COLOMBO • An Islamic extremist believed to have played a key role in Sri Lanka's deadly Easter attacks died carrying out a suicide bombing in a Colombo hotel, the country's President confirmed yesterday.
"What intelligence agencies have told me is that Zaharan Hashim was killed during the Shangri-La attack," President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters, referring to the leader of a local extremist group.
He added that Hashim led the attack at the high-end hotel and was accompanied by a second bomber, identified only as Ilham.
He said the information came from military intelligence and was based in part on CCTV footage recovered from the scene. Hashim appeared in a video released by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group after they claimed the bombings, but his whereabouts after the blasts were not immediately clear.
Hashim's zealotry fuelled fears in the east coast town of Kattankudy long before he became Sri Lanka's most wanted man. Heavy security surrounds the main mosque in Muslim-majority Kattankudy, where religious leaders say they sounded the alarm about Hashim years ago, beginning with his expulsion from a seminary during his teens.
"It was the first time a student had been expelled for being a hardliner," said Mr Mohammed Buhary Mohammed Fahim, a senior official at the Jamiathul Falah seminary and who was a younger contemporary of Hashim's at the school.
"When he arrived here at the age of 12, he was clearly very intelligent, very studious and asked lots of questions. He was popular and sociable," added Mr Fahim.
But things began to change as Hashim grew older, with Mr Fahim blaming his exposure to books and CDs extolling a fundamentalist vision of Islam. "He went off-course. We teach moderate Islam here but he was a hardliner," said Mr Fahim.
When Hashim sought to influence his fellow students, parents complained to the seminary chiefs and the school asked him to leave.
After a few years away, he returned to Kattankudy, founded the National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) group and worked with some former classmates to build a mosque where he could preach and share his rabble-rousing sermons.
"He was a good orator. He would pick and choose words from the Quran and twist and misuse them," said one official at a local mosque on condition of anonymity.
Hashim's violent streak attracted police attention three years ago, when he brandished a sword during clashes with members of another Muslim organisation, said the official. But just as the net seemed to be closing in, Hashim went into hiding with some followers, operating what appeared to be an NTJ breakaway group.
According to Mr Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Hashim shifted base to southern Indiabut but would travel back and forth.
The mosque official who did not wish to be named said: "When the attacks happened, even we couldn't imagine that he would do something like this. The police made a big mistake. If they had arrested him in the beginning, they could have stopped this. All this could have been avoided."