COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said here on Friday that the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks in three towns in the island were a reprisal for his hard campaign against drug trafficking.

Addressing the media, the President said that terrorist groups fund their activities by trafficking in drugs. They retaliate against forces which thwart this lucrative business. The LTTE had done so and now the Islamic State is doing it.

Under Sirisina’s order the Lankan police had been going hammer and tongs against drug dealers for the past few months seizing a large quantity of drugs and arresting scores of top dealers, both local and foreign.

Explaining the attack on Christian churches, the President said that they were targeted because Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had organized a procession of 4000 Catholics in support of his anti-drug campaign.

Three churches, one each in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, and three post hotels in Colombo, were bombed by suicide bombers who were Sri Lankan Muslims inspired by the Islamic State.

Aided by the Lanka’s intelligence chief Chula Seneviratne, President Sirisena said that the nine suicide bombers and their cohorts were Sri Lankan Sunni Muslims. They had split from existing over-ground Tawheed Jamaats, and got further radicalized through interactions with the Islamic State.

The leader of the group, Maulvi Mohammad Zahran Hashim, alias Zahran, had joined and split from various Tawheed Jamaats since 2011.Each split indicated further radicalization. The last organization in which Zahran was, was the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ). But he left it and went over to Tamil Nadu where he fell under the spell of Jamaat ul Mujahideen India (JMI), a close affiliate of the Islamic State.

Indoctrinated by the JMI on the need to indulge in terrorism to make one’s voice heard, Zahran motivated a set of well-heeled and highly educated Muslims with foreign exposure to organize and commit acts of terror.

It is believed that Zahran had led by example and had himself led the suicide attack on Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo along with a colleague of his.

Intelligence chief Seneviratne said that Zahran had died in the blast. But to make sure that the body recovered is indeed his, a DNA test has been called for.

The President admitted that there had been a major failure to take preventive action on the basis of some very precise intelligence passed on by India on April 4 and again on April 11.

Sirisena said that neither the Inspector General of Police Pujitha Jayasundara nor Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando took any action on the note submitted by DIG intelligence. They had not even informed the junior Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene, nor the Defense Minister (who is President himself). They did not inform the Prime Minister or any other minister either. There had been a National Security Council meeting in between when the duo did not speak about the Indian intelligence alert.

“On April 14, the Sinhala New Yea’s Day, the Defense Secretary and the IGP had come to wish me in the traditional way with betel leaves. But they did not utter a word about the intelligence tip off they had got,” the President said.

On April 11 India had given Sri Lanka the second warning about an impending terrorist strike against hotels, churches and the Indian High Commission itself.

“On April 21, when the blasts occurred, I was in Singapore. I got to know about the blasts in Sri Lanka not from any government official from Colombo but from the social media. If the two officials had told me about the intelligence input while I was in Tirupathi prior to going to Singapore, I would have come back within hour,” the President said.

“When I questioned the Defense Secretary and the IGP, both were silent, sitting with their eyes cast down. I suppose they accepted guilt,” the President said adding that the Defense Secretary has since resigned and the police chief had undertaken to resign on Friday.

As to what more action would be taken for grave negligence, the President said that he is waiting for the report of the Presidential Commission which he set up on April 22.

“I had given it two weeks to submit the report. Further action will be based on the report,” Sirisena said.

On further steps taken to ensure non-recurrence, Sirisena said that a Security Coordination Center is being set up which will function round the clock.

The President further said that he is contemplating a new law on the pattern of the one in Australia and in Singapore to go after those who indulge in activities related to terrorism.

“The existing Sri Lankan laws are weak. Though the Tawheed groups had been under the intelligence scanner since 2017, no arrests could be made because there were no suitable laws. If we had arrested the suspects under the existing laws, some human rights groups would have filed Fundamental Rights petitions and the courts would order release,” the President said.

The President said that though the police were aware that some of the Tawheed groups were preaching violence, separatism and terrorism, no arrests could be made as there was no evidence of terrorist activity as such.

“I am sending the Singapore and Australian laws to the Supreme Court to get their opinion and guidance for drafting a suitable Lankan law,” Sirisena said.

The President has already gazette some regulations under Emergency Law to enable the security forces including the military to detain suspects and searches.

“Houses will be searched and details taken. The Grama Niladhari (village officials) of have been asked to submit data on houses,” Sirisena said.

In answer to a question whether foreign forces will be allowed to participate in security duties as alleged by opposition MP, Dinesh Gunawardene, the President said that no foreign troops will be allowed. But anti-terrorism experts from abroad will work with Lankan intelligence. An FBI team is already here and security agencies from other countries including India are also cooperating.

Call To Protect Muslims

The Lankan President said that, at this juncture, it is very critical to maintain communal harmony.

“ Sri Lankans should not blame the Muslim community for the blasts. They were the work of a handful of people. The total number of people indoctrinated by the Islamic State propaganda in Sri Lanka is not more than 130. We have already arrested 70 people,” Sirisena said.

“It will be the responsibility of all Sri Lankans to protect the Muslims. At my meeting with religious leaders, a young Moulvi from Galle cried uncontrollably when he related the story of his school going child being stopped and searched. He said he has stopped the child from going to school. I was moved by this. Such things should not happen,” the President said.

Remarkable Restraint

Sri Lankans have indeed shown remarkable restraint even though the social media and some mainstream media have been putting out scary stories about more blasts, about a second terror group coming from India, about cities’ water supply systems being poisoned and anti-Muslim attacks in some place or the other.

These unfounded stories have created apprehension among the people and made them avoid venturing out unless there is a real necessity. Schools are closed and government had asked mosques not to have Jumma prayers on Friday by way of abundant precaution.

In Negombo, where a church was bombed, landlords evicted Ahmadiyya refugees from Pakistan and 700 ousted refugees had to take shelter in the local mosque and a police station. Other than this, there was no anti-Muslim action anywhere.

Security Forces are out in strength and any suspicious object, be it a bag, a car or a motorbike, is being blasted by way of abundant caution. These controlled blasts are getting reported as “terror attacks” in the social media.

The media should not publish anything before cross checking with the Information Department, the government has said.

“ We were thinking of lifting the curbs on social media on Friday but that has to be postponed," President Sirisena said.

Steps Taken By Muslims

Meanwhile, the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema, the highest seat of Islam in Sri Lanka has condemned the blasts and has asked Muslims not to accept the bodies of the suicide bombers.

It has also appealed to Muslims to cooperate with the law enforcement agencies. Muslim women have been requested to remove their veil when security personnel ask them to do so.