Easter Sunday attacks: Sirisena drags India into the scene

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  • Catholic Church dismisses his claims as part    of a political stunt for elections
  • Former president summoned to appear before magistrate’s      court, full picture will become clearer


By Our Political Editor

Pallewatte Gamaralage Maithripala Sirisena served as Sri Lanka’s seventh President from January 8, 2015 to November 18, 2019. By virtue of his office, he was also the Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

The worst crisis during his tenure was on Easter Sunday five years ago—the church and hotel bombings that left 247 innocent men, women, and children dead. Nearly 500 more were injured in a massacre that shook the world.

When the bloody carnage unfolded, Sirisena was away in Singapore. He had flown there direct after an official visit to India. Some reports claimed that he had gone shopping for the wedding of his son Daham. However, Sirisena claimed it was for medical reasons and later flaunted documents to show he had taken several tests at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital. In contradictory remarks, he claimed he was on holiday or for a medical checkup. He returned to Colombo only at midnight on April 21. All the blood had flown by then. It is no secret that one of his directives to the security forces and police top brass was not to take orders from his yahapalana government’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He had taken upon himself the task of giving directives and chairing meetings of the Security Council.

The then President, Maithripala Sirisena, giving an exclusive interview to CNN in 2019

On April 30, 2019, just a week after the massacre, I was at the Presidential Secretariat and saw him speaking exclusively to CNN’s Sam Kiley from a room there. The cameraman and crew were munching pol sambol sandwiches as they listened to then President Sirisena, who appeared in control. The answers to two questions are relevant. The interview was broadcast worldwide. Here are the questions:

Q: Mr President, Could you outline for us any information you have at this stage of connections between the suicide bombers and the so-called Islamic State. There have been reports in the United Kingdom of a connection there with at least one of them. Have you got any information on that?

A:  It is very clear that there is a connection between the Sri Lankan suicide bombers and IS, as for the information revealed by the state intelligence services and foreign intelligence services which have been assisting us. Over the past 15 years, there have been connections between IS and certain Sri Lankan persons. It is clear they obtained training from the IS. Therefore, according to the information revealed by international intelligence services as well as domestic services, this has been made evident to us. Furthermore, after the incident that occurred, and, after the explosions that took place in Sammanthurai, the IS headquarters have admitted they sponsored these incidents.

Q: You say you had intelligence both domestic and international that would indicate there was a plan to attack tourists and churchgoers on Easter: nothing was done about that in this country, you are the Minister of Defence, you are responsible for the Police, do you not think this should be a case for you to resign?

A: Well, I was not informed about information pertaining to this attack, prior to the occurrence of the incident. The intelligence services, the Director of Intelligence has informed the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, who in turn informed the Inspector General of Police. The foreign intelligence services have provided information to intelligence services on the 4th of April, 7 and from the 4th of April to the 12th of April letters have been exchanged by officers. Nobody reported these to me.

On 16th of April, I went out of the country for a personal holiday. The information reached local intelligence services on the 4th of April, and I departed the country 12 days afterwards. I was informed of this information. Therefore, it is not I, it is the IGP of Police and the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence should be resigning. I have taken action to remove them. Action will also be taken to investigate their action as they have been negligent in their duties. Furthermore, action will be taken to investigate their action since I was not updated or notified about the information that they received about the possibility of such a severe attack on our soil.

That the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 had links to the IS came to be endorsed by others. Intelligence agencies of several countries, including the United States, France, and Germany, were among those allowed free access to interact with local counterparts, make their own assessments, and form their own conclusions. In the United States, two Sri Lankans were tried in courts for IS connections. They were convicted and are now serving a term.

The Cabinet of Ministers chaired by then President Sirisena decided to appoint a Commission of Inquiry on September 22, 2019. Supreme Court Judge Justice Janak de Silva chaired the Commission whose task was to investigate and report on the “series of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday and to recommend necessary action based on the findings.” The Report comprises 472 pages, 215 annexures and 6 volumes. Other members of the Commission were Court of Appeal judge Nishshanka Bandula Karunaratne, retired Supreme Court judges Nihal Sunil Rajapaksha and A. L. Bandula Kumara Atapattu and the Justice Ministry’s former secretary W.M.M.R. Adhikari.

It is also relevant to record the answers he gave to questions posed when he appeared before the Commission of Inquiry appointed by him.

He responded to questions by Additional Solicitor General Ayesha Jinasena. Here is a brief account of what the former President said:

On the day of the Easter Sunday attacks, where were you?

I had gone to Singapore for a medical checkup. My Security Officer told me about reports of the attacks circulating on social media. Then I received a call from the Presidential Secretary Udaya R. Seneviratne who confirmed the attacks. Then I contacted former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara, and instructed them to take necessary action.

What were your instructions?

I told them to act in a manner that does not incite the people and to arrest the suspected terrorists. I instructed them to deploy the military in addition to Police. I informed them that I was returning the next day and gave instructions to summon a meeting of the National Security Council. I reject this claim. It infringes on the unitary status of the country and legal action must be taken against anyone who makes such claims.

The former President said that due to the arrest of commanders and intelligence officers of the armed forces, the relevant sections showed a decline. He said the Police were brought under his purview in 2018. Thereafter he summoned senior police officers and held discussions. He said there were no reports about terrorism, but as soon as reports of extremist activities started to come in, he gave orders to arrest Zahran Hashim, who would ultimately go on to become the ringleader of the Easter Sunday attackers. The former President said the State Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Chief of Defence Staff were also present at the meeting attended by senior police officers. The objective of the meeting was to strengthen law and order and give priority to endnig extremism.


In a move that overturns all developments of the past, Maithripala Sirisena has now come up with a new claim to change history. He made this claim with only days to go for Easter Sunday today. Signs that he has made new findings were first hinted at during a visit to Kandy last Friday. At the end of his engagements, he spoke to both the electronic and print media. He said he has now learnt who was behind the Easter Sunday attacks. He still did not identify them. He would disclose them only before a court and insisted that he would seek extra protection for himself and his family due to the sensitivity of the information. It was clear that two people, functioning as his aides, were busy arranging for media interviews in Colombo for Sirisena in the week to follow. The idea was to publicise the explosive accounts.

However, the reportage from the remarks in Colombo saw pressure building on Public Security Minister Tiran Alles to take immediate action. There were sections that argued that former President Sirisena be arrested for withholding information which was a criminal offence. The Minister ordered the Criminal Investigation Department (through the Inspector General of Police) to record a statement from Sirisena. Important enough, the former President was summoned to the CID headquarters so his statement could be recorded. Other than the formalities, Police sources said, the material recorded lasted nearly five hours.

The Sunday Times has learnt that Sirisena has claimed that India was behind the Easter Sunday massacres. How does he know? He has claimed that an Indian diplomat whom he named has not only confessed to him about the attack but also the reason. It was because Sri Lanka has not been considerate in giving India any projects, say like for example, the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport and similar ventures. Does he have proof? He expects the government to investigate it. It appears that Sirisena has not appreciated the seriousness of the accusations he is making. Unless one is out of his mind, a diplomat of any country is not going to walk into a former President’s residence and claim ‘we were behind the Easter Sunday attacks.’ So, the question is did he build a story around after the diplomat visited him?

Former President Sirisena is one of the first in the government hierarchy to become aware that the first warning of an attack on Easter Sunday came from India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), their external intelligence agency. Why is he now making the accusation against India just ahead of Easter Sunday 2024 and that too despite the earlier warning? Sections at the highest levels of the government are probing whether a recently joined aide of Sirisena, described as a wheeler-dealer, was in any way connected with the accusations. The person concerned was earlier associated with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and has been discontinued from all activity because of his bad conduct. He is still facing investigations. At the same time as Sirisena’s statement was being recorded by the CID, this aide had been with a Western ambassador at a Sri Lankan restaurant at lunch. Even before Sirisena concluded his statement, the diplomatic mission of that envoy had been telling his contacts that India was behind the Easter Sunday attacks. One is not sure whether it was one-upmanship or poking fun by the talkative envoy.

The Sirisena statement to the CID became the subject of discussion at the highest government levels. This is particularly in light of the national security implications. On the advice of the Attorney General, the CID filed a “B” report at the Maligakande Magistrate’s Court. The Court has now issued an order requesting Sirisena to appear on April 4 (Thursday) and make a statement. If he does, that will obviously bring into the open the accusations he has made to the CID. A more important outcome is that it will force a response from the Government of India. Not surprisingly, he may be called upon to prove his accusations.

Whether it was intended or otherwise, pointing the finger entirely at India changes, on the one hand, the entire dynamics. It is very well known that the attacks were carried out by Sri Lankan Muslims. Why should India pick only on one community in Sri Lanka to attack another? On the other, five years of findings where the IS has been implicated, make no sense. There is no doubt that besides these, Sirisena’s accusations have a strong bearing on the leadership of the present government. And that too with only months before a presidential election is to be held. Is there not a mischievous suggestion that the leadership has ignored what Sirisena tries to make out is a huge threat?

The fact that the Attorney General has initiated action in courts is a clear message that the issue over Sirisena’s remarks will not end. More so when the material facts enter the public domain. It also poses questions on other important matters. One such instance is the Supreme Court decision to impose a fine of Rs 100 million on Sirisena. That was after fundamental rights applications by those affected. The facts placed by them have been accepted by highest courts in the country.

Efforts by the Sunday Times to contact Sirisena for a response did not materialize. Several calls to his residence were answered at the switchboard by an operator. He said that Sirisena was “away and the news of the call would be passed over to him.”

A response on behalf of the Catholic Church came from Father Jude Krishantha, Director of the National Catholic Mass Communications. He told a news conference: “Former President Maithripala Sirisena cannot make a statement to the CID or Courts and say it should be held confidentially. If he now says that he knows the persons responsible for the attack, that would amount to misleading the courts. He was already fined Rs 100 million as he could not say who was responsible for the attack. We have doubts that he is making this statement to get some political advantage for him, for his party or making the statement in favour of another party. We wish to tell him don’t try to gain an election victory over the bodies of those who died in the Easter Sunday attack.”

Whether Sirisena has painted himself into a corner with the recent remarks will become clearer in the coming weeks and days.

Timeline of the April 21 Easter Sunday terror



chronology of how the Easter Sunday carnage took place, reported earlier by the Sunday Times, is being reproduced to give an idea of how the massacre unfolded and those who were involved.

St. Sebastian Church, Katuwapitiya (near Negombo): 8.25 a.m. Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zeini (brother of Zahran Cassim, leader National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) terror group) exploded a suicide bomb.

St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade: 8.45 a.m. Alaudeen Ahmed Muath of the Jamathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) exploded a bomb.

Zion Church, Batticaloa: 9.05 a.m. Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Rilwan (also a brother of Zahran Cassim) exploded a suicide bomb. He is known to be a member of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ).

Cinnamon Grand Hotel: Between 9.15 and 9.20 a.m. Mohamed Ibrahim Insaf Ibrahim (Brother of Ilham), suspected of being a JMI member, exploded a suicide bomb.

Shangri La Hotel: Between 9.15 and 9.20 a.m. Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zahran (Zahran Moulavi) and Ilham Mohamed Ilham Ibrahim carried out suicide bomb attacks. This was an NTJ and JMI joint exercise.

Kingsbury Hotel: 9.15 to 9.20 a.m. Mohamed Azam Mohamed Mubarak of the NTJ exploded a bomb.

New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala: 2.00 p.m. Jamil Mohamed Abdul Latheef was the bomber. There is strong intelligence to confirm he made a failed bid to join the ISIS in 2016.

Mahawela Housing Scheme, Dematagoda: 2.15 p.m. Fathima Jiffry (Wife of Ilham) exploded herself. Two more females and two children were killed in the bomb explosion.

Investigations have revealed that the Taj Samudra Hotel was also a target – a fact which debunks claims that the attackers avoided Indian hotels. Jameel Mohamed Abdul Latheef, it has come to light, wore a suicide jacket to be exploded there. However, the triggering mechanism had malfunctioned. He was then returning to the New Tropical Inn at Dehiwala. He had wanted to stop at St Mary’s Church there. When he alighted from a vehicle, he had found that there were Police personnel standing by. They had been deployed after those at the church complained of the loss of money from the till the previous day. He had then gone to the Inn. Investigators believe his attempts to remove the suicide bomb triggered an explosion. That killed him as well as a couple who were at the next room.

Investigators have confirmed that the explosive used by the terrorists was Triacetone Triperoxide or TATP – the same material used in terrorist bombing attacks mounted by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The white crystal powder (TATP), reports say, has been referred to as “Mother of Satan” by terrorist organisations which have used it in deadly attacks around the world.

The most important question that begs answer in the near simultaneous attacks in different locations is over the time taken to mount surveillance, make plans and execute them. It also requires a large team. Such a process would have taken several months and despite claims of awareness by intelligence agencies, none of them was in the know that such plans were underway. Intelligence estimates place the suicide cadre strength at around 170, a larger number. In predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the strength is said to be 400 whilst in Libya it was 600.

In addition, at least five foreign trained cadres have been assigned to each suicide cadre. That included an electronics expert, a chemical expert and a bomb maker. Though how large stocks of explosives were smuggled to Sri Lanka is yet to be conclusively established, it is believed that they were smuggled in through the Mannar coast. It is believed that, in the Mannar area, several influential persons have helped in this exercise, often talking to the Police when arrests or inquiries are made. They have also provided assistance to family members of Insaf (one of the bombers of Shangri La Hotel) in business-related matters even granting exclusivity for export of copper.

Investigators have found that the Easter Sunday’s massacres were linked with the three-day long incidents that occurred in Mawanella area from December 23 last year. Buddhist shrines and Buddha statues were damaged in four different places in Mawanella – Randiwela Junction, Miriskudu Handiya, Hingula (on the Colombo-Kandy Road) and Lindulawatte in the Pahala Kadugannawa region. This was after Zahran and another had preached hate and exhorted those who attended Friday’s Jumma prayers to attack Buddha statues in temples and cross signs in churches.

The Katuwapitiya church after the blast

Villagers apprehended one of two attackers in one instance. On questioning him six more suspects were arrested. They are now in remand custody facing charges in courts. It was revealed that they were members of an extremist Islamic group and were being trained to carry out violent attacks against those of other faiths too. The Mawanella group had been led by two brothers identified as Siddiq Abdulla and Shahid Abdul Haq. Both are now missing. Their father, Fazir Mohamed Ibrahim, was later arrested and is now in remand.

Police have found that Fazir Mohamed Ibrahim has been working for an unidentified organisation with links to the ISIS. This was in the eastern Muslim town of Kalmunai. It had come under Cassim Mohamed Zahran who was giving leadership to spread extremist Islamic ideology in Sri Lanka. They had cells in Mawanella, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa and Puttalam. Police then received reports that Zahran was hiding in Kalmunai. A search then proved futile.

Police thereafter raided the house of the two brothers Abdulla and Haq in Hingula on the Colombo-Kandy road. There they found the receipt for the purchase of an air rifle used to teach recruits on firing. It was handed over to CID detectives who took over the probe. They arrested seven suspects and interrogated them. This led detectives to find 150 kilogrammes of explosives and 100 detonators in a coconut estate at Wanathavillu in Puttalam. Further investigations then established that Zahran was the leader of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ)

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