Fresh details emerging from the Easter Sunday attacks make for grim reading. The staggering level of planning, resources and coordination as well as the suspected use of military grade explosives have pushed the bombings into the realm of global terrorism. The Government over the last few days has insisted that they suspect an international connection and sought the support of international agencies to broaden investigations. The seriousness of improving Sri Lanka’s intelligence capacity cannot be overstated and it is imperative that this be prioritised by officials.
Information that the attackers were very likely from well-to-do families, could have studied abroad and had families makes the situation even scarier, if that were possible. The details of how they operated are finally beginning to enter the public domain. Security remains on high alert and scores of search operations and arrests have been made as the country continues under State of Emergency.
Statements made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene as well as by President Maithripala Sirisena himself have shown there was a damning intelligence lapse at the highest level of Government. President Sirisena in his first address to the nation since the horrific attacks admitted that he was not briefed of the threats or informed of the intelligence warnings received from India and possibly the US. He has since then demanded the resignations of the Secretary of Defence Hemasiri Fernando and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara and pledged to restructure the intelligence agencies.
The President only has the power to remove Hemasiri so it is unclear if the Police Chief will step down. But whatever the steps taken, there is no doubt that intelligence agencies need to be given intense training and resources, legal space, and coordination power at unprecedented level. Basic tinkering with them will not be sufficient. There has to be a sustained, long-term program that will be carried out by successive governments to promote the security of Sri Lanka.
As the Government itself has admitted, Sri Lanka now has to transition from tackling home-grown terrorism such as the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) to global terror with layered complexities that are truly mindboggling. Even within the country the fact that the Government initially identified the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and now believes a splinter group may also have been involved is an indication of how massive the challenge will be to combat terrorism threats effectively. A possible link with Islamic State is perhaps the most frightening development since the actual attacks on Sunday.
One of the biggest tasks of the Government is to earn some level of public confidence and trust that has been shattered in the wake of the security lapses. Sri Lanka has been offered assistance by dozens of countries and it is time that these offers of help are accepted. Rapidly expanding and improving intelligence capacity is also crucial to bolstering public faith and dull problematic demands such as banning of certain clothing favoured by the Muslim community.
Sri Lanka cannot allow itself to slip back into suspicious and suppression. If legal measures need to be taken they must be done so based on facts and not emotional reactions. Intelligence gathering, sharing and implementation needs to become depoliticised and professionalised as it has a role to play in both security and unity.