherewithal to speedily neutralize the threat. The President, flanked by Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, and Dr. Raghavan, asserted that the threat would be taken care of, militarily.

Within a week, terrorists suffered debilitating setbacks, with a chance detection of a key hideout in the Ninthavur area, leading to the mass suicide, thereby thwarting a possible second wave of suicide bombings. Wife of Zahran Hashim, the person widely believed to have led those responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage, was apprehended by law enforcement authorities, following the confrontation there on April 26 evening. Their little daughter, too, was rescued.

Have you ever heard of a President, outside Sri Lanka, alleging his own government of jeopardizing the military and intelligence services? The situation in Sri Lanka seems unique. Then President Chandrika Bandaranaike accused the UNP of jeopardizing national security in the wake of a Norway-spearheaded negotiating process. The UNP caused a debilitating setback by ordering a probe on DMI on the basis of unsubstantiated allegation the premier intelligence service planned to assassinate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe during the Dec 05, 2001, parliamentary polls. The UNP persisted even after the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, himself one-time DMI Chief, assuring the UNP there was absolutely no basis for the accusation (Army chief says no truth in UNP claims,’ The Island, Nov 11, 2001)

At the April 26 briefing, the President didn’t indicate an interest in initiating talks with extremists. Instead, President Sirisena wanted to go the whole hog. President Sirisena, who is also the Minister in charge of the Law and Order portfolio, secured parliamentary approval to unleash the military.

Perhaps, Hemasiri Fernando has something SHOCKING to say. Did he have no option but to take blame for something he wasn’t responsible?

The media posed a spate of questions to President Sirisena and Lt. Gen. Senanayake. However, Dr. Raghavan, towards the very end of the session, offered advise, contrary to what President Sirisena said. The writer was quite surprised to hear Dr. Raghavan calling for direct talks with those responsible for the heinous crime. One-time Director of the President’s Media asserted talks were necessary in the absence of an accepted mechanism to deal with such a situation. A smiling Dr. Raghavan declared that there was no model/framework to tackle such security threats.

This statement was made on his own. The media certainly didn’t seek the Northern Governor’s opinion. The writer is certain no other journalist present on that occasion bothered to take down notes of Dr. Raghavan’s brief unsolicited advice. Perhaps, the electronic media must have recorded him, hence an opportunity to verify, if necessary.

Dr. Raghavan received appointment as Governor Northern Province in early January this year. Subsequently, he captured media attention in the wake of being included in the government delegation to the 40th sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The writer doesn’t want to examine Dr. Raghavan’s assertion, taking into consideration TNA heavyweight Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran’s allegation that Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hisbullah maintained clandestine links with the group the Easter Sunday attackers belonged to. The writer himself raised the issue with President Sirisena at the briefing.

Dr. Raghavan recently caused quite a controversy in the wake of the Geneva sessions. The Northern Governor earned the wrath of UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet for misleading comments on a meeting she had with the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva. Dr. Raghavan immediately withdrew his comments. This column dealt with the Geneva issue. Subsequently, Dr. Raghavan played a key role in the Presidential Media awards 2018.

President Sirisena’s team must speak in one voice. President Sirisena, cannot afford to have key members of his team pulling in different directions, especially now. Perhaps, Dr. Raghavan should call a media conference of his own to explain/justify recommendation for direct talks with the terrorist grouping, comprising members of the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) and Jamiathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). Certainly, Dr. Raghavan also didn’t take into consideration what Brig. Kodituwakku told the gathering in respect of those seeking to cause mayhem. The Brigadier also dealt with the Sri Lankans involvement with ISIS or IS with the focus on expanded ties between them since the first Sri Lankan member of the group died in an American air strike in Syria.

Since the April 26 meeting, the President had with the media, his government proscribed both the NTJ and JMI and was busy in cracking down on those connected with both grops. It would be interesting to know how the government dealt with politicians allegedly involved with the NTJ and JMI. All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen, MP, Western Province Governor Azath Salley, and Mujibur Rahaman, MP, denied allegations directed at them. However, the arrest of UNP Colombo Municipal Councillor Noordeen Mohamed Thajudeen over the discovery of 46 swords in a Mosque, at Slave Island, sent shock waves through the UNP. Thajudeen represents the Colombo Central area. ACMC with its five parliamentarians aligned with the UNP is a constituent of the government. The ACMC represented the previous Rajapaksa administration, too.

With the presidential election scheduled for later this year, President Sirisena still hoping for a consensus with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peranuna (SLPP) to contest the presidential poll, cannot afford to allow a second wave of suicide bombings in Colombo, its suburbs or any part of the country. The suicide, attack directed at the Zion Church, in Central Road, Batticaloa, underscored the daunting challenge in protecting civilian targets not only in the East but North as well. The government cannot ignore evidence that the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday massacre also planned to bomb St. Theresa’s Church, in Kilinochchi. Former TNA member of the Northern Provincial Council Anandi Sasitharan’s called for beefing up of security in the Northern region, though she was earlier at the forefront of a high profile campaign to withdraw the Army. As the wife of one-time LTTE senior Sinnathurai Sasitharan alias Elilan, she played a critical role in anti-Sri Lanka campaign. With the Army back on the roads, in the North, following re-imposition of Emergency Regulations, the TNA will have to rethink its political strategy. TNA ally, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), too, will have to review its strategy. The top TNA leadership, as well as those foreign governments, and some civil society groups pushing for much reduced military presence in the Northern and Eastern regions, find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. The re-imposition of Emergency Regulations, without a division in parliament, reflected the political crisis experienced by the TNA and the JVP.

Back to President Sirisena’s meeting with the journalists. It would be pertinent to mention how journalists were subjected to scrutiny before they entered the road, leading to the President’s House. President’s Security Division introduced new measures in the wake of the Easter Sunday morning suicide attacks. The writer, however felt that security measures that had been adopted weren’t sufficient to thwart possible infiltration attempt. In fact, the writer is of the view new security measures in place were wholly inadequate in view of the growing threat posed by deranged Islamic terrorists.

Fonseka in the limelight

An unprecedented negligence, on the part of the police that led to the Easter Sunday massacres, gave Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka the perfect opportunity to lambaste the current dispensation. The war-winning Army Commander rationally explained as to how those at the helm of the administration contributed to the deterioration of national security, since the change of government in January 2015. Referring affectionately to those who held law and order portfolio over the past four years, Fonseka questioned their suitability to exercise authority over law enforcement. Fonseka said that all of them had been clueless regarding their ability and capacity to handle the vital portfolio. The Sinha Regiment veteran also questioned the rationale in appointing Ruwan Wijewardene, MP, in his early 40s to, deal with the military. Fonseka criticized Wijewardene being appointed as State Defence Minister. But perhaps, Fonseka’s most important assessment was that the Easter Sunday carnage shouldn’t be simply blamed on the then Defence Secretary, Hemasiri Fernando, and IGP Pujith Jayasundera. Fonseka declared that the political authority should take the blame for the massive loss of lives, injuries to hundreds and the economic cost as well.

Fonseka declared that in any other country, the government would have resigned in the wake of such a national calamity. Fonseka pointed out that here no one took responsibility.

UNP National List lawmaker hit all around the wicket on April 24, 2019

The only one to accept responsibility for a major debacle/failure at national level was Army Commander Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne. Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne resigned in the wake of the Pooneryn debacle, in early Nov 1993, though he could have easily passed the buck as happened after so many debacles, before and after Pooneryn.

Commando-style multi-pronged assault on Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai complex jolted the then President D.B. Wijetunga’s government. Several hundred troops perished in the assault. The Army managed to hold onto a section of the Pooneryn base until reinforcements fought their way in. The Nagathevanthurai Navy detachment was lost. Waidyaratne took the rap.

Sri Lanka suffered debilitating setbacks due to political and military miscalculations. President Sirisena cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for appointing Hemasiri Fernando as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence on Oct. 30, 2018. Fernando succeeded Kapila Waidyaratne, PC, formerly of the Attorney General’s Department. After the change of government, in January 2015, President named B.M.U.D. Basnayake as the Defence Secretary (January-Sept 2015). Basnayake was followed by Karunaratne Hettiarachchi (Sept 2015 to July 2017) and Kapila Waidyaratne (July 2017 to Oct. 2018). President Sirisena brought in Hemasiri Fernando close on the heels of the ‘constitutional coup’ perpetrated by President Sirisena and his predecessor twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Fernando, who had held various vital posts during previous administrations earned the wrath of the armed forces, in late January 2019, for a disparaging statement regarding the war-winning military. President Sirisena allowed Fernando to continue regardless of the controversial statement. Fernando owed an explanation as to why he felt comfortable in seeking Tamil Diaspora help to prosecute military officers and men over accountability issues.

Why did President choose Fernando, a former member of the Volunteer Navy holding the rank of Commander?

Can Fernando explain as to why he refrained from informing President Sirisena of the Indian intelligence alert, received on April 04, 2019?

In fact, Fernando’s lapse is far more serious than IGP Jayasundera’s whose failure to verify action taken by his subordinates caused a catastrophe. A three-member presidential committee now investigating one of the worst security failures should also examine as to why Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) retired Senior DIG Sisira Mendis failed to verify action taken by those responsible.

Muslim fanatics went on the offensive on the morning of April 21, 2019, 16 days after Sri Lanka received, warning from New Delhi.

The writer sought an explanation from Lt. Gen. Senanayake as to why the Director of DMI Brig. Kodituwakku was deprived of the CNI warning, based on the Indian alert. The issue was raised at the President’s House briefing. Lt. Gen. Senananayake acknowledged the denial of the intelligence alert. Who ordered the DMI out of the national intelligence loop, though it should have been a rightful recipient of such a valuable document? When did the Office of CNI stop sharing such information with the DMI?

Perhaps, it would be pertinent to examine whether Army Headquarters brought the situation to the notice of President Sirisena, or at least Defence Secretary Fernando.

During the war, DMI played a crucial role in the war against the LTTE with Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendavitharana receiving the appreciation of all for valuable services rendered by his officers and men. The DMI provided crucial information that led to high profile successful operations. The Nov 02, 2007 SLAF strike, on the Kilinochchi hideout of so called LTTE political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan, was provided by the DMI. The Navy hunted down floating LTTE arsenals on the high seas on the basis of intelligence provided by the DMI. The list of DMI success is long.

The Island inquiries also revealed that the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) too was denied intelligence warning.

The post of CNI was created by way of a cabinet paper, in 2006, to accommodate Hendavitharana who returned to the country following a foreign assignment. Can the post of CNI be held by a serving or retired police officer?

The arrest of a Mohamed Sharif Adam Lebbe alias Gaffoor (53), during a raid in Kattankudy, revealed another shocking intelligence failure. Gaffoor, who had been Zahran’s driver, under interrogation revealed their involvement in the killing of two police constables at Vavunativu on Nov 30, 2018. The killings were blamed on former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The police detained several ex-LTTE cadres. Investigators asserted that ex-LTTE cadres mounted the attack to avenge the Vavunativu police interfering with the annual Heroes’ week celebrations. Obviously, the police and intelligence services failed in the Vavnativu probe. It would be interesting to know whether the DMI conducted a thorough inquiry to into the Vavnativu killings. The police and the DMI certainly owed an explanation as to why they couldn’t bring the investigation to a successful conclusion. Had they succeeded, Sri Lanka may have averted the Easter Sunday massacre. Unfortunately, the police have been on the wrong track. The arrest of Zahran’s driver led to the recovery of personal weapons of victim policemen seized after Vavnativu killings, buried at Wanathavilluwa.

Did the NTJ and the JMI seek to exploit political turmoil to their advantage? Thanks to swift and decisive law enforcement and military response to the new threat, perpetrators of the Vavnativu killings are now known. Don’t forget those extremists caused damages to Buddha statues at Mawanella, in late Dec 2018. Investigations led to the exposure of their Wanathavilluwa hideout.

With two key national elections, scheduled for later this year, and mid next, a comprehensive post-Easter Sunday security/intelligence study is needed. Possible links these extremists may have had with people’s representatives at different levels, including lawmakers, cannot be ignored under any circumstances. Failure to do so may result in a catastrophe even worse than the Easter Sunday carnage. Let me stress that it would be a grave mistake on the part of the government to blame the recent attacks on the then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and IGP Pujith Jayasundera, who has been sent on compulsory leave by President Sirisena and Senior DIG C.D. Wickremerathne appointed as Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) on Monday.

Jayasundera, in spite of being asked by the President to resign, held on to his post, pending a decision by the parliament.

In the wake of the recent crisis, the powerful Constitutional Council, headed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, should be cautious in its decisions. The ten-member CC includes PM Wickremesinghe, Opp. Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Thalatha Atukorale, Bimal Ratnayake and three civil society members Jayantha Dhanapala, Naganathan Sellvakumaran and Javid Yusuf. One vacancy exists with Both TNA leader R.Sampanthan and EPDP leader Douglas Devananda seeking it. Can CC absolve itself of the responsibility choosing Pujith Jayasundera whose failure certainly contributed to the shocking disaster.