Colombo, April 23 (IANS) Scrutiny fell on rifts in Sri Lanka’s leadership after it emerged that authorities were previously warned about the local Muslim outfit accused in horrific Easter Sunday bombings which killed 321 people, but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Cabinet were not informed of the terror threat.
Security agencies had been watching the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) Islamist group, reports said, and had notified the police about a possible attack.
The security alert, which surfaced just hours after the carnage, is now the focus of intensive attention, as Sri Lanka’s government and its international allies investigate the deadliest terror attack in the island nation’s history.
But it has also exposed the split within the Sri Lankan government as Wickremesinghe said that neither he nor his Cabinet Ministers were informed of the terror threat by the security establishment, which answers to his bitter rival, President Maithripala Sirisena.
The intense animosity between the President and Prime Minister led to a constitutional crisis last October when Sirisena ousted his erstwhile ally and tried to replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former President.
Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet were eventually reinstated by the Supreme Court, but tensions still afflict the functioning of government. The Prime Minister’s allies had complained that Wickremesinghe had been barred from National Security Council meetings since last year.
The President, who has retained control of the security apparatus, was out of the country when the suicide bombings took place in three Sri Lankan cities.
Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told the media on Monday intelligence agencies had begun issuing warnings about the group on April 4, after which the Defence Ministry sent a detailed warning to the chief of police; and on April 11 a memo was sent to the heads of several security divisions.
He said information passed to the police included a warning from a foreign intelligence agency about possible attacks by the group, as well as names of members.
“The government is in shambles,” said Mario Arulthas, Advocacy Director at Pearl, a human rights organisation focused on the country’s ethnic Tamil minority. “Since the attempted coup last year… the two conflicting parties have not been able to work together.”
Hilmy Ahmed, a top official at the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella organisation of Muslim civil society groups, told the Financial Times that the Council reported the NJT to the intelligence agencies three years ago after stumbling on its inflammatory social media posts.
Security analysts say the NTJ Islamist group is heavily influenced by Wahhabi ideals and took root in Sri Lanka’s under-developed Eastern Province after 2009, when the decades-long ethnic civil war ended.
Most analysts say that the violence – coming ahead of presidential elections due this year – will strengthen the appeal of hardline Buddhist nationalist leaders such as Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is campaigning to be the next head of state.
While in power, President Rajapaksa presented himself as a strong man capable of suppressing terrorist threats, experts say.
But Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director of the International Crisis Group, warned that the country’s political elites and Buddhist nationalists needed to tread carefully to prevent the attacks from igniting a new cycle of inter-religious violence.
“If Sri Lanka wants to avoid another long ethnic conflict, it’s essential that the leadership restrains any parts of the population that want to exploit this for political ends, and in particular if they want to go after the already under pressure Muslim community,” said Keenan.