Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

A moment of reckoning for Sri Lanka’s leaders

Unheeded warnings about planned attacks show the importance of acting on intelligence

A mass burial in Katuwapity village in Negambo, Sri Lanka. Atul Loke / Getty Images
A mass burial in Katuwapity village in Negambo, Sri Lanka. Atul Loke / Getty Images

Yesterday, as the first of many mass funerals took place on a national day of mourning, some searing questions were being asked about the deadliest atrocity to take place in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war. Sri Lankans have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and solidarity in the aftermath of a series of co-ordinated attacks killing at least 320 – including 45 children - and injuring 500 on Sunday. Thousands have come forward to donate blood and strangers have come together to console one another. But grief is swiftly turning to anger and acrimony as more information emerges about the apparent perpetrators and the failure to stop them. It now seems a catastrophic security lapse led to the attack after senior government officials admitted they had been warned of the attacks and given names of some of the suspects a fortnight earlier but failed to act.

According to the memo from the intelligence chief, the attacks were masterminded by the Islamist militant group National Tawheed Jamaat, whose actions had previously been limited to the desecration of several Buddhist statues. If so, this prompts deeply concerning questions – primarily, how a fringe national group managed to mount such a multi-pronged, sophisticated attack, with methods and devices that suggest it had help from a global terrorist network. But it also suggests the tragedy might have been averted, had political wrangling and an ongoing stand-off between president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe not prevented the warning from being passed on. The latter's allies claim he was not even told of the memo. Sri Lanka’s leadership will today be contemplating the possibility that their personal differences might have played a part in endangering lives. This is a moment for pause and a solemn reminder of the responsibility leaders carry to act on intelligence.

Meanwhile, tension is stirring in Sri Lanka, whose scars from a 26-year war are still fresh. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but has not provided any evidence. Sri Lanka has expressed concerns about ISIS recruits returning from Iraq and Syria. There are fears that religious hatred will rear its head as more details emerge about the possible perpetrators and their motives, and that aggression towards Muslims and other minorities will flare up. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s hard-won reputation as a tranquil tourist destination obscures its very recent history of bitter sectarianism. The Sri Lankan government should act quickly to counter hostilities as they arise. More broadly, if it emerges that National Tawheed Jamaat did carry out this atrocity with assistance from abroad, a co-ordinated global response must follow. The deployment of an Interpol team is a promising start, particularly as there are fears more unexploded devices have been planted across the island-state. The international community must coalesce around Sri Lanka and collectively fight the scourge of extremism that seeks to sow fear and hatred, because it only takes one unheeded warning to have a devastating impact.

Updated: April 23, 2019 05:51 PM

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