How more than 300 people died in Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings even though the government knew it was coming

A relative of a victim of the bombings in Sri Lanka weeps at a morgue in Colombo on Monday as people gather hoping to identify loved ones missing or killed in the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels.

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A relative of a victim of the bombings in Sri Lanka weeps at a morgue in Colombo on Monday as people gather hoping to identify loved ones missing or killed in the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels.
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LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

  • Sri Lanka’s government is coming under scrutiny after the disclosure that a report was sent weeks ago to top officials detailing a plan that appears related to Sunday’s terrorist attacks that killed over 300 people.
  • The report had names, addresses, and more specific information about people in the group that the Sri Lankan government has blamed for the attacks, The New York Times reported.
  • Now, news reports and Sri Lankan politicians are saying that fractions in Sri Lanka’s government kept the prime minister unaware of the crucial intelligence until after the attacks.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

Terrorists attacked churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Sunday, killing over 300 worshippers and tourists in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent memory.

The death toll and a Sri Lankan official’s comment that the attacks were “retaliation” for last month’s New Zealand mosque shootings are disturbing in their own right. But equally as horrifying are numerous reports that Sri Lankan authorities had information weeks ago that warned of imminent attacks.

An intelligence report with warnings and names and addresses of suspects appeared on April 11. But Sri Lanka’s failure to act appears to have been a result of politics. Now, those problems may become even more entrenched.

An April 11 report warned of the attacks and gave details

On April 11, Sri Lanka’s deputy inspector general of police, Priyalal Disanayaka, sent a letter to the country’s four chief security officers alerting them of an impending attack, according to The Associated Press.

The intelligence report, which was leaked and circulated on social media, said a local Islamic extremist group called National Thowheeth Jamaath, under the leadership of Zahran Hashmi, was planning to attack prominent Sri Lankan churches “shortly,” the AP said.

The Sri Lankan government has blamed the group for the attacks on three churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday.

The report was highly detailed, including addresses, names, phone numbers, and schedules of the group’s associates, according to The New York Times.

It followed earlier warnings from India about potential attacks on churches, as well as intelligence in January that indicated the group’s affiliates were stockpiling weapons, according to The Times.

With such ample evidence and warnings, how did the attacks manage to go forward?

Sri Lanka’s president shut the prime minister out of key intelligence briefings following a breakdown among leadership

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and his wife, Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari.

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Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and his wife, Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari.
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Thomson Reuters

Rajitha Senaratne, Sri Lanka’s health minister, told reporters at a press conference Monday that neither Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe nor his Cabinet was aware of the report until after the attacks. He said the prime minister had been kept out of key intelligence briefings by President Maithripala Sirisena.

The claims appear to be symptomatic of a political breakdown between the two leaders that has been brewing for months.

In October, Sirisena attempted to replace Wickremesinghe with a former president without the backing of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, plunging the country into crisis. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe reportedly clashed over the economy and the daily administration, and it eventually descended into Sirisena accusing a member of Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet of involvement in an assassination plot.

After Sirisena’s replacement failed to pass a parliamentary vote and the country’s top court intervened, Wickremesinghe was sworn back in as prime minister, kicking off a period of seemingly uncommunicative governments that ran in parallel under each leader.

It’s not clear whether sharing the intelligence would have prevented the attacks, but it’s becoming a political dispute

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe shaking hands with Liu Jianchao, China's assistant foreign minister and special envoy, during a meeting in Colombo.

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Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe shaking hands with Liu Jianchao, China’s assistant foreign minister and special envoy, during a meeting in Colombo.
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Thomson Reuters

It’s not clear that intelligence sharing between the feuding segments of government would have changed anything. While it’s also unclear whether the president himself knew of the threat, multiple security divisions that fall under him were warned of the potential for an attack. And it’s a futile exercise to attempt to predict how the prime minister would have reacted had he known of the intelligence.

What we do know is that some Sri Lankan politicians have criticized the president over the apparent lack of communication, and that it has been less than unifying for the government.

“So as you are aware, our defense minister and the law and order minister happens to be the president,” Harin Fernando, the telecommunications minister, told CNN. “Unfortunately, either he was not briefed properly, or he did not brief it back to the Cabinet. The Cabinet is from a different party, and the president is from a different party.”

Wickremesinghe had previously called a meeting that the country’s security council refused to attend, Senaratne told CNN.

“I think this is the only country in the world where the security council does not like to come when summoned by the prime minister of the country,” he said.