Sri Lanka Attacks: Are Intelligence Services Failing Us?

Sri Lanka Attacks: Are Intelligence Services Failing Us?

The world is reeling after the terrorist attacks across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, and it seems authorities had been alerted to threats weeks before.

On Sunday 21st April 2019, several explosive devices were set off in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. Tragically, at least 250 people were killed, and several more injured.  Cabinet spokesman and health minister Rajitha Senaratne has named a local Islamic extremist fringe group National Tawheed Jamath, responsible for the attacks.

As more information about the attacks has unfolded, it has become clear that they were influenced and organised by a larger organisation to have caused so much harm. Many have suggested there must have been influence from outside of the country itself to carry out such attacks. IS have claimed responsibility, but their claims are not always truthful and UK officials think it is highly unlikely IS were involved. However, the influence of IS is clear with a video emerging of the group pledging allegiance to the terrorist organisation.

Deeply concerning information has now been released suggesting that the intelligence services in Sri Lanka may have actually been forewarned of the terrorist attacks. A document sent to the Sri Lankan police chief earlier in April named the group National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ) and their leader in a warning of a planned attack on churches and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka. While the provider of this information has not been named, it has been suggested that some intelligence may have come from the Indian Foreign Intelligence Service, which has agents placed in Islamic extremist groups. Rajitha Senaratne has said that there was information given to authorities from as early as the 4th of April, and that on 9th April the Chief of National Intelligence wrote a letter with a list of names from the NTJ.  The cabinet spokesman added his concerns that the Prime Minister had not been made aware of the threats. Furthermore, the Sri Lankan police chief, Pujith Jayasundara, has resigned over the bombings, demonstrating the severity of the intelligence forces’ failures.

Further to warnings about specific attacks, the alleged ‘ringleader’, Zahran Hashim, was known as an influential radical extremist speaker. Some Muslim communities in Sri Lanka have now said that they had warned the authorities about Hashim’s calls for violence multiple times before, and he had been banned from speaking by some groups due to his severe views. Hashim had been in hiding for 2 years before the attack after police tried to arrest him in 2017 surrounding violence between ideologically opposed Muslim groups. Police say they had not been able to keep track of him in this period.

The Role of Social Media

Hashim had gained a following on YouTube and other social media platforms, posting videos advocating violence against non-Muslims. Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, said he had been reported due to social media output, including once in January this year, but security services had not acted on the information.

This is very worrying on two accounts. Firstly, it brings into question the responsibilities of social media in preventing hate crime and extremism. Facebook have previously admitted that their platform had been used to incite and spread violence in Myanmar, and they struggled to stop the dissemination and livestreaming of footage from the Christchurch attacks in March this year. This is a pertinent topic in the UK at the moment due to the government’s announcement of measures to increase safety online. Social media firms will be held to a compulsory duty of care to protect their users from content that incites violence, among other threats. It is shocking to think that Hashim was able to post multiple YouTube videos that called for violence to non-Muslims. The fact that such dangerous individuals and groups have access to this level of publicity needs serious attention from authorities.

The second concerning factor about the situation with Zahran Hashim is that his online presence was known to so many people. The public nature of social media, and particularly YouTube, suggests that serious oversights have been made by intelligence services in Sri Lanka to have not kept a closer eye on Hashim’s online behaviour.

Another of the bombers, Abdul Latif Jamil Mohammed, is known to have lived in the UK and Australia. While UK officials think it is unlikely he would have been radicalised in the UK as he lived here only briefly 12 years ago, it does bring up the question of whether the country, and the world over, is doing enough to protect Muslims from being groomed and radicalised.

Sri Lanka’s Social Media Ban

Sri Lanka’s government decided to temporarily block social media. This drastic move shows the importance of social media in the story. The government feared the spread of misinformation or violent messages, and has found it appropriate to take this action to prevent further damage from taking place.

The government and intelligence services’ failure to spot the signs of extremism online is disturbing. Our Web Guardians ™ programme at JAN Trust involves working with women and mothers to prevent and tackle online radicalisation in our community. This vital grassroots work can save families from extremism, and we recognise the potential for social media to cause harm and spread violence in society. We are deeply saddened by the attacks in Sri Lanka, and our thoughts are with those affected at this time.

We have been working within our community for 30 years now, find out how you can help support our cause here.