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Sri Lankan Government Admits It Failed To Heed Intelligence Warnings


We'll begin this hour in Sri Lanka, which is still reeling from the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday. The explosions at churches and hotels killed more than 350 people and wounded hundreds more.


The Sri Lankan government admits it failed to heed intelligence warnings ahead of the attacks. Here's the state minister for defence, Ruwan Wijewardene.


RUWAN WIJEWARDENE: It is a major lapse. It is a major lapse in sharing of information, especially intelligence information.

CORNISH: That intelligence information focused on local Muslim militants. Officials believe they carried out the attacks with outside help.

SHAPIRO: ISIS has claimed responsibility. NPR's Michael Sullivan joins us from Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. And Michael, tell us what officials there have said today.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Quite a bit, actually, Ari. The deputy defense minister and a senior police officer told reporters that eight of the nine suicide bombers have been identified, one of them a woman, all Sri Lankans. But they refused to name them. The deputy also said that most of the bombers were well-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class - the one had been to school in both the U.K. and Australia - and that they were believed to belong to a splinter group of the one originally blamed for this attack, though they were short on details about that, too.

He expressed confidence officials here would have the situation fully under control, as he put it, in a few days time, though he acknowledged there could still be others involved who haven't been caught and urged people to be vigilant. But not everyone is convinced by what they heard today since officials here have been offering sometimes wildly conflicting accounts since Sunday.

SHAPIRO: Now, we mentioned that ISIS has claimed responsibility. Did the officials who spoke today address that at all?

SULLIVAN: A little bit but not a lot. The deputy defense minister did say there might have been some sort of motivational involvement on the part of the Islamic State but refused to make a direct link in terms of funding or direct involvement by ISIS operatives, for example, though he said the investigation is still continuing. But Ari, given how well organized these near simultaneous attacks were and the skills needed to make them happen, it's hard to imagine a local group - a relatively new local group could do something this big on their own, right?

SHAPIRO: Now, we know that Sri Lanka has cracked down on security both in person and online, shutting down social media. Can you just kind of describe what the mood is like there today?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's still tense. I mean, there's still a state of emergency. There's still an overnight curfew, and there's an extraordinary amount of security here - police and soldiers everywhere, guarding hotels, houses of worship. It reminds me of what it was like when I covered the civil war here that ended 10 years ago when this kind of thing happened a lot, though nothing as deadly as these attacks.

But things have been quiet here since that, Ari, so people aren't used to it anymore. And a lot of them are on edge, and a lot of them are angry at the government for what they see as a failure to prevent these attacks, especially after the government was warned about the possibility earlier this month but did nothing.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, tell us more about those warnings. The president has admitted that Sri Lankan intelligence got the warnings and did nothing, and he said he personally didn't know about those warnings but promised to shake things up. What's he doing?

SULLIVAN: Well, today he asked for the resignation of both the defense secretary and the national chief of police because someone had to take the blame for such a massive intelligence failure. It's a start, but I'm not sure it'll be enough to appease a public very angry at and disillusioned with a government like this after these horrific Easter Sunday attacks.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Michael Sullivan in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thanks, Michael.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.