Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sent written responses to e-mailed questions from Hindustan Times on Easter Sunday’s suicide attacks on churches and hotels in Colombo, in which 253 people, including at least 45 children, were killed and hundreds injured. Till the time of going to press, 76 arrests were made which, according to media reports, include nine Pakistani nationals.
India’s National Investigation Agency NIA last year charged a Colombo-based Pakistan diplomat of plotting to attack the US and Israeli consulates in India and sent multiple warnings to Colombo ahead of this week’s terror attack, based upon intelligence and the interrogation of men connected with the same plot.
Wickremesinghe also answered questions on the rise of Islamist radicalism in Sri Lanka, intelligence-sharing with India and Colombo’s close ties with Islamabad. Edited excerpts:
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the carnage in Colombo. But over the past days, your government spokesmen have named various other groups, the local National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), the Jamaath-e-Mujahedeen India (JMI) – an offshoot of the Bangladesh terror group Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) which, in turn, was used by Pakistani diplomats in Dhaka and Colombo for pushing fake Indian currency and gathering classified information on India . Meanwhile, Indian intelligence officials have also pointed out that Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) charity, Idara Khidmat e Khalq, has been radicalising Sri Lankan Muslim youth since the tsunami of 2004. Was Pakistan involved in the attacks?
While we are investigating the possibility of foreign links, there is no evidence yet to suggest any particular country has backed these terrorists. All the countries in our region are faced with the same threats. India is trying to prevent global terror from spreading into our countries. Even the best of defences can sometimes be breached by ruthless terrorists, as we have seen time and again, all over the world. Our intelligence has worked with their counterparts abroad. But this is the first time that global terrorism has struck Sri Lanka. This is a new experience for us and we will work with our international allies to apprehend all the perpetrators.
There are unconfirmed reports that at least one of Sunday’s suicide bombers received some training at a terror camp in Pakistan. Colombo has excellent relations with Islamabad since you received its military support to end your civil war in 2009. Will ties be impacted now?
Pakistan has fully supported Sri Lanka’s war on terror. If necessary, we will seek their help to trace the terrorists and eliminate them. I see this tragic event as further strengthening the trust that exists between our countries and increasing cooperation.
Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) have maintained that 12,000 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre escaped and regrouped in European countries in 2009. Since then, caches of weapons have occasionally surfaced in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province (NP). The LTTE is the inventor of both the improvised explosive device (IED) as well as the suicide vest (incidentally, a favoured weapon of the Pakistan-based LeT). Could the LTTE have been a co-conspirator in this attack?
Suicide bombings are no longer a trademark of only the LTTE. They inspired many international terrorist outfits who followed their inhuman methods. Therefore, while we can rule out the active involvement of any LTTE elements, we can use the expertise and experience of our defence forces in dismantling the LTTE, to neutralise these external threats.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim community was always non-controversial and committed to secularism. Yet, 33 Sri Lankan Muslims joined the Islamic State in recent years. You said some days ago that some of them may have been involved in the attack on Sunday. Are Muslims being oppressed in Sri Lanka?
The Muslim community was under pressure from 2012 to 2014. Since 2015, there has been a marked improvement. Anti-Muslim sentiment was not allowed to raise its head. There was only one unfortunate incident in Kandy, which was brought under control. They have been patient in the face of these provocations, and I must commend their political leaders for maintaining inter-religious harmony. But again, the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment spreading across the liberal world and our region, has had some impact on Sri Lanka as well. We must provide constitutional guarantees to every community to coexist within one Sri Lanka.
If inter-religious harmony prevailed despite the attacks by Buddhist chauvinists that you refer to, why did your government allow various controversial speakers like Zakir Naik, who promote hatred and are banned in many countries including the United States and India, to preach in your country?
In recent years, we have had controversial speakers from more than one religion visiting Sri Lanka. In a democracy, everyone is entitled to follow their own leaders. While being sensitive to equal freedom of all groups, we closely scrutinise these individuals to ensure they don’t threaten our religious harmony or national security. As these teachings are accessible through the internet, we need the help of all religious leaders to mitigate their adverse influence on impressionable minds.
The relative peace of the past 10 years has been shattered. Is this the beginning of another era of bloodshed in Sri Lanka, with its roots yet again in Sinhala majority chauvinism, like the birth of the LTTE? Or, is this a new and different kind of terrorism originating primarily outside Sri Lanka?
The 30-year conflict in Sri Lanka was largely an internal ethnic issue, which spilled over at times into India. Following the end of the war, there was an urgent need to address the root causes that gave rise to that terrorism. Reconciliation efforts are moving forward while our government has championed the necessary constitutional recognition of religious and ethnic rights. However, while Sri Lanka has enjoyed relative peace, the last decade has seen dramatic developments in the global war on terror. We have had to monitor these external threats to our national security. This latest attack needs to be viewed against this backdrop. The choice of Easter suggests that the terrorists’ motive was to get the world’s attention, and not just cause domestic disruption of lives. We have to tackle local groups who are being radicalised by regional and international terrorists.
What are the specific ways in which India is helping with this probe?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally pledged India’s support to tackle the terrorists behind this attack. This causes concerns to India’s national security as our closest neighbour. India’s blessings and backing were key factors in defeating the LTTE. As another target and victim of terrorist attacks, India is sharing intelligence with us to root out terrorism altogether from our region.
The US ambassador to Sri Lanka has said that her country had no idea about the impending attacks and didn’t pass on any information to you. So did the prior warning come from India alone? And why was there such a terrible lapse in communication in Sri Lanka, even after it was received?
India and some friendly countries gave information. The information was there. Now we must look into why adequate precautions were not taken.