Sri Lanka Fires Security Heads After Defense Secretary Says ‘Impossible’ to Protect Churches

A security personnel stands guard near St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 24, 2019, three days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. - The toll in a series of suicide bomb blasts on Easter Sunday targeting hotels and churches in Sri …

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena announced Tuesday he would fire the heads of all security, police, and defense agencies in the country following the devastating jihadist attack on Easter Sunday that has now killed 359 people, mostly Christians.

Suicide bombers, allegedly affiliated to the local jihadist group National Towheeth Jama’ath, targeted three churches and three hotels known to attract Westerners during Easter religious services and brunch meals, respectively. The presence of large crowds in all the locations, most in or near the capital of Colombo, resulted in a large number of casualties. The Islamic State jihadist organization took responsibility for the attack on Tuesday, publishing photos of individuals they claim organized and executed the attack.

In a nationally televised address, Sirisena vowed “major changes in the leadership of the security forces” and an overhaul in their structure within 24 hours. He accused the nation’s defense and intelligence leaders of being aware of a jihadist threat on Easter and not telling him, making it impossible for his administration to properly respond to it.

“If they had done so, I would have taken immediate action. I have decided to take strict action against those who failed in their duty,” Sirisena promised.

Sri Lankan news outlets report that the president asked for the resignation of Secretary of Defence Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara on Wednesday.

Fernando had defended the country’s response to the warning on Tuesday by asserting that Sri Lanka has too many churches for the government to be expected to adequately defend them. Responding to a media question about why, given reports that Sri Lankan officials knew of an impending attack, the government did not increase security, Fernando responded, “To how many Churches could we give protection?”

“It was quite impossible to protect a large number of Churches last Sunday despite receiving prior information on these attacks,” he alleged.

Fernando also claimed that the government “never provided security to the luxury hotels and we do not intend to do so in the future,” even in cases where the government is aware of imminent threats.

“The hotels are conducting private businesses. They have to ensure their own security. Usually the star class hotels employ top military personnel in their security divisions. Hence, they are more than capable of ensuring their own protection,” he claimed.

At least one lawmaker, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, is calling for the arrest of the two deposed officials. Rajapakshe said he had information that the National Towheeth Jama’ath group was planning an attack in Sri Lanka as early as 2016, but that the officials ignored him when he shared his intelligence, according to Sri Lankan news outlet Adaderana. Rajapakshe said in a letter to the president that the officials dismissed his concerns as “tribal.”

Rajapakshe claimed he had intelligence revealing that the Islamic State had taken National Towheeth Jama’ath under its wing and trained 34 members three years ago.

The jihadists struck Sri Lanka in the aftermath of a tense, sometimes violent standoff between Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in which the former attempted to illegally replace the prime minister, triggering a constitutional crisis resolved in December. Since then, Sirisena has blocked Wickremesinghe and his cabinet from attending intelligence meetings, which the latter’s officials immediately protested following the attack. Both the president and prime minister have turned their ire away from each other and towards the intelligence community in the country, however, as both claim no one warned them of the attack.

“Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence,” Minister of Telecommunications, Foreign Employment & Sports Harin Fernando wrote on Twitter Sunday, publishing images of what he claimed were intelligence documents detailing the jihadist threat. “Serious action needs to be taken as to why this was ignored.”

Wickremesinghe corroborated that “neither I nor the ministers were kept informed.”

“It is with deep regret and shame that I state that there was a massive lapse in the security set up leading to the Easter Sunday attack,” State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said on Tuesday. “It is evident that the intelligence services had prior knowledge of an impending attack on churches … the Prime Minister and myself, as the State Defence Minister did not receive any information on these intelligence reports. Nor was the information shared with the tri-forces commanders.”

“While the President was away on a foreign visit, it is baffling as to why neither the Prime Minister nor I was informed of such a threat,” he protested.

The leader of Sri Lanka’s parliament, Lakshman Kiriella, rejected the claim that the intelligence failure was an accidental lapse, telling lawmakers, “Some top intelligence officials hid the intelligence information purposefully. Information was there, but the top brass security officials did not take appropriate actions.”

Sri Lanka awoke to a string of controlled explosions Wednesday, targeting suspicious vehicles in the greater Colombo area. Police have deemed at least one, the detonation of a suspicious motorcycle, a false alarm.

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