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Sri Lanka’s president says intelligence lapse allowed Easter bombings to take place

Residents in Kochchikade view security forces guarding St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 25, 2019. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/For The Washington Post)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s president said Friday that intelligence failings allowed the devastating Easter attacks to take place and that a major reorganization of the security services would occur in the coming days.

Speaking to local media executives at his residence, President Maithripala Sirisena said the national police chief and defense secretary had both been warned about the attacks but did not inform him. Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and police chief Pujith Jayasundara resigned this week at Sirisena’s request.

“They did not say a word about this warning letter. It was a serious lapse on their part and shirk of responsibility,” he said.

The president spoke as Sri Lankans remained on edge and security forces fanned out across the country. Muslim and Christian religious services were canceled or were held under tight security amid police warnings of possible further attacks after multiple suicide bombings on Easter Sunday that killed more than 250 people at churches and hotels.

In Washington, the State Department said Friday that it has ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees from Sri Lanka, and it advised U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to the country, the Reuters news agency reported.

Sirisena criticized the police for failing to act on intelligence provided by a foreign ally — widely reported to be India — several weeks before the blasts. That intelligence warned that an Islamist extremist group in Sri Lanka, National Thowheed Jamaath, was planning an attack.

He also confirmed that Zahran Hashim, a rabble-rousing Sunni extremist and Sri Lankan native identified as the organizer of the attacks, was killed in one blast at the waterfront Shangri-La Hotel here. The Islamic State has asserted responsibility for the attacks, but its actual involvement, if any, remains unclear. 

Sirisena said that 70 of 140 people suspected of ties to the Middle East-based, Sunni terrorist group have been arrested and that those still at large are feared to be in possession of explosives. Sri Lankan police officials circulated a letter among security forces Thursday saying there were threats of new attacks, especially against some Muslim religious sites.

A police spokesman said Friday that police forces had raided a house in Sammanthurai, a town on the east coast, and that after a gun battle they seized an Islamic State flag, explosives and clothes they said may have belonged to some of the Easter suicide attackers. It was not immediately clear who had been inside the house or whether any occupant had been killed. Police said the clothes matched those worn in a video that the attackers posted online before the bombings.

Later Friday night, another raid in Sainthamaruthu, further east from Sammanthurai, led to a gun battle that left 15 dead, including four suicide attackers, three women and six children, police said.

The president said strict new measures would be taken to identify and track people, measures similar to those used during the lengthy civil war between separatist ethnic Tamils and the government that ended in 2009. “Every household in the country will be checked,” he said, and lists of all residents made to “ensure that no unknown person can live anywhere.”

“We had to declare an emergency situation to suppress terrorists and ensure a peaceful environment in the country,” the president said. 

Police are looking in particular for former soldier Bathrudeen Mohammed Mohideen, known as Army Mohideen, who they say helped train the nine suicide bombers. Investigations show that the bombers were mostly well educated and from affluent backgrounds.

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Under tight security, mosques across Colombo held Friday prayer services, and thousands attended despite an appeal by Muslim government officials for them to stay home as a security precaution. The Catholic archbishop of Colombo also announced Friday that there would be no Sunday Masses until further notice. About 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the country to carry out searches and protect places of worship this weekend. 

Since the Easter attacks, bomb disposal units have blown up several packages and motorbikes deemed suspicious. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo also urged American citizens to avoid places of worship over the coming weekend.

At Colombo’s 100-year-old Jami ul-Alfar Mosque, a towering structure of red-and-white turrets, worshipers and their belongings were searched at the entrance. Security forces cordoned off the surrounding blocks, and mosque volunteers politely asked outsiders to stay at a distance.

“I wanted to come to say my prayers for all the victims of this terrible killing, that God should welcome them in heaven,” said Nizam Wellampitia, 81, a white-bearded cloth seller. “Both Jesus and our prophet said we should never harm others. We do not even like to kill a bird. The people who did this are brainwashed, and they will go to hell.”

“This is a nightmare for all of us,” said Mohammad Neqab, 25, who sells sewing supplies nearby. “Our history as Sri Lankans is one of harmony, and we need unity more than ever now.”

One mosque aide, Mohammad Zuhair, said that the National Thowheed Jamaath had been a presence in the area for some time, spreading fundamentalist views, but that a new and more dangerous group had splintered off from it, possibly with foreign support. “Nobody trusted that new wing.”

Sri Lanka’s Muslims fear retaliation after Easter attacks on Christians

Since the attacks Sunday, social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have been shut down by the government, although many users are still accessing them through backdoor apps. Sirisena said he would meet with social media company managers later Friday to decide whether the ban would continue. 

The furor over the unheeded warnings about attacks has highlighted an ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka’s national leadership and the deep, paralyzing divisions between Sirisena, the president, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. They are from rival political parties and have been locked in a power struggle over the past year. 

In his remarks Friday, Sirisena took a swipe at the premier — whom he attempted unsuccessfully to oust last year — claiming that one factor behind the bombings was that Wickremesinghe’s government had weakened the intelligence system by prosecuting its members for alleged war crimes linked to the decades-long civil war.

Wickremesinghe and his aides, in turn, have complained that the security services refused to pass on the warnings about the impending attacks.

In addition to showing their mounting public anger over the political feuding that apparently stymied preemptive actions before the bombings, Sri Lankans are also perplexed and frustrated over the failure of the government medical system to accurately count and identify the bombing victims.

On Thursday, health officials suddenly announced that the death toll was about 250 or 260 — a full one-third less than the previous official total of 359. Medical examiners in Colombo and Negombo, the cities with the highest casualties, declined requests for interviews Friday, but Sri Lanka media reports said that there were 55 still unidentified bodies in the main Colombo morgue. 

The national health director said Thursday that the problem stemmed mainly from the large amount of fragmented human remains left by the powerful blasts, which were difficult to match with individuals. At least 38 foreigners have been identified among the dead.

Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethi­o­pia, and Niha Masih in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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