Easter bomb blasts

Home-bred terror

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Sri Lankan soldiers inside St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya in Negombo following a bomb blast on April 21. Photo: AFP

An extremist preacher, willing accomplices and access to the Internet—that is all it took to pull off the April 21 suicide bombings in Sri Lanka.

The most shocking part of the BOMB blasts on Easter Sunday is that there is no evidence so far to indicate that any of the material used in the explosives or the expertise came from abroad. “Nothing came from abroad from what I know,” said an official involved in the investigation. “The explosives were based on precursor chemicals [synthesis chemicals and acids, oxidisers, and fuels].”

So where did the explosives come from? “They procured precursor chemicals locally. These chemicals are mostly nitrate-based,” the official said. Asked whether higher-order explosives were not used given the number of human lives lost, the official said: “From all the sites, there is no indication of C4 [a variety of plastic explosive] or such kind of substances.” The impact of a C4 or a similar class of explosive would have been much higher for the same quantity used. (An AFP report of May 22 quoting investigators identified the explosive as triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, an unstable but easily made mixture favoured by Islamic State militants who call it “Mother of Satan”.)

The other explosive revelation is that there appeared to be no one from the Islamic State organisation actively guiding these radicalised elements each step of the way. Investigations so far indicate that the chemicals were combined into deadly explosives from information available in the dark web on the Internet. It appears that a trial and error method was used to prepare the deadly cocktail.

One suicide bomber had gone abroad, specifically to Turkey, with the intention of reaching Syria. But he failed to enter Syria and came back to Sri Lanka. It is not known if he picked up any expertise in bomb-making from Turkey; but there is speculation that he might have. International investigators are examining this aspect and were trying to piece together a timeline of his stay in Turkey.

It has also been established that there was a dry run by the suicide bombers almost a week prior to April 21. It appears to have been an elaborate dry run, believed to be in an eastern town, not Colombo.

Origin of the chemicals

In fact, one of the issues of interest for intelligence agencies around the world was the origin of the chemicals and the possible help this group received, either locally or from outside. This is the one issue that caused the most amount of anxiety for the authorities in India. A one-way boat ride from India to Sri Lanka costs Rs.36,000, and one theory floated soon after the blasts was that some of the explosives might have come from India. Intelligence agencies on both sides are aware of the smuggling that goes on between the two countries and have, at times, even used this route for gathering information.

For both sides, it was a route that could be monitored to some extent. A particular landing point in the southern tip of Tamil Nadu provides easy access to both the south Indian states Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For this reason, marijuana (KG in local parlance in Sri Lanka, referring to Kerala gold; the same material is named Idukki gold in Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and a host of other material move back and forth from this particular point. Post-April 21, traffic on this route has come to a near-complete halt.

Does this mean that there could be similar attacks in the future as warned by a Minister, and parroted by the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka? “Unlikely,” said an official who had contributed to the investigation. “Two things went in the country’s favour. One was the death of the mastermind, Zahran [Hashim]. Usually, masterminds do not take part in an attack directly because they believe that they will be able to carry out more [attacks]. Zahran possibly knew that he would be killed anyway after the blasts. Once the mastermind is out, the movement generally loses direction. The second was the quick discovery of the arms stash in Saithamaruthu [in Amparai district]. With these two gone, there is no possibility of regrouping,” the official said. It was with the active cooperation of the community that as many as 89 persons linked in one way or another to Zahran were rounded up.

The enhanced and visible security all over Sri Lanka is to assure the people that they were secure, according to security agencies. The policing is in-your-face in the Muslim-dominated Eastern province. The only possibility of an incident now is from “lone wolf” attackers. These are difficult to prevent but effective policing can shorten reaction times.

But the one question uppermost in the minds of international agencies on the scene is how the Sri Lankan forces missed so many leads before the actual incident. The vandalisation of Buddhist statues in a Sri Lankan town, the seizure of explosives material early this year, the warnings of international actors—these were far too many incidents to be missed. None of these was taken with the seriousness it deserved.

In the aftermath of the blasts, Sri Lankans at many levels of governance and even members of civil society are puzzled why India did not convey the information to the highest level in Sri Lanka. Asked about this, an official who has served in a similar covert post abroad said: “We follow SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures]. There are channels that exist through which this kind of information is conveyed. We will only convey the information through these channels.”

Another Indian official concurred: “Yes, we are aware of the demand that this information should have been conveyed to the Sri Lankan leadership. Unfortunately, this cannot be done. Communication mechanisms between intelligence agencies of two countries exist for a reason. It has worked so far and we have neutralised many threats. There is no reason to revisit the arrangement now.”

According to the Sri Lankan President, as many as eight countries were helping Sri Lanka in the investigation. Ever since the blasts, Pakistan, which has a good relationship with Sri Lanka, has been trying to get closer to the investigation. The Pakistan Ambassador has been labouring the point that Pakistan is a victim of terrorism too and is willing to help Sri Lanka out.

There is a bit of India-Pakistan jostling even as the investigation progresses. Pakistan has a retired Major General as High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, and a few countries in the region have reservations about this. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is seen in a new light in the current security scenario. A senior diplomat of a foreign country stationed in Colombo spoke to Frontline about a pattern in which Pakistani diplomats operate and how he had witnessed in a few fora great similarities in the lines adopted by China and Pakistan. Of late, Pakistan is keenly interested in understanding what information was passed on by the Indian intelligence agencies and when because this becomes the key to understanding how the Indian agencies operate.

Although there are all kinds of subplots and theories floating around, at least three intelligence agencies in the region are glad that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had boots on the ground in next to no time after the blasts. Given that the FBI is not beholden to geopolitical interests, the agencies believe that they would have many more answers in the coming days and months.

It is in this context that the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, towards June end needs to be viewed. Pompeo will be the first Secretary of State to visit Sri Lanka since 2015 and is expected to have a hard look at the evidence and findings of the FBI team.

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