COLOMBO. – As Sri Lanka begins to bury the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings, a warning in a letter dated April 11 was plain: a local group was planning suicide terror attacks against churches in the country.
Priyalal Disanayaka, the deputy inspector general of police, signed the letter addressed to the directors of four Sri Lankan security agencies, identifying Mohammed Zaharan as the leader of National Thowheeth Jama’ath and state intelligence showed Zaharan’s group was planning attacks on “some important churches”.
Sri Lanka’s health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, held up a copy of the intelligence report on Monday while describing its contents, spurring questions whether the attacks have exposed the political turmoil still lingering in Sri Lanka’s corridors of power.
Disanayaka asked the four security directors to “pay extra attention” to the places and VIPs in their care. It is unclear what measures the security directors took and Sri Lankan police had done to protect the public.
The intelligence report attached to his letter, which has circulated widely on social media, was written in both Sinhalese and English. The report named six individuals likely to be involved in the plot.
The letter bears the seal of the ministerial security division.
Initially, there were questions over the authenticity of the report when it was first shared, but officials in the government appear to believe it is real. Disanayaka did not answer calls or messages seeking comment on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could unleash instability and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to act against those responsible.
Word from international intelligence agencies that National Thowheeth Jama’ath was planning attacks apparently did not reach Wickremesinghe’s office until after the massacre.
Senaratne said the warnings started on April 4 when the defence ministry wrote to the police chief and police wrote on April 11 to the heads of security of the judiciary and diplomatic security division.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who was out of the country when the attacks took place, had ousted Wickremesinghe in October and dissolved the Cabinet. The Supreme Court reversed his actions, but the prime minister has not been allowed into meetings of the Security Council since October, leaving him and his government in the dark.
The presidential office said there was intelligence that “international terror groups” were behind the local perpetrators and that he would seek foreign help to investigate. On Tuesday, Interpol said it had joined the investigation.
All seven bombers were Sri Lankans, but authorities said they strongly suspected foreign links.
Sri Lankan Parliament meets on Tuesday.
But as political leaders wrangled with what appears to have been a massive intelligence failure that allowed Sri Lanka’s deadliest attack since its civil war, the military took advantage of newly granted war-time powers to make arrests.
Among the 40 people detained on suspicion of links to the Easter bombings were the driver of a van allegedly used by the suicide bombers and the owner of a house where some of them lived, officials said on Tuesday.
The military’s powers to detain and arrest suspects had not been invoked since Sri Lanka’s bloody 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
The security was evident at Bandaranaike International Airport outside the capital where security personnel walked with sniffer dogs, checked car boots and questioned drivers on roads nearby.
The government has blocked social media access to curtail false information and ease tension, but the vacuum was fuelling confusion and giving little reassurance the danger had passed.
Even after an overnight curfew was lifted, the streets of central Colombo were mostly deserted on Tuesday and shops closed as armed soldiers stood guard.
On what was declared a national day of mourning in the wake of the attacks, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said the death toll had risen to 310, with hundreds more wounded.
Communities across the country are beginning to bury their dead.
The six near-simultaneous attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels and three related blasts later on Sunday were the island nation’s deadliest coordinated attack in a decade.
The town, Negombo, is called “Little Rome” for its abundance of churches. The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said at least 110 people were killed in the seaside town’s St. Sebastian’s Church.
On Monday, house after house near the church flew small white flags – a sign that someone who lived there had died. – The National (UAE)