This is one of the most horrific examples of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, and perhaps the most unnecessary, too. Today the Sri Lankan government imposed “emergency measures” that approach martial law, even if the government seems circumspect enough to avoid the term. The order suspends normal due process and allows the military to sweep up and detain indefinitely suspects after the massive terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists killed almost 300 people celebrating Easter:
Sri Lanka said on Monday it was invoking emergency powers in the aftermath of devastating bomb attacks on hotels and churches, blamed on militants with foreign links, which killed 290 people and wounded nearly 500.
The emergency law, which gives police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders, would go into effect at midnight local time, the president’s office said.
The government also imposed a curfew of 8 pm. It’s unclear how long this state of emergency will last, but it’s not going to outrun the anger over the government’s failure to stop the attack when it had the chance to do so. The New York Times reports that Sri Lankan intelligence had everything up to the timing of the attack, and yet never acted on the information:
The confidential security memo laid it all out: names, addresses, phone numbers, even the times in the middle of the night that one suspect would visit his wife.
In the days leading up to the devastating suicide attacks that killed nearly 300 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the country’s security agencies had been closely watching a secretive cell of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a little-known radical Islamist organization that security officials in Sri Lanka now say carried out the attacks.
The security agencies had even been given specific intelligence that the group, also known by the spelling National Thowheed Jama’ath, was planning to bomb Catholic churches. And within hours of when three churches and three hotels were bombed, Sri Lankan security services seized at least 24 suspects, implying that they knew exactly where this group was operating and were quickly able to locate their safe houses.
Why the security agencies failed to act before the bombings — and why some top officials, including the country’s own prime minister, didn’t even know about the intelligence that the agencies possessed — are enormous questions that have created a crisis in the Sri Lankan government.
Sri Lankans have plenty of reason for anger already, which may be one big reason why the government wants a curfew in place for a while. A Reuters report earlier today might make that anger even more acute. One minister alleged that a political feud at the highest levels of government created the gap that allowed the attacks to take place:
The premier has been kept out of intelligence briefings since he fell out with the president, a government minister said, a day after Easter attacks on churches and hotels killed 290 people and wounded nearly 500.
Police had been warned this month about a possible attack on churches by a little-known domestic Islamist group, according to a document seen by Reuters.
But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had not been told of the report, dated April 11, that said a foreign intelligence agency had warned of attacks on churches by a domestic militant group called the National Thawheed Jama’ut, Health Minister Rajith Senaratne told reporters. …
It was not clear if the president, Maithripala Sirisena, was aware of the report but the top security organization, the Security Council, reports to him, while the prime minister was no longer invited to council meetings because of the rift, Senaratne said.
If that’s true, hoo boy. According to several media reports, it wasn’t just the Sri Lankan police and intel service that raised concerns over NTJ. India had sent up warning signals and apparently assumed that Sri Lanka would respond to them. Today, India has stepped up patrols along its coast to protect against infiltration in the wake of the attacks, a reminder of their own investment in Sri Lanka’s security. They should be almost as angry as the citizens in Colombo and the rest of the island nation. If 290 people died because the president and the prime minister were too focused on feuding to coordinate on a red-flashing-light warning of a terrorist attack, they’d both better start looking for a comfortable exile.
Speaking of which, it’s not clear yet how much their voters know about this part of the story. The emergency measures include a crackdown on social media, starting earlier today and apparently continuing indefinitely. Ostensibly the move intended to prevent rumor-mongering, but there may be more self-serving reasons for that decision:
The Sri Lankan government blocked access to Facebook and other social-networking sites Sunday after suicide attacks killed more than 290 people, a move meant to stop misinformation from inciting further violence in a country where online mistruths have fomented deadly ethnic unrest.
But the blackout also had the effect of eliminating a key means of communication during a major terrorist event — a problem Sunday for both Sri Lankans and foreigners desperate to get information about security and check in with loved ones.
Analysts, meanwhile, question whether shutting down social media is effective at defusing strife. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists has said there is no “substantive” evidence to show that such bans, which are common in South Asia, can “scale down violence.”
The spread of misinformation is a chronic human problem, although it certainly gets amplified on social media. So too does activism and protests, two problems this government would dearly love to avoid at the moment, especially after it’s become clear that they got caught with their pants down.