Where from here, the blasts-probe?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In an interview to BBC, Sri Lanka Army (SLA) Army chief, Lt-Gen Mahesh Senanayake,  has said that the Easter bombers had visited Kashmir, Kerala and the Karnataka capital of Bengaluru (or, Bangalore, as it used to be known) for ‘some sort of training’. In another interview, this one to The Hindu, Gen Senanayake has said that they were working with Indian agencies and those like the FBI from the US, to unravel the untied knots behind the blasts and perpetrators, their preparations and motives.

On day one of the blasts, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe clarified that all identified suicide-bombers were locals, as if to rule out a ‘foreign hand’ of the IS kind – unless proved otherwise. Sri Lankan authorities at the time added that the blasts-material were not sophisticated material, needed to be smuggled into the country, but could have been easily acquired commercially within the country.

A couple of days after the blasts (alone) did IS claim credit for the blasts, and also published a photograph of ‘six-suicide bombers’ photographed with the outfit’s boss, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All faces other than that of Baghdadi were covered to prove any identification of any kind. Now that Gen Senanayake has said that there were nine, not six suicide-bombers, there may be a need for IS reaction of any photographic kind.

It does not mean that there was no IS or other international links to the Easter blasts. The question is, if there were any links, how far, how much and who were all holding the other end of the stick – and where from they came. This becomes important as the leader of the Sri Lankan suicide-bombers, Zahran Hashim, and his chief aides, having reportedly killed themselves in the blasts, is there anyone left to lead the rest from the front. If so, who are they and where are they?

Now that the Sri Lankan sleuths have some leads on the blasts and the bombers, maybe, they should get more assistance from the Indian neighbour. It is more so if they are convinced that Zahran had visited places in India, including Kashmir. Or, maybe, the SLA commander should clarify which ‘Kashmir’ he was referring to, the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, or the one in Pakistan’s possession.

Either way, there is greater cause for Sri Lanka to worry. This is even more so if Gen Senanayake’s conclusion that Zahran might have used the sea-route to smuggle himself into India. Mannar is from where, the chief says, Zahran might have taken to the seas late last year.

Taken to the logical conclusion, it could well mean that the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) too might have slackened the sea-vigil after their commendable intelligence and interception talents from the forgotten ‘Sea Tigers’ days, only a decade ago. It could also indicate lack of intelligence-sharing and coordination between Sri Lankan agencies, including the SLN, which was the hallmark of the victorious ‘Eelam War-IV’.

From 9/11 to 26/11

It is not without reason. All indicators still point to repeated Indian alerts ahead of the Easter blasts, and no ground report even of the 9/11 kind that the US authorities ignored to the nation’s great peril. Going by Sri Lankan media reports, there seems to be greater cooperation between Sri Lankan and western investigators, whose lands the bombers do not seem to have visited or even stayed in touch.

It is not unlikely that they were all in the blast-sites to study a pattern that they may be unfamiliar with. But the Indian investigators may be hands-on people, if any, and there are no reports they had been asked to study the blast-spots before the evidence destroys itself over time, for their comments and observations.

Indian aid and assistance would make greater sense in these first weeks of the blasts and probes, especially if the Easter bombers had links there. Going by Gen Senanayake’s admission, the indications are that the perpetrators might have learnt bomb-making techniques through the internet, and not from personal training, overseas (implying Syria or Iraq). Other reports, citing Sri Lankan sources, had indicated that the bomb-making technique might have been learnt in camps in south India.

After all, the Indian intelligence sources have not made any secret of their possible breaking into the communication of local religious radicals. It is from here, media reports have said, the Indian agencies got wind of what was in wait for Sri Lanka – when and how. If nothing else, like the Easter bombers, counterparts involved in the ‘Coimbatore serial blasts’ (1998) had used only locally-available material like gelatine sticks, claiming 59 lives.

So, even without the established past India-Sri Lanka cooperation in eradicating LTTE menace, Indian cooperation in unravelling the Easter blasts becomes crucial – and necessary. On the LTTE front, then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa acknowledged the Indian cooperation, more than once – long after the event and rightly so.

In the present case, Gen Senanayake and other Sri Lankan sources have talked about an ‘Indian link’ to the Easter bombers, without acknowledging any specific Indian role in the investigations. It is another matter, going by established international norms, including 26/11 ‘Mumbai serial blasts’ (2008) in India, intelligence agencies and investigators of nations from which victims came, have had free access to the blast-sites and local investigators’ briefings.

As may be recalled, early media reports had claimed that Sri Lanka may be seeking assistance from India’s ‘National Investigation Agency’ (NIA), specialising in anti-terror actions, including investigations. Other Indian agencies too have had years and decades of experience and expertise in investigating and tracing religious radicalism and terrorism, India becomes a natural choice for Sri Lanka to work with. However, nothing much seems to have come out of such reports, barring political criticism in Sri Lanka, against seeking ‘foreign assistance’ in the investigations and post-blasts security arrangements.

India also has many victims in the Easter blasts. Indian radicals have had acknowledged links to the Sri Lankan bombers. Then, more Indian faces would have been seen in the blast-sites. It does not seem to be the case, at least going by media reports of ‘foreign investigators’ sighted at the blasts sites and elsewhere.

Exploiting laxity

Barring specifics, it’s not unknown that post-9/11 and more so post-26/11, Indian intelligence and security agencies had kept the alert high on many occasions, for possible terror communication and movement, targeting and damage. Earlier, it used to for Pakistani ISI-aided terror-targeting of India, from northern borders, but after 26/11, India was alive to the possibilities of similar attacks from the seas, including the southern coastline.

A social media speculation is that Sri Lankan authorities, when alerted by India, may have confused between their own perception of the ‘non-existent’ IS in the country and India’s acknowledged obsession with Pakistan’s ISI. If they were following international terror patterns as closely as they did during the ‘hay days’ of the LTTE, they would have readily concluded that India faced terrorism not only from the ISI but also from ‘IS brand’ of international terrorist threats of the international religious/ideological kind.

If India saw the ISI using religious terror-groups nearer home, too, to target India, apart from old and existing groups from a relatively distant past, that should have been India’s problem. Sri Lanka should have still taken the Indian alert on ‘Easter blasts’ on the face of it, and probed it to the last thread and shred. That did not seem to have happened, showing the kind of laxity that has crept into the Sri Lankan system in less than a decade. The Easter bombers seem to have exploited only as much.

Turkey’s warning

Today, the question is not just about India, IS or even ISI, even granting a pre-supposed ‘Pakistan angle’ to the Indian alerts. From the Sri Lankan perspective, Government agencies, even while testing their expertise from the LTTE era, need to draw crucial lines and differences.

If nothing else, ‘ethnic terrorism’ of the LTTE kind was rooted in Sri Lanka, ideology and methodology, et al. The foot-soldiers too came from within the country, both for ‘Black Tiger’ suicide-bombing missions and also for the conventional war. The affluent Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora (only) supplied funds and political backing, respectively, from and in the host-nations. Some fronting for the LTTE also facilitated weapons-procurement. ‘Religious terrorism’ of the current type has a wider reach, breadth and width. It is more so with the origins, not only of the ideology but also of other resources.

In this IS inspiration need not be the only one, nor is their ‘net-centric’ motivation and recruitment. Turkey, for instance, is now known to have cautioned Colombo about Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO) in that country, and had suggested/requested a ban on affiliated members, schools and businesses in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan media, quoting a Turkish Embassy spokesman in Colombo said, “Under the guise of being a benign education and charity movement, FETO had carried out its ulterior objectives in Turkey and in various other countries for many years, he asserted. Since 2013, the ultimate aim of the terrorist organization had been discovered and their activities completely banned by Turkey.

“In this framework, Turkey has also been cooperating with Sri Lanka in her battle against FETO, which perpetrated a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, and killed 251 civilians and wounded thousands in a day. After the brutal coup attempt, a large number of countries banned or closed FETO affiliated schools and businesses and deported FETO members from their countries”, the spokesman was quoted as saying further.

Independent Sri Lankan news reports have indicated that Colombo had not acted on Turkey’s warning against the FETO. It is unclear if Turkey now have any specific and/or actionable intelligence against FETO operations in Sri Lanka now but the spokesperson’s reference to FETO institutions in the country clearly indicate that there may have been similar private information, intimations and alerts of the kind – again possibly ignored or over-looked or whatever.

 

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

 

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