Sri Lankan officials loyal to the Rajapaksa family were complicit in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people, including eight British tourists, whistleblowers have alleged.
One highly placed insider claims in an interview with Dispatches, to be aired in the UK on Channel 4 tomorrow, that he set up a 2018 meeting between a senior military intelligence official, Suresh Salley, and Islamic State-affiliated bombers to hatch a plot to destabilise Sri Lanka and facilitate the Rajapaksas’ return to power, according to the Times UK
“The meeting finished, Suresh Salley came to me and told me the Rajapaksas need an unsafe situation in Sri Lanka, that’s the only way for Gotabaya to become president,” Hanzeer Azad Maulana, the whistleblower, claims. “The attack was not a plan made in just one or two days, the plan was two, three years in the making.”
Salley was promoted to head of military intelligence when Gotabaya Rajapaksa won power on a promise to restore security six months after the Easter Sunday attack.
He previously served as defence minister under his brother, the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. They were jointly credited with crushing the Tamil Tiger insurgency but lost power in 2015, and later faced investigations into extra-judicial killings, human rights abuses and large-scale corruption during their time in government.
The alleged involvement of the powerful Rajapaksa family in the attacks has long been rumoured in Sri Lanka but the documentary, made by Basement Films, founded by the former Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear, marks the first time high-level whistleblowers have spoken about the alleged connections with the bombers. Gotabaya was forced from power last year amid a popular uprising over Sri Lanka’s economic collapse.
Maulana fled Sri Lanka last year and has presented his testimony to European intelligence agencies and the United Nations. They are treating his claims as credible and investigating.
Of the Easter Sunday dead, 43 were foreign tourists, including many children. A British man, Ben Nicholson, survived but lost his wife and two children. Anders Holch Povlsen, the Danish billionaire who owns a majority share in the clothing giant Asos and is the UK’s largest private landowner, and his wife, Anne, lost three of their four children.
A second whistleblower, an unnamed senior government official, backed Maulana’s account of Salley’s ties to the bombers and claimed that military intelligence repeatedly thwarted police investigations, before and after the bombings. “When this regime came to power in 2019, all officers connected to the investigation were transferred out, the investigation was completely sabotaged,” the official says.
Documents obtained by Channel 4 also appear to show several false leads presented by military intelligence to throw police off the Isis cell’s trail before the bombings. Other documents show that Indian intelligence warned Sri Lanka two weeks before the bombings that the Isis cell was planning to attack Catholic churches. The warning was not acted upon.
When a presidential report into the bombings was concluded in 2021 Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president at the time, refused to release it.
The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, appealed to the Pope, who called last year for an independent investigation into the attacks.
Maulana’s testimony is particularly striking because of claims to have connected the bombers with Salley. Lawyers who have brought legal action in London for the families of the victims said his account would be of interest to anyone seeking redress in jurisdictions outside Sri Lanka as well as within.
Maulana served for years as an aide to Pillayan, a politician loyal to the Rajapaksas, who met the bombers while he was in prison facing charges of the murder of a political opponent. Maulana claimed Pillayan immediately saw the utility of extremists only interested in “death, death, death”.
Maulana claims Pillayan and Salley engineered their release from prison before he arranged for Salley to meet them. “We can use them, they are not interested in anything in the world,” Maulana quoted Pillayan as saying.
Maulana also claimed to receive a call from Salley on the morning of the bombings asking him to go to the Taj Samudra hotel in Colombo and collect one of the men, but he was unable to do so. CCTV shows one of the bombers receiving a call inside the Indian-owned hotel before leaving suddenly. Hours later, he detonated explosives inside a smaller Colombo hotel.
In a letter to Channel 4, Salley called the allegations “outright false” and denied any contact with the individuals who spoke to the film-makers. He said he was not in Sri Lanka on the dates the alleged contact with the bombers was made. “I have no connection whatsoever in the Easter Bombing,” he wrote.
Neither Pillayan nor the Rajapaksa family responded to Channel 4’s requests for comment.