Easter Sunday attacks could have been averted – ASANGA ABEYAGOONASEKERA INSSSL

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 Questions continue to be raised with regards to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Allegations of criminal negligence have been made against officials and members of the former Government.

Former Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) Asanga Abeyagoonasekera told Daily Mirror that his institute, which operated under the Ministry of Defence, had also submitted a report to the then Government, warning of a grave threat to national security before the attacks. But even that warning was disregarded.

Extracts of the interview 

Q How did your involvement with the INSSSL come about?

We did not have an institute back then. This was the first time we created this institute called the Institute of National Security Studies. The idea behind creating this institute in 2016 was the Secretary of Defence back then Karunasena Hettiarachchi called myself and Rohan Gunaratna to the Ministry of Defence. There was a paper which I wrote sometime back when I was at the Kadirgamar Institute on the importance of having defence research, security research. So that’s something that Karunasena Hettiarachchi raised at the meeting. So, he called both of us and asked for a presentation. So, we mentioned about the importance of national security. India and many other countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh. So Karunasena Hettiarachchi had a vision to create this. He formulated the cabinet paper. The President at that time was Maithripala Sirisena who created it. In India, you have for example the Institute of Defence Studies analysis, in the United States, you have Rand Corporation. Countries do national security research. Also, when it comes to national security, it’s not only about defence, it’s about non-traditional security, such as climate change and health security, to many other areas and we need to do research. It is very important as a country that we do research on these areas. 

So, in 2016 I was invited by President Maithripala Sirisena to become the Director General. And so, I took the position and the challenge as the founding Director General to start the institute.

Q After you commenced the institute, did you compare security operations in other countries, see where we could improve? 

Yes, we had strong links with other security think tanks. Back then when I was at the Kadirgamar Institute, we had created 13 MOUs with other security think tanks, as well as foreign policy think tanks. It’s a matter of just continuing the work that I’ve been doing. But in the security arena.  We had members of the tri-forces in our institute. It was a very high-end board with the Army Commander, Navy, Air Force Commander and Chief of Defence Staff. So we had a distinguished board and the President was the president of the institute and the Secretary of Defence was the chairman of the institute. And so worked with multiple security think tanks, comparing research notes. I’ve been to India, to China, to many other places, and also the security conferences, which I normally attend, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue. We also managed to produce our first journal in about a year’s time. The defence review of the institute. And those are huge achievements. And we had a brilliant team of researchers and analysts.

QSo shifting to 2019. Was there a situation where your institute was alerted by another country of a possible terror attack in Sri Lanka?

Speaker 2: No, we did not have information from another country. But we compiled three reports. Those are called the monthly threat forecasts, which I compiled as the Director. One of our mandates was to scan the security threats to the country and to identify any prominent security threats that we see. And so in 2017, there were two reports, monthly threat forecasts, clearly highlighting the significant buildup of an extremist threat to the country.

Q So this was in 2017? Two years before the Easter Sunday attacks. 

Yes. 2017 March was the first report and 2017 October was the second. Then the last one was on 2019 January. That was a few months before the attack. Clearly highlighting after the detonators were found in Wanathawilluwa, saying that there is a significant national security threat to the country and immediately asking the president, as well as the Secretary of Defence at that time (Hemasiri Fernando) to find the external links of this group.

These reports were compiled for the President’s eyes only. But the Secretary Defence would brief him.  We did not have access to the President. The Defence Secretary would speak at the National Security Council or whenever he meets the President, on those points and sum up the threats. The 2019 report called to find out the external links and also the funding of this group. 

Q And what was the reaction of the president and the Defence Secretary to this report? Was there an indication that they were going to act on this information that you gave them?

No. From 2017, we didn’t get any replies coming in on any of these reports. In 2017 October there was a reply. That Defence Secretary back then was Kapila Waidyaratne. He mentioned to see me ASAP. He mentioned to see me ASAP just next to the place where I had mentioned about the security threat. And when I met the Defence Secretary at that time, he didn’t mention anything related to the extremist threat, but about keeping the institute going. And he said that it’s been very difficult to keep the institute going. And he’s having a lot of challenges to keep things going. So that’s all that he spoke about with me, but nothing about the extremist threat.

Q Was that in a way, would you say, a sort of a warning to you that they might have to shut down because of certain information that you have revealed in your report.

There was a recording which I submitted to the Presidential Commission where we even speak about setting up a checking system to the hotels because, you know, terrorists couldn’t even check in and detonate themselves. This was spoken in 2017. Even when the Bangladesh attack took place we were looking at possibilities of a Sri Lankan attack. We were looking at all these things. But unfortunately, they were not considered as significant priorities or important. So, the priority level was not given. 

So yes, you could put it that way.  The way he mentioned it and said it’s really hard for him to keep this going.  Probably because this was the first civilian outfit, a civilian military outfit working together. Sri Lanka didn’t have civilian military establishments like this. And I saw it as a huge achievement when we interacted with these folks, because the military mindset, as well as the civilian mindset and how we see certain things is quite different. So for me, it was a huge achievement. And also we were assigned to create Sri Lanka’s national defence policy with a group of tri-forces officers. And so there was immense contribution from the tri-forces for the national defence policy from 2017. The present Army Commander was also in one group.  I think the model worked really well.  

Q Was there specific information in your reports on groups or individuals who may pose a threat to the country?

No. There was no specific reference to the names, but there was reference to the detonator incident and also mentioning reference to this particular group and to find out their immediate external links. But not specifically mentioning the names. But we were talking about this particular group which was involved. So it was clearly a threat that we saw.  But I think there was politicization of intelligence information also. Which is very sad. I mean, you can see from the statements coming from the Presidential Commission Report by the head of SIS (State Intelligence) saying that Indian information was just information only. That it was not even intelligence. But I disagree. The intelligence there was a serious warning. Had I seen any of those reports that came from India, starting from the first week of April, just before the attacks, I would compare notes immediately and see it as a serious threat. But that information was not shared with me. Access to the information at a senior level was never shared. That was very sad. Even at the Presidential Commission I was asked, what if I had seen the intelligence information. It tallies with everything that we had written. 

I was present when India-Sri Lanka Defence Dialogue was going on the 8th of April in 2019. But we did not even have extremism threat on the agenda. It was about fishermen’s issues. These were absent from the agenda while the threat warnings were going on. We should have saved all those lives. The external forces were not looked at.  There were multiple failures within the system. 

I was a direct victim because I went to the Shangri-La during that particular time when the bomb blast actually happened. My kids and my wife saw this. There was tremendous trauma with my kid for almost a year of seeing those horrific images and also the memory that they had. 

Q What went through your mind thinking that this is something that could have been avoided, but was not?
I was hurt. I was angry. When President Sirisena came soon after the bomb blast to the ministry and gave a speech saying that we need to look into national security much more, I was hurt because I was a victim. I saw this mother who was searching for the child, I saw this lifeless body that had been carried and all that. So I spoke and asked why he didn’t see the pre-warnings that we sent in January? So he immediately called me at that particular meeting to attend the National Security Council. That was my first invitation, which I got to the National Security Council. So I went and presented at the National Security Council all the reports. But prior to going to the National Security Council he called me for another private meeting. He called me to his office and he wanted to speak about my reports. So I showed him the reports. And I said these were the reports we’ve compiled and multiple warnings have been written. I asked him if he hadn’t seen. And he said no. He said these people had not shown him these things. He was very upset. He was questioning about the conduct of some officials. 

Q Going back to 2017 when you found that there was no response to some of the reports, did you make an attempt to maybe reach out directly to the President or even to the Prime Minister and alert them?

 So what we did was we had multiple programmes. We did speak about it at internal programmes. That’s why I submitted a recording of the programme to the Presidential Commission. In the programme itself, we connected a person from the Eastern Province and asked what exactly was happening on the ground. Extremism was not on the radar. I mean, this is the problem. They didn’t make it priority.

QAnd why do you think they didn’t make it priority?

The country was going through a constitutional crisis, there was an assassination attempt on the President, defence agreements seen as national security threats. The SOFA and ACSA US agreements. So we went through all that. But most of these issues were rubbish. For example SOFA and ACSA.  We gave observations as researchers to the Foreign Ministry. We said there is no national security threat. We asked why are you projecting something that is not there? Ultranationalists who wanted to take political mileage were blowing it up out of proportion. The MCC. There was no threat from that agreement.  

And I get a letter after the attack, several months after that, I get a letter to immediately transfer to Germany as Minister Consular, not even as Ambassador or Deputy, but as Consular. But I am not going to Germany. Some people think that I want a job. I don’t want a job because I have enough of work. Right now I’m in the US.

QSo you didn’t accept the post in Germany?

No, I did accept.  But what happened was I got a letter, the Cabinet letter, which was sent to me by the Ministry of Defence. And I went for the medical and I went for the security clearance which was given by the intelligence. But nothing happened. So I met the Prime Minister (Mahinda Rajapaksa). That is when he saw the paper and he said, this is illegal. How can the Director General go as the counselor or minister? And he would never do such things. And it was done by them. He said. He did not mention who. He told me to go and meet Dinesh Gunawardena (then Foreign Minister). So I went to meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs at his office. He said, again, the same thing. That this is illegal. A Director General cannot go as the Minister Councilor. And he, as the Foreign Minister, does not know about this appointment. And he was very upset that he didn’t know about it. Then he told me to meet Prof. Jayanath Colombage (Foreign Secretary) immediately. So I met Prof. Jayanath Colombage. When I met him, he said he has 13 people on a list of names who are politically appointed. And he said, your matter is already approved by the Cabinet. He just needs a phone call from the President. So I just left it there. I did speak to the President’s Secretary for an appointment but I never got the appointment. So this is how the country functions, unfortunately. 

QAnd this came about while you were doing a post attack analysis?

Yes. We collected information from Germany, US and multiple locations. We asked how did this attack happen? Was was there a delay even in declaring that it was done by ISIS? I heard that the Cardinal had said recently that someone from inside had called and asked ISIS to take the claim for the attack. That’s a serious comment that he has mentioned about an intelligence officer speaking to someone in Indonesia after the attack to take the claim. These are serious. So one scholar actually did mention why there was a delay in taking the claim. Another one strongly believed that Sri Lanka was staged. They were looking for a location. They picked this out of many. This was from a German expert. So we were looking at this issue, trying to figure out from where it is coming, where the external links were. But everything stopped. So this is very unfortunate.

QDo you think we still have an issue with national security even today?

I don’t see any improvement in national security. Unfortunately a lot of things are politicized.  We tried to find out how much of the Easter Sunday information was politicized. We ended up with a plus eight. That means close to 10. Which means its heavy politicization. The same model was applied to 9/11.  So maybe in about 10 years or 20 years will know exactly what was the motives for the Easter Sunday attacks. Some are pointing fingers to India. I think we should not do that. We should not point fingers to other countries. Some of our leaders have already made their conclusion. You cannot do that. A proper analysis has to be done.

Watch the full ‘On Fire’ interview on Daily Mirror Facebook, YouTube and Instagram 

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