Sri Lankan activists protest against the proposal to implement the death penalty in front of Welikada prison in Colombo on June 28. President Sirisena now claims that the Easter Sunday bombings were done by drug gangs. Photo: AFP / Tharaka Basnayaka / NurPhoto

International drug syndicates orchestrated Sri Lanka’s deadly Easter Sunday bombings, one of the country’s leaders claimed on Monday, despite having earlier blamed the attacks on Islamist terrorists.

The statement comes amid a nationwide narcotics crackdown, with President Maithripala Sirisena aiming to reintroduce capital punishment for drug offenses.

Authorities have said local jihadist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath was responsible for the suicide bombings in churches and hotels that killed at least 258 people in April. The attacks were later claimed by the Islamic State group.

Sirisena’s office said the day after the bombings that local terrorists and international terror groups were responsible for the attacks. But in a statement issued by his office Monday, Sirisena claimed the attacks “were the work of international drug dealers.”

“Drug barons carried out this attack to discredit me and discourage my anti-narcotics drive. I will not be deterred,” he said.

Sirisena is waging a battle against efforts by his governing coalition in parliament to abolish capital punishment, which has been subject to a moratorium since 1976.

Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, speaks with President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, right, is seen with his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa at a rally in Colombo on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP

President’s credibility questioned

But there is an enormous cloud over the credibility of the president, who oversaw security affairs at the time of the bombings, which killed at least 257 people (the toll was revised down from early reports that 350 died).

Many have argued that Sirisena was culpable for failing to properly respond effectively to multiple intelligence reports from India warning that jihadists were preparing to launch attacks in the weeks and days prior to the Easter bombings.

The president had been openly feuding with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and had attempted to sack him last October.

Wickremesinghe said immediately after the blasts he had not been informed of warnings by Indian intelligence to their counterparts in Colombo 10 days prior to the terror attacks.

Sri Lankan officials walk by bodies and debris at St Anthony’s Shrine after the bombing at the church in Colombo on April 21. Photo: AFP / Ishara S Kodikara

Sirisena was accused of outrageous negligence at that time, and his remarks on Monday are seen by some as an effort to divert attention from that ongoing problem.

This is a key reason why a spokesman for the Prime Minister discounted the president’s latest claims.

“Police completed the investigations within about two weeks,” Sudarshana Gunawardana said. “There is no mention of drug dealers being involved. We have no reason to doubt our investigators.”

Automatically commuted

He said speedier justice would be a bigger deterrent to drug traffickers than the threat of capital punishment.

“We don’t believe hanging people will address the issue, especially considering that it takes several decades to get a conviction.”

Sri Lankan courts take on average 17 years to complete criminal trials for grave offenses such as murder and rape.

Gunawardana said Wickremesinghe was opposed to capital punishment as it was against the policy of his United National Party, and noted that there was cross-bench support in the legislature to completely abolish it.

Police officials said investigations into the April 21 suicide bombings were still going on, with more than 100 people in custody – all of them Sri Lankans.

“We are going on the basis that this was a crime planned and executed by a group of radicalized Sri Lankan Muslims,” a senior police official told AFP, asking not to be named. “Everyone involved in the attacks is either dead or in custody.”

Sirisena has marshaled public support for an end to the moratorium on the death penalty, saying that hangings would deter the illegal drugs trade. Sri Lankan courts routinely hand down death sentences to drug offenders, murderers and rapists but those sentences are automatically commuted to life imprisonment.

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court earlier this month suspended Sirisena’s moves to hang four drug convicts. The court banned any executions until it rules on a petition seeking a declaration that hanging breaches the constitution. The country’s last hangman retired in 2014, but officials said they had selected two new executioners from a pool of candidates.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, with grey hair in center, inspects the damage at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 21. Photo: Ishara S Kodikara / AFP

ISIS cell probe shut down

Meanwhile, questions still remain on why Sri Lankan authorities closed down an investigation that stemmed from a tip-off from India in January about an ISIS cell planning a series of attacks, despite initial police work that led to a huge cache of explosives.

On January 17, officers from the Sri Lankan police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) carried out raids in the north-western district of Puttalam, which led to four arrests and the seizure of 100kg of explosives. The raids also uncovered 20 liters of nitrate acid, 100 detonators, two weapons, and a laptop.

However, their key suspect, Moulvi Zahran Hashim, gave them the slip. After the Easter bombings, local authorities said they were convinced that Hashim was the mastermind of the attacks.

An assessment of the Easter Sunday attacks by security officials in New Delhi revealed several alleged lapses by their Sri Lankan counterparts. The first tip-off about a potential terror attack came from Indian investigators who managed to track down former ISIS members in Tamil Nadu who were deported from Afghanistan last year. Indian security officials picked up several suspects from Coimbatore and Madurai. In December 2018, Indian investigators found CDs, emails and call records linking the ISIS cell to Hashim in Sri Lanka. They also found Hashim’s video lectures on CDs that were used to radicalize potential recruits.

Indian security officials later formally passed on more detailed intelligence on April 4, April 20 and finally on April 21, only hours before the attacks.

A subsequent analysis by India indicated that Sri Lanka’s “inertia” – or failure to act on these warnings – was due to paralysis caused by infighting between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

This image released on April 23 by the propaganda arm of Islamic State, allegedly shows eight men who carried out the suicide blasts on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. The man in the center is believed to be Zahran Hashim, who Sri Lankan police say led the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) group. Photo: AFP / Amaq

Warning from Australia also

Indeed, the Indians were not the only ones trying to alert Sri Lanka to the threat of attacks. According to at least two officials, the Australian government’s security services had also alerted them about a possible attack.

When one of the Easter bombers, Lathief Jameel Mohammed, traveled to the UK and Australia, his activities drew the attention of Australian security officials. Their concerns were passed on to the Sri Lankans, who seemingly did nothing with the information.

“Besides the infighting, we also believe that the Lankans had become overconfident,” a senior Indian security official told Asia Times. “After they had defeated the LTTE [the Tamil Tigers in the civil war in May 2009], they believed that they had beaten terrorism,” the senior official said. “This not only made them lax. They also refused to accept that the Muslims would target churches and not the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Traditionally, the Sinhala Buddhists have been known to target Muslims and their businesses.”

The Sri Lankans later realized that the area where explosives and detonators were found in Puttalam in January was a training ground for terrorists involved in the Easter atrocities.

However, when they failed to apprehend the real bombers, the local authorities appeared to give up the chase. The fact that some of the bombers came from affluent families also reportedly led them to search in the wrong places.

The government classified the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) as a banned terrorist outfit, for supplying cadres to ISIS members who carried out the suicide bomb attacks in April.

Sri Lankan police carried out raids across the country targeting others linked to the group. This resulted in the wife of one of the alleged bombers blowing herself up with her children as the police arrived. Then Sri Lankan police got into a firefight with suspected ISIS cadres in the Kalmunai area. At least 15 suspects were killed, including two brothers and the father of key bombing suspect Moulvi Zahran Hashim.

– with reporting by AFP

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