State Intelligence Service: Its Colossal Failure in Reading the Islamist Threat

Merril Gunaratne, in Island, 11 May 2009, where the title runs “Carnage and complacency:An intelligence standpoint”

A way of identifying failures of the national security network to prevent the carnage would be to examine what actually took place as the intelligence received from India moved forward or upward, from the point where it was received. The State Intelligence Service (SIS) was the initial recipient of the information. The SIS is actually the pivot or axis rotating the cogs of the defence machinery, which in a collective sense, is identified as the National Security Council (NSC).

The Director of SIS is acknowledged as the specialist in intelligence, whilst the Chief of National Intelligence is at the apex of the national intelligence network. The crucial role of director of SIS in serving as the pivot of the NSC can be gauged by the fact that NSC deliberations commence with a brief given by him. The seats of Chief of National Intelligence and Director of SIS are expected to be filled by specialists in intelligence. Secretary of Defence and IGP who are the other officials accused of omissions leading to the carnage, are not specialists in intelligence.

The extremely reliable pieces of intelligence from India, including the timing for attacks and specific reference to certain targets, were received by Nilantha Jayawardena, Director of SIS. The best way to identify possible failures of the SIS would be to examine how a head of intelligence should have acted upon receiving such information.

Analysing Intelligence

The first step would be to engage in a proper threat assessment. A necessary prerequisite to do so would be to possess a comprehensive knowledge of the groups which according to Indian intelligence, were on the brink of committing explosions. Without this background knowledge, the Director would not be able to express comments which would impress the secretary of defence about the gravity of the situation, the imminence of danger, and the urgent requirement to summon a conference to determine basic common security safeguards. Therefore, there may be a need to examine the type of comments made by director SIS when he dispatched reports embodying the intelligence received. I make this point because after the explosion, Hemasiri Fernando, Secretary of Defence stated to the media that what they expected were mere “isolated incidents”. Did he say so on advice given to him? Or, did he say so, ignoring a proper analysis by the director of SIS?

Basic or Special Report

A subversive or terrorist group promotes its goals and interests through two broad phases of activity. The first phase which we call the “Preparatory Phase”, is one where the group indulges in indoctrination, distribution of propaganda material, establishment of safe houses to conceal themselves, their weapons and explosives, dispersal in all probability of five-man cells in areas where they are comfortable, establishment of clandestine communications, and forging of local and foreign links. Once established firmly on the ground, they graduate to the stage of the conduct of operations.

The preparatory stage is both time consuming, and cloaked in secrecy. With regard to the Muslim groups that caused the recent carnage, they had already concluded preparatory work and even advanced to the stage of operations. The desecration of Buddhist temples in Kegalle and the murder of policemen in Vavunativu would be testimony. Therefore, the SIS had a period of at least over two years to become aware of the clandestine activities of the terror groups: and the operations in Kegalle and Vavunativu should have provided them alarm signals to view the emerging terror movement seriously.

If their intelligence network had been active and successful in detecting and monitoring the underground network over this protracted period, the SIS should have furnished a Basic or Special report embodying the totality of activity of the subversive group, to the government and secretary of defence. Such an analysis should also have proposed measures or steps required to excise the threat. The usual role of a head of intelligence in the face of such developments is to alert the government and the defence authorities to the emergence of subversive movements, so that their activities can be nipped in the bud. This is done by the submission of Basic or Special reports.

It is a matter for conjecture whether Director of SIS furnished such a Basic or Special Report. If he failed to do so, the conclusion that can be drawn is that he had not acquired a comprehensive and total knowledge of the terror movement in motion, and correspondingly, had failed to make a proper analysis, when submitting the report containing recent Indian intelligence. Such knowledge was a necessary prerequisite to compile a precise analysis.

Responsibility for Inaction Against Terror in the Preparatory Stage

Since a Basic or Special Report has to be based on intelligence, the SIS is entirely responsible for alerting the government and the defence machinery, when an underground subversive movement commences preparatory work in secrecy. It may now appear that the SIS had been caught napping even when the Muslim extremists had come into the open and committed violence in Kegalle and Vavunativu. Incidentally, history appears to be repeating itself once again, for the SIS failed to take timely steps to alert and advise the government when the Muslim groups were engaged in preparations to eventually strike, not dissimilar to the failures with regard to the northern and southern insurgencies. The inability of the SIS to graduate from the collection of political information to the procurement of intelligence in respect of violent subversion has now assumed chronic proportions.

Submission of Classified Reports by the Sis

Traditionally, director of the national intelligence agency has to abide by a precise “distribution list”. The first two copies would have to be dispatched to the president and the minister of defence. Copies would also be submitted to the secretary of defence and the chief of national intelligence. Further copies would be distributed amongst chief of defence staff (CDS), service commanders and the IGP, depending on necessity. The president has already stated that he had not been informed of intelligence provided by India. The responsibility for such failure lies with director of SIS, not secretary of defence, nor IGP. The director of SIS, by virtue of his sensitive responsibilities, also has more ready access to the president and the Minister. The failure of secretary of defence in this instance has been his omission to convene a security conference, assess the threat, consider security safeguards, and seek the approval of the president for their enforcement. Therefore, it may not be exactly correct to consider that he should have been the first informer of the impending threat to the president. It would appear that by failing to keep the president informed, director of SIS had abdicated his responsibility.

Secretary of Defence

Notwithstanding the possible failure of director SIS to influence the secretary to view the information seriously and act with speed and prudence by the submission of a proper analysis, secretary of defence yet had to convene a conference of the CDS, service commanders and the IGP, along with chief of national intelligence and director of SIS, to discuss the threat, and thereafter to seek the approval of the president to enforce common security standards. His inability to do so has been a grave omission, perhaps to some extent being the result of his ignorance and inexperience in matters connected with national security.

Chief of National Intelligence

The chief of national intelligence, like secretary of defence, had also never been acquainted with the world of intelligence and national security. Theoretically, he stood at the apex of the intelligence gathering agency, a highly specialised and skilled field. His failure to do justice to the intelligence received therefore has to be viewed as a tragedy, since he appears to have merely passed the papers down to IGP.

Ready Access to the President and the Minister

The doors of the president and the minister of defence are always open to secretary of defence, chief of national intelligence and director of SIS to enter and discuss matters regarding national security which are of an urgent nature. It would have been unfortunate if the trio, individually or collectively had failed to do so.


On his showing as IGP, Pujith Jayasundara had not exercised judgment and maturity in the discharge of his police responsibilities. He had rather been obsessed with a desire to preserve his seat by gravitating from one end of the political spectrum to the other. With regard to the instance under discussion, I doubt whether he should be held responsible for failure to alert the president in regard to intelligence received from India. This was a matter for director of SIS. But, displaying immaturity, he had failed to summon a conference of his deputies to discuss the threat, consider security safeguards, and meet up with secretary of defence to obtain approval for their enforcement.

Telephone Calls and Discussions

I think there is considerable merit in the advocacy of Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha for an investigation for criminal neglect. Intelligence about impending explosions was not procured by the SIS, but by India. After being alerted in time, we yet failed to act. There would have been many telephone calls amongst secretary of defence, IGP, chief of national intelligence and director of SIS concerning intelligence received from India. Another aspect for probe would be to ascertain whether the Secretary of Defence and the IGP had consulted the  Director of SIS and CNA as to the nature of the threat foreseen by Indian intelligence. A proper inquiry as to the culpability of the officers responsible for omissions may, therefore, be served better only by interrogating the officers concerned in regard to telephone conversations and “off the record” discussions.

****  ***

NOTE — The pertinence of this old COLOMBO TELEGRAPH Report

1 Comment

Filed under accountability, discrimination, historical interpretation, insurrections, Islamic fundamentalism, life stories, performance, politIcal discourse, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, terrorism, transport and communications, truth as casualty of war

One response to “State Intelligence Service: Its Colossal Failure in Reading the Islamist Threat

  1. AN EMAIL COMENT from a Friend in SRI LANKA: Good. I wonder why CT has refrained from mentioning that Ranil also had prior info on the attack. I see in this CT onslaught a reaction to Sirisena eating into the UNP support-base and distancing himself from Ranil.

Leave a Reply