In Sri Lanka, who knew what, and when did they know it?

In Sri Lanka, who knew what, and when did they know it?
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Sri Lanka is a nation in crisis after the horrific Easter Sunday attacks, which killed over 300 people in churches and hotels. News that there was advanced notice of those attacks has further shocked the country and inflamed political passions there. 

Total government dysfunction was apparently one important factor in the nation’s inability to heed the early warnings.


In the nation’s divided and fractious multi-party government, President Sirisena has responsibility for defense, police, and security; he had shut out Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and the cabinet from those areas. The PM was not invited when the president convened his National Security Council.  

Thus, when the government of India informed the Sri Lankan security establishment of possible attacks on churches and the Indian High Commission (embassy), the information was compartmentalized and reportedly never reached the PM and the rest of government. 

Why the police never acted on the information is a separate question that is yet to be answered. Bureaucratic inertia probably played a role. The warnings reached Sri Lanka on the eve of local new year's celebrations during which the government effectively closes for a week. 

Ethnic stereotypes may have been a factor as well. Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic nation dominated by the majority Sinhalese. A 25-year war with Tamil separatists was marked by urban terrorism and suicide bombers and ended only 10 years ago. The relatively small Muslim minority (10 percent of the population) has been more put upon than aggressive.  

There have been periodic reports of radicalization of the Muslim community by returnees from Saudi Arabia or imams influenced by Wahabi-brand extremism but no history of attacks by extremist Muslims.  

The small National Tawheed Jamaat was best-known for vandalism against Buddhist temples; claims that it was planning wide-scale terrorism might have been met with skepticism by security analysts.

Recent attacks on Christian churches had been perpetrated by Sinhalese Buddhist extremists, not by Muslims.    So a report of potential Muslim attacks targeting Christians would have been greeted with some skepticism within the Sri Lankan security establishment. 

Much of the debate is now about who knew what and why no action was taken. Sri Lanka is a proudly democratic nation. Amid the current outcry, an always-feisty parliament has become increasingly divisive. Demands for accountability are accompanied by angry allegations of responsibility.  

Former President Rajapakse, now in opposition, has reminded the nation that he left a peaceful nation when he stepped down in 2015. The archbishop of Colombo told the press he would have called off Sunday mass if he had been warned.   

President Sirisena has announced a three-member panel, led by a former Supreme Court justice, to investigate the attacks. He has also declared a state of emergency, allowing the security forces extraordinary powers of arrest and detention.  

The bombers all seem to have been Sri Lankan. The National Tawheed Jamaat shares a name and perhaps affiliation with an India-based Islamist organization, but any outside links of the bombers are yet to be demonstrated.  

The belated claim by the Islamic State that the bombings were their retribution for the attacks on mosques in New Zealand needs to be evaluated carefully and skeptically.

In Sri Lanka, almost no one in power is playing the Islamist card, even though some politicians have spent years stoking chauvinist sentiments. Civic leaders and parliamentarians are warning against retribution focused on the Muslim community. 

Here, too, history plays a role. The beginnings of Sri Lanka’s 25-year ethnic conflict were rooted in violent attacks in 1983 directed against Tamil households in the city of Colombo. No one wants to risk another generation-long explosion of violence between ethnic or religious communities.

In the end, Sri Lanka’s memories of 25 years of ethnic conflict and many thousands of lives lost may help temper the reaction to these attacks and foster some measure of the peace and reconciliation so desperately needed there.

Donald Camp is a retired Foreign Service officer whose first assignment was in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His last was on the National Security Council staff as senior director for South and Central Asia. He is currently a non-resident senior associate with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.