Sri Lanka’s terrorist attacks and intelligence failure? What intelligence failure??

Imagine the following scenario. The weather outside is awful. It has been snowing for three days now and a lot of the white stuff has accumulated on the ground. In addition, the temperatures have hovered around zero (Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit) so there is a real risk of ice on the roads.

Every TV station, online news site and weather expert is saying it is not a good idea to go out under these conditions. Taking that chance could lead to a very bad ending. Stay inside, put the coffee on and watch Netflix is what everyone seems to be saying.

Except that there is this one guy – we’ll call him Bob – ignores all this. Bob decides that the information is bogus or that the warnings are fake (fake news!) or exaggerated. Bob elects to go out anyway in his car. Bob ends up in a ditch. Bob is dead.

So whose fault is this tragedy? The TV’s? The Internet? Your local weather specialist? All of the above? Was this a ‘weather warning failure’? No, this is solely Bob’s fault. Bob had all the necessary data to assess the situation and determine risk. Bob elected to pooh-pooh it and take his own chances Bob is now dead.

Do you see where this is going? I am reading a lot about the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka as an ‘intelligence failure’. Except it was nothing of the sort. This was actually an intelligence success. What we have here is a ‘failure to communicate’ (and to act).

It is becoming quite clear that officials in Sri Lanka had ample data and ample warning about the attacks thanks to intelligence collection. Here is an excerpt from The Economist:

  • National intelligence agencies had issued their warnings as early as April 4th. In a letter on April 9th the chief of national intelligence had even named suspects—a level of detail that is very rare for such warnings. And shortly before the attacks, the spy agencies’ foreign counterparts had again alerted Sri Lankan authorities that places of religious worship, especially of Catholics, and areas with high concentrations of tourists “may be targeted”.

But here is where things went badly wrong. The Prime Minister was not aware of this intelligence because he had not even been invited to meetings of the national security council, which are chaired by the president, since October last year. Because the PM and the President don’t get along, the latter favouring another person for the job. This has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with politics. In addition, those who had seen the intelligence could have taken action to put security in place. This is a failure on their parts as well.

I may be a little sensitive to these claims given my 32 years in Canadian intelligence but it seems crystal clear to me that the spy agencies did exactly what they are paid to do: collect data, assess it for accuracy, analyse it and pass it on. That it was not done so in Colombo cannot be laid at the feet of the intel bodies.

There are indeed many occasions on which intelligence is poor, lacking or non-existent. Yes, we do miss things and yes we do get it wrong sometimes. But we get it right more often and hence we do provide a needed service. The level of detail available to Sri Lankan officials from their own spies and foreign ones before Sunday seems to me (I of course have not seen it) to be remarkably detailed: this is very, very rare.

So the next time you see the phrase ‘intelligence failure’ stop and ask yourself: whose failure?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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