Suspected Sri Lanka attacks ringleader preached slaughter, never hid hatred

Police and security personnel inspecting remains of victims after a blast hit the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo. Radical Muslim preacher Zaharan Hashim is believed to be one of the two suicide bombers who targeted the hotel.
Police and security personnel inspecting remains of victims after a blast hit the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo. Radical Muslim preacher Zaharan Hashim is believed to be one of the two suicide bombers who targeted the hotel. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KATTANKUDY, SRI LANKA (NYTIMES) - Zahran Hashim, a radical Muslim preacher accused of masterminding the Easter Sunday (April 21) attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, never hid his hatred.

He railed against a local performance in which Muslim girls dared to dance. When a Muslim politician held a 50th birthday party, he raged about how Western infidel traditions were poisoning his hometown, Kattankudy.

There were, Zahran said in one of his online sermons, three types of people: Muslims, those who had reached an accord with Muslims, and "people who need to be killed". Idolaters, he added, "need to be slaughtered wherever you see them".

Zahran has been described by Sri Lankan officials as having founded an obscure group with inchoate aims: a defacement of a Buddha statue, a diatribe against Sufi mystics.

But in his hometown, and later in the online world of radical Islam where his sermons were popular with a segment of young Sri Lankans, it was clear for years that Zahran's hateful cadences were designed to lure a new generation of militants.

"He was influential, very attractive, very smart in his speeches, even though what he was saying about jihad was crazy," said Mr Marzook Ahamed Lebbe, a former Kattankudy politician and member of a local Islamic federation. "We all underestimated him. We never thought he would do what he said."

The Easter Sunday attacks, which included suicide bombings of three churches and three luxury hotels, took at least 250 lives. Through its news agency, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the attackers as its fighters and released a video with Zahran appearing to be front and centre.

 
 
 

Standing among seven masked men in black, Zahran is the only one with his face exposed. Sri Lankan investigators believe that eight suicide bombers carried out the attacks on the hotels and mosques on Sunday, one of the bloodiest assaults ever claimed by ISIS.

Investigators said on Thursday that they believed Zahran was one of the two suicide bombers who targeted the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. (The police have also identified him as Mohammed Zahran.)

Muslims in Kattankudy said they had repeatedly contacted the police to warn them that Zahran was dangerous, but that the authorities played down the threat.

Adding to questions about the government's competence, the Sri Lankan authorities on Thursday vastly revised their earlier count of fatalities, saying that about 250 people had been killed as a result of the bombings, not 359.

One of the targeted churches - where more than 20 people were killed, many of them children - was in Batticaloa, a religiously mixed city just to the north of Kattankudy.

"I cannot digest this, even if it was done by my own brother," said Ms Madaniya, Zaharan's sister, who lives in Kattankudy and who goes by one name. "I strongly condemn this."

Growing up in Kattankudy, an oasis of Islam on a majority Buddhist island with significant Hindu and Christian minorities, Zahran's religiosity was unremarkable. Most houses here have a picture of Mecca on their wall, and road intersections are decorated with golden monuments in Arabic.

Zahran and his brothers were sent by their father, a small-time seed and spice seller, to a madrasah, where teachings adhered to a strict interpretation of Islam. But even as he impressed with the fluency of his Quranic recitation and easily made friends, Zahran confronted his teachers and accused them of failing to adhere to true Islam.


Sri Lankan military near the explosion site at a church in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

Like other Kattankudy young people lured by new overseas fashions, he had come under the spell of foreign preachers whose sermons were being passed around town by DVD, said Mr M. B. M. Fahim, one of his classmates and now a lecturer at the same madrasah.

"He spread misinformation about us," Mr Fahim said. "He said the school should close because it was teaching the wrong way. He was just a student and he was saying like this."

Zahran was kicked out of school. He enrolled at another Islamic college but never graduated, his acquaintances said. Still, by listening to the sermons of charismatic but extremist preachers based in India and Malaysia, Zahran was honing his oratory.

"He was a very good talker and a good researcher of how Islam was developing worldwide," said Mr M. L. M. Nassar, an administrator of a Kattankudy mosque federation.

Zahran was unafraid of taking on the powerful, a rarity in a society bound by respect for those richer or older.

"He would criticise big shots, he would criticise anybody," said Mr Marzook, the former politician. "People were attracted to his lack of fear."

After getting ejected from serving as imam of one mosque for his extremist views, Zahran started a group in 2014 called National Thowheeth Jama'ath, which drew from the austere Wahhabi tradition that claims to follow the faith as practiced in the age of its founder, Prophet Muhammad.

 
 
 

Zahran preached that the Sri Lankan national flag was a worthless piece of cloth, and that the country should be ruled by syariah law - an unlikely outcome in a country where only about 10 per cent of the population is Muslim.

"My impression was that it was preoccupied with outflanking other Wahhabi groups to attract Middle Eastern funding," said Mr Gehan Gunatilleke, a researcher who wrote about National Thowheeth Jama'ath last year. "It was focused on symbolism and rhetoric."

Zahran founded his own mosque with funding from India, according to members of a Kattankudy mosque association, even though the mosque never received official religious certification.

Still, the Islamic school dropout with an unlicensed mosque was gaining followers in Sri Lanka and beyond. Last year, Indian security officials investigating what they said was an ISIS cell in southern India reported that one of the suspects they had arrested said he had been inspired to join the group after watching Zahran's videos.

But another of the ISIS suspects in southern India, Ashiq, 25, is out on bail and rejects the notion that Zahran's sermons were anything more than a guide to the Quran and Islamic law.

"They preach that Islam is good," he said. "What is wrong with that?" Shortly after ISIS began fighting to create a global caliphate, Zahran praised the group's murderous campaign.

Whether Zahran found ISIS or ISIS found him, they seemed inextricably drawn to each other. In other places, like Indonesia and the Philippines, ISIS has been adept at taking Islamic radicals with local grievances and enlisting them in the global slipstream of terror.

By 2017, Zahran and his followers were targeting a Sufi sect in Kattankudy, accusing its members of being infidels, even though Sufis are fellow Muslims who practice a mystical form of the faith.

After the Sufis in Kattankudy handed out packets of rice to the poor, an action that Zahran regarded as trying to buy hungry converts, he grabbed a sword and charged the crowd.

 
 

The police said they tried to arrest Zahran and one of his brothers, but they escaped.

About 10 of his followers were detained, however, including his father and other relatives. Surprisingly for a small group from a distant part of Sri Lanka, the detained members of National Thowheeth Jama'ath managed to get a high-profile lawyer from Colombo to represent them.

Mr H. M. Ameer, a member of the Sufi community, said that he and other Sufis had repeatedly contacted the police to warn them about Zahran's extremism. They sent a thick file to Colombo. But there was little result, Mr Ameer said.

His assessment echoed complaints from recent days that Sri Lankan authorities failed to act on repeated warnings from overseas intelligence agencies about Zahran planning a catastrophic attack.

On Thursday, Sufis in Kattankudy received a warning from the Sri Lankan criminal investigation department that their holy places might be targeted on Friday by militants associated with Zahran who are still on the run.

Looking out on soldiers guarding the Badhriyyah Jumah Mosque where he and other Sufis worship, Mr Ameer shook his head.

"We warned them that this man was vehemently spreading Wahhabism and that he was calling for jihad," he said. "It was out in the open, clear as day. Nothing was done."