(COLOMBO, LANKAPUVATH) –Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, one of the last witnesses to testify before the Parliament Select Committee mandated to probe the terror attacks on Easter Sunday, revealed that there were serious lapses in sharing and coordination of information that eventually led to the attacks on April 21st Easter Sunday. Below is a transcript of the proceedings.
The members are denoted by the initials Ananda Kumarasiri AK, Nalinda Jayathissa NJ, Prof. Ashu Marasinghe AM, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka SF, Abraham Sumanthiran AS, Ravi Karunanayake RK and Jayampathy Wickremaratne JW, and the witness by RW (Ranil Wickremesinghe).
RW: Takes oath
AK: We thank you for taking time to be here. Let me remind you of the Act governing this committee. The witnesses who gave evidence before this committee mentioned that there had been reports of extremist organisations.
RW: From time to time, at the Security Council meetings, this was discussed. Two or three times, I summoned reports from the Law and Order Minister, who took the effort to keep me informed. I told them that I need not be informed of every detail, but issues of importance. The first instance of this matter being discussed at the SC was the death of the Sri Lankan individual who joined ISIS; this was in June. We came to know that a group had gone to Syria and the Intelligence Service was requested to find out more information. But during my time, we didn’t know that they were going into terrorism.
I met the Law and Order Minister a few times and was informed.
AK: Did the intelligence service inform you regularly?
RW: That happened through the Minister of Law and Order or through the Security Council. But it takes up to four weeks for that information to come through. The SIS and Police informed me of these extremist organisations.
RK: Up to when was this?
RW: Up to October, 2018, I was informed. I could not attend some SC meetings as I was out of Colombo. From December, 2018, there was no such invitation. I was told that after February, the SC did not meet at all.
RK: Didn’t you ask why it was not to be held after?
RW: There was an SC meeting in February and I got to know later that it was to be the last one. The former IGP told me that he, too, was invited to the SC. Most of my information was sourced from the Law and Order Ministry.
RK: If you don’t attend the SC meetings, how do you source the information?
RW: Mostly from the Law and Order Minister, as he would receive information from various agencies, including the Intelligence Service.
RK: Do the Tri-forces report to you? We know that from 2014, there were infiltrations by extremists.
RW: I sourced my information from the Law and Order Minister. During the war, it was mostly from the SC.
RK: The activities in Kattankudy and related information on the issues there, was it conveyed to you?
RW: I was told that in Kattankudy was a centre for extremism.
RK: What was the action you took?
RW: I spoke with political parties on it. In June/July, we decided to bring him (Zahran), before court. But he was absconding.
RK: We have come to know that there is a lapse in information-sharing?
RW: From time to time, there had been SC meetings. There had been an exchange of information, but how far, I don’t know.
RK: We came to know this week through the Turkish Ambassador that there were certain proscribed organisations operating here?
RW: The Turkish Ambassador said that a group from Turkey was here. But I was told by the intelligence agency that it was not an issue.
RK: But he says this group is prevalent in many places.
RW: No, I didn’t receive such information.
NJ: I think, based on your experience, you may have an idea of who must attend the SC meetings.
RW: In the governments that I was part of, it was the President, PM, the relevant minister, defence secretary, Chief of Defence Staff, IGP, foreign minister (at times), and the finance minister. In the 2011 government, there was no finance minister. But it mostly comprised of intelligence officials.
NJ: You mention the PM, but for more than six months, there was no PM at the SC meetings?
RW: It was not held after February. The SC meets once a month or once in five weeks, occasionally.
NJ: In October, 2018, what was the most important topic discussed?
RW: The country’s situation: the massive protests, the re-grouping of the LTTE, those who support ISIS, but never about extremists.
NJ: Many Muslim organisations, particularly the moulavi, had informed the President, the Intelligence Service, and the PM of such extremist Muslim organisations. A moulavi by the name of Sahlan had written to you as well in March, a copy of which he had sent to the TID, AG, and the police. Apart from discussing this, what did you all do?
RW: We handed it over to the TID. There was an issue regarding two Muslim mosques; one with regards to the Sufi mosque, which the TID was entrusted to investigate. The police was also informed. In 2018, the TID went to the magistrate and, under the ICCPR Act, sought a warrant to arrest him. At the time, it was suspected that Zahran had fled to India through Mannar. We knew of Zahran and by 2018, there was a decision to arrest him.
NJ: But from 2015, after Zahran took a different turn along with a group of individuals, no one was arrested?
RW: At the time, there was insufficient evidence against the others; only against Zahran.
NJ: There are two notable incidents in Digana and Ampara. After this, was there a discussion on the nature of the organisations?
RW: During the Ampara incident, I asked to find out if there was any involvement of those who went to Syria. I was told that they were part of it, but there was no information that they would start another organisation in April.
NJ: It was reported for many years that this organisation was spreading extremism, so why wasn’t the NTJ banned?
RW: It wasn’t possible to ban them at the time, but we could take them to courts. There are other forms of extremism as well.
NJ: The AG’s department had sent a file not just for the arrest or restriction of this group and individual’s Facebook account, but for the ban of the organisation.
RW: If we could have banned it, we would have; but first, we asked to find information to take this organisation to courts.
NJ: It has come to light that preachers on student visa from India and Pakistan had come to Sri Lanka. Wasn’t there more attention paid to Madrasa at the time?
RW: No, there was no special attention; it was under the Muslim Affairs Ministry. But as far as I can remember, there was no mention of it in intelligence reports. We only came to know more about these individuals after the Easter attacks. I was informed by the Foreign Minister of the existence of these individuals and that action needed to be taken.
NJ: There is an issue over the use of language apart from our mother tongue, particularly Arabic. Did you not pay more attention to increased Arabisation?
RW: I didn’t receive information that it was spreading from one school to another. When I came to know, I asked for all of them (the preachers) to be deported. The use of Arabic language, when I told the police, I was informed it was not used in government institutions, but in private organisations.
NJ: But in this province, apart from certain schools, it’s is still being used elsewhere. Did you get regular reports from the IGP that this group was moving into extremist activities after the Vavunathivu incident: the shooting of Kabir Hashim’s Secretary? As someone who is knowledgeable on security matters, you could have informed Cabinet.
RW: Kabir Hashim did inform Cabinet. Regarding the murder of the police officer, there was no indication that this group was involved. It was only referred to the vandalising of Buddha statues in Mawanella.
NJ: But it was upon further probe of that incident that it led to this group. Even if the SC didn’t discuss it, don’t you think there was sufficient information to discuss it in Cabinet?
RW: I spoke to Kabir Hashim and the IGP repeatedly over it, and I was told it was being investigated at the time. They were informed to file a case once all the information was received.
NJ: Based on the information gathered on this incident, the letter that came to the Chief of National Intelligence and the IGP, which is, today, a public document. This letter received on April 9, was it shared with you?
RW: No, and the letter which was received by the intelligence unit was not received by my intelligence or security officials. I have a separate division for intelligence and it did not receive the information.
NJ: A day before the attack, we came to know that there had been more information that there would be eight attacks on hotels and churches. On April 20 and 21, didn’t your officials ask you to stay away from these places?
RW: No, they didn’t know. If they had received the letter, I would have asked the IGP.
NJ: Some ministers and members of the Opposition say they had prior information?
RW: I heard and I summoned my officials and asked them, but they told me they didn’t know.
NJ: It was reported in the media that Harin Fernando’s father was aware.
RW: I think you should ask the minister about that.
NJ: Such a piece of information, crucial and vital; if not received by you, indicates a dangerous lapse.
NJ: What is your relationship with the SIS?
RW: They call me and give me information.
NJ: But during these instances, you didn’t receive any information?
RW: No, not until April 21.
JW: You were PM before this. During this time, you may have taken part in the SC meetings. How often did they meet?
RW: During J.R. Jayawardene’s time, I took part in some SC meetings. As far as I know, they met once a week. As far as I can remember, they met before July, because a few air force officials were killed. A separate day was allocated. President Premadasa and President Chandrika held these meetings. In those times, it was mostly to do with the Tri-forces. But after the end of the war, there was no such urgency. Even when the SC met after that, there wasn’t much intelligence information; there was a shift, a change in the type of information shared.
JW: Before 2015, during the absence of the President, did the SC meet under your leadership?
RW: Yes, it convened when the President was not available, under the guidance of the PM. In those days, there was a joint operation council under the Emergency Law. During President Chandrika’s time, there was only one: the SC. When she was overseas, I convened it. Otherwise, we convened it together, knowing that we have to work together on it.
JW: Are you saying that you had no obstruction to convene it?
RW: Yes, I could, but I didn’t do it often as I preferred to do it in unity.
JW: After this incident, did you try to convene it?
RW: I asked for it to be convened, but I realised there wasn’t much interest. I asked the officials to come to me, but it was not as easy. So I went to the MOD, myself. I felt that there was a delay in them getting to me, so I decided to go there.
AS: About the National Security Council meetings; when you were sworn in as PM in December, 2018, and thereafter, did you check to see when the next SC meeting was being convened?
RW: General practice was for the President’s Office or the Defence Secretary to inform us.
AS: So, in 2018, until October, how many such meetings took place?
RW: I cannot collect. It was a monthly meeting.
AS: So, when the President convened a meeting, it happened?
RW: Yes, it happened.
AS: Did you get to know of the February meeting after or before?
AS: Did you not ask why you were not informed?
RW: I asked the IGP and he said that he, too, was not informed. And subsequently, I was told it was not going to meet any longer.
AS: This state of affairs came about after what happened on October 26 and although you were sworn in as PM, there was no National Security Council meeting, and when you found out that there was a meeting, you were not invited. Did you not think it was necessary at that stage to inform the country that the PM was not being accommodated?
RW: I was not accommodated, but it was not being held anymore. I cannot go to a meeting that doesn’t take place.
AS: Did you not go to the Defence Secretary and ask him?
RW: He said, ‘not meeting anymore.’
AS: In the background of all this information that you have given us, about the rise of extremism and Sri Lankans connection to ISIS; when you found out from the IGP and the Defence Secretary that the SC was not going to meet again, did you not think it important to communicate with the President about that and keep the country informed?
RW: On ISIS, we had no new information, but there was a focus on drugs.
AS: Did you not think it important to communicate with the President on why he discontinued the SC meetings?
RW: I didn’t ask him, but I told him I wanted a separate minister for Law and Order, which I thought was the more effective way of dealing with the situation.
AS: What was the response?
RW: He said he wanted to finish the investigation on the assassination attempt.
AS: What attempt?
RW: There was a report on an alleged assassination attempt.
AS: Did the President mean that the assassination should be investigated while he is still in charge; until it’s over?
RW: Since the inquiry had started over him, we felt that the constitutional provision be over it.
AS: The constitutional provision was that the President could not hold the subject.
RW: That was my view. What is the interpretation given to defence?
AS: This arose when the 19th Amendment was passed, there were two separate ministers for Defence and Law and Order and when a transitional process was accommodated, it only mentioned Defence, Mahaweli, and Environment.
RW: Yes, there was no separate Law and Order Minister.
AS: If you go back to the general radicalisation situation that we have been hearing about, that had happened from what we know around 2014. And from 2015, they had been growing; the environment was being radicalised and it was the time you became PM after a long layoff since 2004. So, it was under your watch, in the sense, which you said it was through these reports you got from your Law and Order Minister that you got to know that there was growing a radicalisation process.
RW: We got to know in 2014, but there was a different analysis; they were hot-tempered individuals after the Aluthgama incident, but there were also reports of a different angle.
AS: With regards to a different angle, we have had evidence before this committee that Kattankudy was like a different country unlike any other town in Sri Lanka; even by looks, and the ordinary law, even with regards to traffic, it was not in-force. If you received information such as that, what action did you take?
RW: I had no solid information that laws were not being obeyed. It was mostly that it was a centre for an ISIS-type of thinking. We had no information of a terrorist movement, or that they were copying ISIS ideologies and were trying to make some buildings look similar to those in the Middle-East. But we received nothing of them trying to enforce their laws, only information on Sharia Law.
AS: You said you dealt with it through political parties?
RW: I spoke to the Muslim Congress, Rishad Bathiudeen, and independent figures. If it was not terrorism, it was best combatted by political people. There was a concept paper by the Defence Ministry that it should have been met with a counter political movement.
AS: Was it successful?
RW: To a certain extent, it was contained by political factions.
AS: Coming to the bomb attacks that happened on Easter Sunday; we heard you say that your own security was not informed about this, but we have heard that certain ministers, MPs, and security detail had known about this. I want to clarify as to whether your security divisions got know before and didn’t inform you?
RW: They didn’t. Before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, I went to Nuwara Eliya and was moving around freely there.
AS: As for the events after the bomb attacks; you said that you went to the Defence Ministry and they didn’t turn up when you asked them to come, so you decided to go there. Did you encounter resistance dealing with this issue?
RW: No. They were making some statements, so I asked them to make it to the media and then I addressed them. They said they had information on who did this and the CID moved in very quickly. I must also say that if you look at the events that happened from April 9 to 21; information had come on April 9, but from April 10 to 12, most of the officials had been out of Colombo, and the government agency was not as active. It is what happened between April 9 and 21 that is important.
AS: When did you hear about the Kattankudy bike explosion?
RW: April 17 or 18.
AS: Some told us that it was when they realised that the information was serious, and they started looking for more information. When you heard about it, what action did you take?
RW: I inquired about it, but there was not much information. They were still inquiring about it.
AS: Did you have any knowledge of the note of the April 9 when inquiring about this?
RW: No, I treated this as a separate incident.
AS: Having been at numerous SC meetings, are you able to say that the information available through that letter on April 9 is something that should have been taken more seriously?
RW: Yes, I also say that I should be informed. I was in Sri Lanka, I was out just before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, but I came back.
AS: Did you ask why you were kept in the dark?
RW: No one was able to give me a satisfactory answer.
AS: Is it because of the fallout between you and the President that happened last year?
RW: I can’t stay that for certain.
AS: We have information that you did not attend meetings after that October. Your view that there should be a separate minister for Law and Order was not acceded. The whole country knows that your relations with the President had broken down. Was it a contributory factor to this serious intelligence information not being acted upon?
RW: It was difficult to comment. I really don’t know why they didn’t send it to my security division.
AS: They very fact that you were not able to find out even today; isn’t that an indication of a strained relationship with the Defence Minister?
RW: Our relationship has not been as cordial as before, that is why I support a motion for a committee of this nature. And the President appointed a committee, so I feel it is best that the answer comes from Parliament or any other committee that the President appoints.
AS: would you say, as the PM, that you, too, bear some responsibility for the lapses that resulted in the 21/4 attacks?
RW: I said so from the very beginning. Since the Cabinet is in charge of the government machinery, when there is a breakdown in the security apparatus, we cannot run way.
AM: After you were appointed PM, did the Tri-forces meet you or IGP and you?
RW: The IGP did.
AM: In any instance between 2017 and after, was there an issue between intelligence officials and yourself?
RW: No, I received information.
AM: There is a conversation regarding Madrasa, the MMDA amendments, and the face veil.
RW: Regarding Madrasa, we have taken steps to work with the Muslim ministers and have worked on a gazette notification. Apart from that, the foreign minister, justice minister, and I made a proposal to the Cabinet that we need new laws.
AM: We keep talking of a biometric database, what is your action on those?
RW: We haven’t taken such action. There are many ministries and there needs to be a law. There also needs to be a consensus.
RK: We find that the harmonisation and de-radicalisation needs to be inculcated into this country.
RW: Legislation is being prepared on hate speech and active political representation by the Justice Ministry, and I must say, after the explosion, there has been a lot of cooperation. But all religious leaders visited these areas, and it’s a positive sign. We must build on it and not let extremism divide us.
AM: A lot of illegal money is coming into this country?
RW: We have the foreign financial investigation unit, which has the capacity to monitor all this.
RK: This committee has gone through many valuable suggestions. Would you accept suggestions from this committee?
RW: I think this committee will also be able to talk on accountability; we will certainly look at those recommendations. We need to also strengthen analysis as we get a lot of raw data.
RW: Information-sharing has been a problem. You need to overcome this through legislation. Even through the civil department, it’s not taking place. You all should look at legislation to accelerate information-sharing.
RK: Hate speech is a drawback, but this government seems lukewarm in its response?
RW: The Justice Ministry is preparing a proposal and I can ask them to send it to this committee.
RK: We find that the actions don’t meet the crimes committed.
RW: You need a different unit to monitor all this hate speech. We have the structure which was used for the LTTE, but we need new outfits to face this new face of terrorism.
SF: There were two Law and Order Ministers who came here. I felt from their testimonies that although there were meetings and warrants, necessary action had not been taken because they could not identify it as being the rise of a new form of terrorism and hence, could not take the necessary action that should be taken. I think such a position should be held by someone who is capable. Otherwise, we will not get the necessary action it deserves.
RW: From October, there was no evidence or information that they were moving into terrorist activities; only certain forms of extremism.
SF: There is a talk of Islamic extremists and terrorist, but no evidence to support this theory. But, globally, if you look at it, Islamic extremism morphs into terrorism.
RW: From extremism, they go to terrorism. So, our intelligence needs to decipher that. There is a saying, ‘You tend to fight yesterday’s war’.
AS: The information that came into the country came from overseas. Would you accept that there was a serious lapse in intelligence-gathering—not just moving from extremism to terrorism, but actual activities: training had happened and even the final assault had been meticulously planned, but none of our agencies picked it up, and even when it came from out, we didn’t act.
RW: Certainly, there was a lapse; because, if we knew of the transition, we could have built up on it and prevented it.
SF: What you mentioned is what I have said repeatedly: this organisation can still do this through other outlets and means.
RW: Even one individual can do anything. If you were alert, we could have faced it and taken action.
SF: There is a notion out there that as a country, we are at risk in terms of national security. This notion is also propagated by political parties.
RW: Now, the security situation has vastly improved. But, regardless of the government that comes into place, I believe that peace, order, and good governance, should be the cornerstone. We are no longer at risk, we are safe.