Sri Lanka explosions: Two families, one shattered by the other, in Colombo

Police outside the Ibrahim mansion in Colombo, where the wife of Ilham Ibrahim, the son of one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders, set off a bomb, killing herself, her three children and three officers, last Tuesday. Mr Anders Holch Povlsen and
Police outside the Ibrahim mansion in Colombo, where the wife of Ilham Ibrahim, the son of one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders, set off a bomb, killing herself, her three children and three officers, last Tuesday.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Police outside the Ibrahim mansion in Colombo, where the wife of Ilham Ibrahim, the son of one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders, set off a bomb, killing herself, her three children and three officers, last Tuesday. Mr Anders Holch Povlsen and
Mr Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife, Anne, arriving at the 50th birthday celebration of the Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark in Copenhagen last May 27. They were in Sri Lanka with their four children during the children's Easter school break.PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO (Sri Lanka) • A little before 9am on Easter Sunday, Mr Anders Holch Povlsen, the richest man in Denmark, was having breakfast with his family at the Table One restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

At the same time, Ilham Ibrahim, the son of one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders, was heading down to Table One in an elevator. Wearing a baseball cap and a large backpack, he stepped into the elevator with a friend wearing the same thing. Right before the doors opened, CCTV shows, Ibrahim's friend flashed him a long, white smile.

The two families, the Povlsens and the Ibrahims, were about to intersect. One was a billionaire in dollars. The other, a billionaire in rupees. One amassed a fortune through jeans, turtlenecks and all kinds of hip clothing. The other, through white pepper, black pepper and all kinds of spices.

They both were well-known and admired, part of wildly successful, close-knit business families from opposite ends of the world.

In an instant, five of their children - Ilham, Inshaf, Alma, Agnes and Alfred - were blown to pieces, one side slaughtered by the other.

Two of the Ibrahim sons - Ilham and his older brother, Inshaf - were among the suicide bombers behind the series of devastating attacks around the country.

More than a week after 250 people were killed in the attacks by Islamist extremists, Sri Lanka remains in shock. An unnatural quiet fills areas that should be busy, like Old Moor Street in Colombo, where the Ibrahims ran their spice empire from behind an unassuming storefront with a grey gate.

 
 
 

Up till last week, Mr Mohamed Ibrahim ran one of the island's biggest spice exporters. He lived in a million-dollar mansion on Colombo's outskirts and kept a fleet of six cars.

Family members said he, even at about 70, was a tireless worker, up at 4am and then spending the rest of the day in his factory.

His eldest son, Inshaf, about 35, was flashier. He drove a new white Toyota Landcruiser and was tall with a muscular build. Inshaf was being groomed to take over the business, and his father set him up with a copper pipe factory. A picture from 2016 shows Inshaf beaming as he and his father accept an award from a minister - one of several bestowed on the Ibrahims by the Sri Lankan government.

Ilham, the second son, about 31, was more withdrawn. Merchants on Old Moor Street barely saw him. It seems his job was to oversee a family pepper farm near Matale, a city a few hours away.

The Povlsens' stay at the Shangri-La was part of a beach vacation to Sri Lanka during the children's Easter school break. Mr Povlsen, 46, the intensely private chief executive of a huge family-run fashion company, called Bestseller, was with his wife, Anne, and their four children, aged about five to 15.

Alma was the oldest. She had shared a few pictures of her trip on Instagram, including a portrait of her siblings, taken from behind.

The Povlsens live in a secluded, 600-year-old manor house in Denmark. They also own several castles and 89,000ha in Scotland. Mr Povlsen is worth about US$8 billion (S$11 billion), according to Forbes.

The night before the attacks, according to a family member who spoke with journalists, Inshaf told his wife he was travelling to Zambia and then checked into the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo. Ilham checked into the Shangri-La. Inshaf used a fake identity card, but Ilham used his real identification.

CCTV footage from the Shangri-La shows Ilham stepping into the lift and later into the Table One restaurant with another man, who has now been identified as Zaharan Hashim, the bombings' suspected mastermind.

It is not clear how Zaharan and Ilham met, but members of the Ibrahim extended family say Ilham was more devout than others in his family and that his young wife, Fatima, covered her entire face with a veil, unusual in Sri Lanka.

 
 

On Easter Sunday, Table One was filling with guests. Ilham and Zaharan entered the restaurant from different sides. At about 8.50am, they blew themselves up.

Thirty-three people were killed at the Shangri-La, including three of Povlsens' four children. It is not clear how the blast killed half the family and spared the rest.

At the Cinnamon Grand, CCTV footage shows Inshaf, wearing a backpack and ball cap, stepping into the buffet room. But then he stops and walks forward and back several times. Whatever hesitation he might have been feeling, Inshaf overcame it, killing himself and 20 others.

Within minutes of one another, seven suicide bombers across Sri Lanka detonated backpacks stuffed with powerful explosives, blowing apart people at three hotels and three churches.

Because Ilham used his real identification card when he checked into Shangri-La, within hours, the police swarmed the Ibrahim mansion.

They were greeted at the door by a woman who then turned around and dashed up the stairs. It was Fatima, Ilham's wife. In front of her three children, Fatima blew herself up, killing three police officers and all the children, aged five, four and nine months. Ibrahim, the family patriarch, was handcuffed and taken away.

NYTIMES

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2019, with the headline 'Two families, one shattered by the other, in Colombo'. Print Edition | Subscribe