AFP – Sri Lankan authorities failed to arrest the jihadist who led the Easter Sunday attacks that killed 258 people despite mounting evidence against him, the country’s top intelligence official said Wednesday.
Sisira Mendis told a parliamentary probe into security lapses leading to the April 21 suicide bombings that the attacks led by Zahran Hashim could have been avoided if he had been detained.
"He was reported for hate speech. He had come to the attention of the authorities before the attacks," said Mendis, who is the Chief of National Intelligence.
"Police could have at least detained him for questioning when there were these reports against him."
Official sources said Hashim came to the attention of the authorities following a violent clash with a moderate Muslim group in his village in eastern Sri Lanka two years ago. However he was not arrested.
The national parliament Wednesday began investigating the circumstances that allowed a known Islamist group to stage the audacious attack targeting three Christian churches and three luxury hotels.
Mendis, who is tasked with coordinating various state spy operations, said Sri Lanka’s main police intelligence unit, the State Intelligence Service (SIS), had not taken seriously the warnings of an impending assault.
Ten days prior to the attacks, Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujith Jayasundara had issued a warning that Hashim’s National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) could target churches and other places.
But this was not followed up and no security plan was put in place as a result of further intelligence received from neighbouring India which had questioned a jihadist in their custody, according to official sources.
The government has admitted failure to prevent the attacks that also killed 45 foreign nationals and wounded nearly 500 people in the worst act of violence in Sri Lanka since its civil war ended.
President Maithripala Sirisena subsequently suspended Jayasundara and dismissed his top defence official.
Sri Lanka is under a state of emergency since the attacks, but Sirisena announced on Monday that he will allow the tough laws to lapse within a month because the security situation was "99 percent back to normal".
The mainly Buddhist nation of 21 million people was about to mark a decade since ending a 37-year-long Tamil separatist war when the Islamic extremists struck.