Sri Lanka explosions: Tycoon held, his two sons among suicide bombers

COLOMBO • He built his fortune on black pepper, white pepper, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla. His family lived in a beautiful white villa and travelled in a chauffeured BMW. He was feted by Sri Lanka's former president for "outstanding service provided to the nation".

But on Wednesday, the narrative of Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders, was ripped apart. Officials revealed he was in custody in connection with the devastating suicide attacks on Easter Sunday that killed more than 350 people.

An Indian official said two of Mohammad Yusuf's sons, who have been identified in Indian media reports as Inshaf and Ilham, were among the eight suicide bombers who struck at hotels and churches across the island.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and investigators said Mohammad Yusuf was being extensively interrogated.

During a raid on Sunday at his family's villa near Colombo, a female suspect blew herself up in front of two of her children, killing them all, along with several police officers who were closing in. The woman was most likely the wife of one of Mohammad Yusuf's sons.

Sri Lankan officials have been reluctant to identify the suicide bombers, saying that could hamper their investigation. But at a news conference on Wednesday, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said most of the bombers were well-educated and had come from middle-or upper-class families.

"Financially they are quite independent and their families are stable financially. So that is a worrying fact. Some of them have studied in various other countries. They hold degrees, LLM (Master of Law). They are quite well-educated people."

 
 
 
 

Officials said they were trying to determine what exactly the bombers' links to ISIS were. The extremist group released a video showing Zaharan Hashim, who has been identified as one of the suicide bombers, leading masked, black-clad disciples as they pledged allegiance to the organisation.

The authorities were saying little about their probe into Mohammad Yusuf and his family. He was a celebrated figure in Colombo's business circles and politically connected.

Sri Lankan political party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna wanted to nominate him for a seat in Parliament, though it failed to win enough votes to get him the actual seat.

Mr Vijitha Herath, a leader within that party, said he did not know anything about Mohammad Yusuf's possible role, or his sons', in the terror attacks. "He is a multibillionaire and a recognised businessman. He wouldn't have known what his sons did. There are things sons do, and fathers don't know."

Others seemed eager to distance themselves from the appearance of any prior links with Mohammad Yusuf. Reached by phone, State Minister for International Trade Sujeewa Senasinghe, who was photographed presenting the Presidential Export Award to Mohammad Yusuf in 2016, angrily denied any knowledge and hung up.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'Tycoon held, his two sons among suicide bombers'. Print Edition | Subscribe