COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Time after time, Sri Lankan authorities have botched the effort first to head off and then to investigate the Easter Sunday terrorist attack that killed more than 250 people.
Their mistakes range from the outrageous, like the failure to act on repeated warnings, to the absurd, like mistakenly identifying an American college student as a suspect, to the dumbfounding, like reporting 350 deaths one day and 250 the next.
The blunders have raised questions about the ability of the government to respond to this attack and deter future ones. They have been compounded by political infighting between the president and the prime minister — the president blaming underlings for not having told him of the threat, and the prime minister apologizing and accepting responsibility.
The questions of incompetence hovered above events that continued to move swiftly on the ground on Friday.
President Maithripala Sirisena vowed to conduct a house-to-house search of the entire country — a nation of about 22 million people — “to ensure no unknown persons could live anywhere.”
[Security forces engaged in a gun battle during raids on the eastern coast.]
Raids on a supposed bomb workshop and an Islamic State hide-out left three dead and brought the total arrests so far to more than 70. At midnight, security forces had surrounded a safe house in the east where they suspected more suicide bombers were holed up.
And the political discord that may have helped make the country vulnerable to the attack acquired a new element on Friday as Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former wartime defense chief who has been accused of atrocities, vowed to run for president to “dismantle the networks” of radical Islam in the country.
For a weary nation hoping its bitterly divided government could unite in a moment of national crisis, the chain of events instead reinforced just how much the political crisis at the top has eroded the system all the way to the bottom.
“I was shocked at how they behaved in the Parliament the other day, shouting at each other and hooting when the whole country is like a funeral,” said Upul Thushara, 52, who operates a snack kiosk at a bus station in the capital, Colombo. “Even when 300 people die they can’t stop fighting. These leaders are why we keep failing, why we will never succeed as a country.”
The pileup of fiascos began long before the attack itself.
Elders in the town of Kattankudy had warned authorities several times over the past couple of years about the violent extremism preached by Zaharan Hashim, the suspected mastermind of the bombings on Sunday, who routinely called for the slaughter of nonbelievers.
Even after his band of radicals had begun targeting moderate Sufi Muslims and vandalizing Buddhist statues, the warnings were not taken seriously. Mr. Zaharan remained at large, and is believed to have traveled freely in and out of the country.
He fell on the radar of Indian intelligence agents who, in the weeks leading up to the attack, repeatedly told their Sri Lankan counterparts their concern that Mr. Zaharan was plotting violence. Some officials believe the Americans also had information on Mr. Zaharan, which they likely conveyed to the government.
Ten days before the bombings, a top Sri Lankan police official sent a detailed memo warning the security services that Mr. Zaharan’s little known militant group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, was planning suicide attacks against churches.
Again, the government ignored the warning.
The political finger-pointing began while the bodies were still being collected. In the hours after the attack, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe each said they were unaware of the warnings and blamed others for their ignorance.
How could Mr. Wickremesinghe have known, he asked, according to cabinet ministers allied with him, since the president had not allowed him in National Security Council meetings for months.
For his part, Mr. Sirisena blamed senior security officials — including the top defense official and the inspector general of police — for not telling him, and demanded their resignations.
“They did not say a word about this warning letter,” Mr. Sirisena insisted on Friday. “It was a serious lapse on their part and shirk of responsibility.”
But many officials and lawmakers have said, publicly and privately, that they doubted the president was unaware of the intelligence on an imminent threat.
In addition to being president, Mr. Sirisena also leads the Defense Ministry, which oversees the work of much of the intelligence agencies. The officials say it is impossible that he would not have been briefed on a memo about threats that others at much lower levels had heard about.
“At a basic level, this shows how the government wasn’t prepared and isn’t prepared for security issues,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “The bigger question is, is anyone in control? And what is driving decision-making or lack of decision-making?”
Beyond the political divisions, Sri Lanka is recovering from decades of civil war, which ended in 2009 and drove away many talented people who are only just returning.
In the days after the attack, security officials raised the body count each day until it reached 359 on Thursday. Later that day, the Health Ministry suddenly revised the total down to 253.
Experts say that counting bodies can be a complex task after an attack this size — multiple explosions at six sites in three cities — and in which the remains are scattered hither and yon. But a 30 percent drop in one day was baffling.
The Health Ministry, in a two-page explanation on Friday, said it had never given the figure of 359 deaths. Their investigators were still busy identifying and tallying the remains. It essentially blamed the security officials who were giving out the numbers.
The mistake in releasing the wrong photo of the suspect late on Thursday night was particularly embarrassing.
Amara Majeed, a student at Brown University, woke up Thursday to find that her picture was included in a request for information on the bombing suspects sent out by the Sri Lankan police.
“I have this morning been falsely identified by the Sri Lankan government as one of the ISIS terrorists that have committed the Easter attacks,” she wrote on Facebook. “What a thing to wake up to!”
[An American student faces vitriol after her image was wrongly published in a wanted alert.]
Somehow a photo of Ms. Majeed, a prominent Muslim activist and the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, ended up on Sri Lanka’s most-wanted alert, next to the name of a real suspect, Fathima Qadiya.
The police quickly put out a statement saying it was a mistake, and privately officials blamed a small, low-level team led by an assistant police superintendent, who had misused a facial recognition program to find the photograph.
The police alert was labeled “CID Ok,” suggesting that the Criminal Investigations Department, the country’s top investigative body, had approved the release of the photos.
A government official, asked how the C.I.D. could have approved a blatantly wrong photo, said that it had been stretched thin and had gotten little support from other security agencies.
Neither statement completely clarified how Ms. Majeed’s picture ended up in the police bulletin.
The inability of the government to respond to repeated warnings and to effectively deal with the crisis are signs of what Dr. Harinda Vidanage, the director of the Colombo-based Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, called a “meltdown of governance.”
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seemed to acknowledge as much on Friday in an address to the nation.
While maintaining that he was not privy to the intelligence warnings, he said, “I cannot use this fact to absolve myself from responsibility.”
“As the prime minister of Sri Lanka, I accept collective government responsibility for the failure to protect people from these attacks,” he said. “As a government, I extend my sincerest apology to all citizens, for our failures. I hold myself accountable. And I am committed to ensuring these failures will never happen again.”
A growing number of foreign governments have warned their citizens about the increased risk of terrorism in Sri Lanka, including the United States, which ordered the departure of all school-age family members of American government employees there. In what appeared to be a sign of heightened vigilance, the Sri Lankan government issued a public warning on Thursday that there had been threats of suicide attacks against Sufi Muslim mosques.
But it did little to reassure a population already losing faith.
“Plainly speaking, we need to protect ourselves,” M.B.M. Asraf, a trader in the east coast town of Oddamavadi, said Friday. He said Muslims there went to Friday prayers taking their own security measures in addition to the army presence.
“If we trust the government to do it,” he said, “we might be losing our lives.”
Orignially published in NYT.