Sri Lanka blasts: Suspected mastermind a radical preacher with militant links

Sri Lanka blasts: Suspected mastermind a radical preacher with militant links

Sri Lanka attack mastermind Zahran Hasim
The alleged mastermind behind the Sri Lanka attacks, Mohamed Zahran Hashim (centre), was a preacher known for militant views. (Photo: AFP/HO)

COLOMBO: For years, Sri Lanka's Muslim community warned authorities about a firebrand cleric. Now it seems Zahran Hashim may have played a key role in one of the worst attacks in the country's history.

A video released by the Islamic State group after it claimed responsibility for bombs that killed 359 people, appears to prominently feature Hashim.

The round-faced cleric is the only one of the eight figures whose face is uncovered.

Dressed in a black tunic and headscarf, and carrying a rifle, Hashim is seen in the IS video leading seven people in a pledge of allegiance to the group's chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The other seven all wear the same black tunics but their faces are obscured by black-and-white chequered scarves.

READ: Sri Lanka warned of threat hours before suicide attacks

Sri Lanka's government has accused Hashim indirectly, saying the group he was believed to lead - the National Thowheeth Jama'ath - carried out the attacks.

Intelligence officials and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe believe that Zahran, a Tamil-speaking preacher from the east of the country, may have been the mastermind.

In the hours before the blasts, Indian officials contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defence source and an Indian government source said.

And according to CNN, New Delhi's information came via the interrogation of an Islamic State suspect. 

The US network cited an intelligence source as saying that "during the interrogation of an accused, he disclosed the name of a man, Zahran Hashim, who is one of the suicide bombers and is associated with NTJ". 

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks to media at St. Anthony's Shrine i
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks to media at St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Apr 21, 2019 in this still image obtained from a video. (Image: Reuters TV/Derana TV)

Hashim was identified, albeit with his name misspelled as Hashmi, by police as heading NTJ.

The IS video was the first concrete evidence of the apparently central role played by Hashim in the Easter attacks.

'A LONER'

Hashim was a virtual unknown before the onslaught - even inside Sri Lanka.

He had attracted several thousand followers on social media sites, including YouTube and Facebook, where he posted incendiary sermons.

In one, the cleric with an unkempt black beard, delivers an extremist diatribe against non-Muslims, with a crudely photoshopped backdrop of flags in flames.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said he had gone to local authorities with concerns about Hashim three years ago.

"This person was a loner and he had radicalised young people in the guise of conducting Koran classes," he told AFP.

"But nobody thought these people were capable of carrying out an attack of such magnitude."

READ: Sri Lanka admits 'major' lapse over deadly blasts

Map Sri Lanka attacks Easter Sunday Colombo

Ahamed said Hashim, who has also gone by the names Mohamed Zahran and Moulavi Hashim, was around 40 years old and from the east coast region of Batticaloa.

The only one of the attacks on Sunday to hit outside of the Colombo area was at the Zion Church in Batticaloa.

DEAD OR ALIVE?

"Zahran belonged to an average Muslim middle-class family. He was a drop-out," said Ahamed, adding that the cleric had studied at an Islamic college in Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority city in eastern Sri Lanka.

He was considered a menace by the local Muslim community and caused trouble at Kattankudy's Thowheeth mosque.

"The mosque saw continuous conflict with the traditional mosque goers. Once Zahran took a sword out to kill people belonging to the traditional Muslim mosque," Ahamed said.

Local media said Hashim formed the NTJ in Kattankudy in 2014.

Sri Lanka attack
Security personnel stand guard in front of St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, two days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (Jewel SAMAD/AFP)

There was still confusion on Wednesday about whether that group, or a splinter organisation, carried out the Easter attack.

"There has been a group that has split from the main body," of the NTJ, Deputy Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said.

"We believe that the leader of this group has also committed suicide in one of the attacks," he added, refusing to confirm if he was referring to Hashim or someone else.

Sri Lankan officials are still investigating to what degree IS may have helped the attackers, but Ahamed said Hashim was known by the community to have international ties.

"All his videos have been uploaded from India. He uses boats of smugglers to travel back and forth from southern India," he said.

"I don't know if he is dead or alive," added Ahamed.

And neither do police, who want to know if Hashim was among the suicide bombers.

On Wednesday, they were carrying out DNA tests on the bodies of some of the bombers, particularly one who set off explosives at the Shangri-La hotel.

"The biggest concern is Zahran," said an officer close to the investigation.

"Anyone who can help us trace him will be doing everyone a huge favour," the official added. "We have not been able to account for him yet."

On Apr 25, the Sri Lankan government revised the death toll to 253.

Source: Agencies/mn

Bookmark