Real victims and real danger of Channel 4’s fact-less documentary

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By Ranga Jayasuriya/Daily Mirror

Colombo, September 13: Channel 4’s latest documentary on the Easter Sunday attack is way too depressing for any Sri Lankan, more so for the survivors and relatives who live with the memories of the slaughter of innocents.

But, after a 47-minute-long documentary, all that emerges is a ghastly piece of clickbait journalism that tries to repackage a hackneyed conspiracy theory, relying on the testimony of a single dubious asylum seeker, and generously mixing the harrowing tales of survivors, who live with the pain, as if the emotive appeal would provide credibility to the unfounded claims.

This is disgusting, cruel and insensitive to the victims, survivors, and the country still haunted by the memories of Easter Sunday.

The narrative depicts the documentary as based on the testimony of many whistleblowers, but there is only one, Asad Maulana, the former media secretary of Pillayan.

Moulana is currently an asylum seeker in Switzerland: Channel 4 introduces him as having fled Sri Lanka in 2022, fearing his life for his knowledge of the Easter Sunday attack.

Why on earth someone who fears Gotabaya flee the country only at the very end of Gotabaya’s reign of power?

Like many other industrious asylum seekers, Maulana goes to the extreme to concoct a story that would justify his asylum claim. He skillfully tries to fill the missing links, placing himself in between, which, for the uninitiated, makes him appear as a credible witness.

Maulana says his boss Pillayan, who was in remand custody much of during the Yahapalanaya over the murder of Batticaloa District MP Joseph Pararajasingham, introduced him to Zainee Moulavi (Zainee Hashim, the elder brother of the ring leader of Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran Hashim).

Zainee and several other members of National Tawheed Jamath were in remand custody at the time after a clash with a local Sufi Muslim faction. Channel 4 says Zainee and others were later released with the help of lawyers paid by Pillayan. It was the local Muslim leadership that intervened for the release of the group and not Pillayan, and the judge released the suspects on bail as the offences they were booked were bailable. The government at the time had suspended the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which could have provided preventive detention for a longer period.

Then Maulana says on Pillayan’s request, he arranged a meeting between Suresh Sallay, the Head of Military Intelligence and the members of National Tawheed Jamath in January 2018. The meeting was held in a house on the coconut plantation in Lakco Watta, Wanathavilluwa, according to Maulana. That is the same hideout where the Police found 100 kgs of explosives and detonators in January 2019. Four suspects were arrested. That was three months before the Easter Sunday attacks.

What this actually is a right royal intelligence failure. Assorted intelligence organs- SIS, CID, TID and Army Intelligence- had been operating without coordination and, rather than cooperating, were competing

Maulana says Suresh Sallay held a closed-door meeting with the Islamists, including Zahran Hashim. He says Sallay emerged from the house after a three-hour meeting and told him, “The Rajapaksas need an unsafe situation in Sri Lanka… that’s the only way for Gotabaya to become President.”

Second, Maulana says during the day of the Easter Sunday attack, Sallay called him and wanted him to transport an attacker from the Taj Samudra Hotel to an undisclosed location. The individual Maulana alludes to is Abdul Latif Jameel Mohammed, the botched bomber of Taj Samudra hotel, whose bomb is suspected to have malfunctioned; he was seen in the CCTV cameras trying to reset the switch before he left the hotel and took a three-wheeler to Tropical Inn guest house in Dehiwala. He left belongings in the lodge and went to pray in a nearby mosque, and on his return, he exploded the bomb, killing himself and two others trying to force open the door over suspicion.

Jameel studied Aerospace Engineering at Kingston University, England, in 2006-7 but did not complete the degree. He later went to Australia for studies. In 2014, he tried to travel to Syria and reached Turkey but failed to proceed. The security agencies did not investigate him on his return to Sri Lanka. (Unlike other commonsense countries that make attempting to join a foreign terrorist group a criminal offence, Sri Lanka did not have such laws until recently).

Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attack an intelligence agent had met with Jameel 45 minutes before the attack. 

While the identity or the veracity of the claim is not established, the CID used ex-army soldier Badurdeen Mohamed Mohideen, alias Army Mohideen, as an operative.

Mohammed is believed to have maintained contact with Jameel to obtain inside information about the NTJ. That was a flawed strategy; Mohideen himself went underground before the attacks and was only arrested on April 23, two days after the attack.

All of this would appear as a grand conspiracy, which Channel 4 depicts as hatched by Sallay to support Gotabaya’s coming to power.

What this actually is a right royal intelligence failure. Assorted intelligence organs- SIS, CID, TID and Army Intelligence- had been operating without coordination and, rather than cooperating, were competing.

Each service used double agents of dubious variety and objected when the other investigated it. Army Mohideen was one such, and Jameel’s contacts with the intelligence agencies were another.

In another incident, SIS and IGP Pujith Jayasundera ordered the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) not to investigate a returning Islamic State fighter named Mohammad Nilabdeen Mohammad Rimzan, who had returned to Sri Lanka after fighting for ISIS in 2018. On each occasion, it was justified as part of a covert operation.

As the Easter Sunday attack proved, such intelligence operations have been costly failures.

The competing arms of intelligence agencies should acknowledge this manifest failure. Instead, their kneejerk efforts to hide their failure have resulted in wild conspiracy theories and undermined the very credibility of these agencies.

The competing arms of intelligence agencies should acknowledge this manifest failure. Instead, their kneejerk efforts to hide their failure have resulted in wild conspiracy theories and undermined the very credibility of these agencies

This infighting is behind another claim by an unnamed military official whose voice is distorted to hide his identity, according to Channel 4.

He alleges that Military Intelligence sabotaged the CID investigation into the killing of two Police officers in Vavunatheevu in the East. This is not a new allegation. Former Head of CID, Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Ravi Seneviratne, earlier in a Fundamental Rights petition, alleged that Military Intelligence tried to sabotage the investigation by planting a motorcycle jacket in a school bag in order to distract the CID from tracing the real assailants.

The unnamed officer in the Channel 4 video asserts that had not been the MI sabotage, CID would have cracked the Islamist cell and prevented the Easter Sunday attack. That is a rather lofty claim, given the CID’s failure to follow up on the discovery of explosives in Wanathavilluwa.

Probably, a more concerted effort into that investigation would have averted the Easter Sunday attack.

On the other hand, at the time of the Vavunatheevu incident, while intelligence agencies might have known better, the Islamist hand in the incident was rather far-fetched. Islamist threat was taken lightly even after the Wanathavilluwa explosive find. A senior Muslim politician lobbied for the release of two suspects who were sons of a prominent Maulavi.

Channel 4’s 47-minute documentary would have been a non-story if it included, with due prominence, the rebuttal by Suresh Sallay or made even a nominal effort to verify the veracity of his claim, which can be checked through immigration records.

Sallay says he was serving at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Malaysia at the time of the alleged meeting and at the National Defence College in India at the time of the alleged phone call.

Either Sallay has a unique ability to transport himself, unbeknownst to the Malaysian and Sri Lankan authorities or appear at two places all at once, or Maulana should be lying.

Third, Nalaka Silva, another Police officer, claims his investigations into the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge led to the Tripoli Platoon, Gotabaya’s alleged hit squad.

Tripoli Platoon’s involvement in a number of assassinations blamed on Gotabaya is well known and should be investigated, leading to convictions.

However, that is a different affair from the Easter Sunday attack. Similarly, much of the Channel 4 documentary, other than Maulana’s testimony, is a narration of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime.

That is a dubious way to contextualize the Easter Sunday attack as part of Gota’s plot.

Anyone who has read this column or knows me personally should know I hold a strong aversion to the Rajapaksas, which is mutual as I have experienced my entire professional career.

However, prejudices or ideological differences should not colour your rational judgment.

Leave aside all the discrepancies of the Channel 4 documentary; it does not give credence to the notion that a bunch of Islamist suicide bombers, and later the remaining members and their families, killed themselves, having recorded videos pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State, just to bring a hard- line Sinhala nationalist to power.

Say, for instance, if Al Jazeera did a documentary blaming the CIA or Mossad on the 9/11 attack, a conspiracy theory widely accepted by some quarters of Muslims, that would be termed gutter journalism. Channel 4’s latest hatchet job falls into that category.

The greatest affront of that fact-less journalism is for the victims and survivors, some of whom may have been duped into participating on the premise of producing something credible.

However, the greatest danger is that this could distract the public, politicians and security agencies from the real national security threat posed by Islamist extremism.

Easter Sunday attack was made possible exactly due to the security lapses caused by the political meddling, primarily due to Maithripala Sirisena’s directive, confining the investigations into NJJ to his loyal Nilantha Jayawardene, and presidential missive to go slow on them, not to antagonize the Muslim constituent parties of his alliance.

Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka was fostered since the early 2000s through political complicity and indifference, which turbo-charged the growth of Wahabism, mushroomed Maddrasas, led to the capture of traditional Islamic organizations by Wahhabis and politically facilitated Arabizasation.

Those of us who covered national security have warned of the impending danger long before. However, the concerns were more about the further ethnic and religious polarization in the light of implanted Arabization and Wahabism, much less about a terrorist attack of the monstrosity of Easter Sunday. Then, it was revealed that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims and their families had gone to IS-controlled Syria. Maithripala Sirisena’s response was ‘not to drag stray snakes into the lap’ (Pare yana nai odokkuwe Da genna Epa), terming this as someone else’s problem.

Sri Lanka paid dearly for political indifference to extremism.

However, it does not seem to have taken a lesson. Recently, the government de-proscribed a group of Wahabist Islamist groups, claiming they were not violent extremists. There is a thin line between violent extremism and non-violent extremism.

The threat of Islamist radicalization in Sri Lanka is real, and it is only going through a lull due to increased public scrutiny and very calculations of some quarters of the Muslim community who are sympathetic to the ideology, who, after the public backlash of the Easter Sunday, feel the cost is too high.

Channel 4’s Easter Sunday documentary, bombarded into polarized Sri Lankan society is a distraction from this real national security threat. For me, that is the greatest danger.

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter


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