A day after 15 individuals, including six children, were reported killed in suicide blasts at a suspected Islamist safe house in the Sri Lankan town of Kalmunai, a plainclothes military intelligence officer arrived at the home of Madhaniya, the 26-year-old sister of Zahran Hashim, the suspected mastermind of the coordinated terrorist bombings that killed over 250 people on Easter Sunday.
The officer asked Madhaniya and her husband Sherif Niyas, a small-time dealer of secondhand vehicles, to come with him to a hospital near Ampara to identify the 15 bodies.
“Please ask them to show me photos, I will (identify). I cannot go and see (dead bodies),” Madhaniya told Niyas in Tamil. After a word with the officer, he replied to her: “He (the officer) says if it is indeed them, this will be the last time you will get to see them. They are terrorists.”
Zahran Hashim blew himself up at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo on April 21. Another of his and Madhaniya’s brothers, Mohammed Zeyin Hashim, is missing — it is possible he was killed in the attacks, or is still at large, investigators believe.
Among those killed at the safehouse on Friday evening were a third brother of Zahran’s, his wife and their two children; the wife of the missing brother, Zeyin, and their two children; another sister of Zahran’s, her husband and their child; at least one of Zahran’s two children; and Zahran and his siblings’ elderly parents.
The Sunday Express was present when the Sri Lankan military officer visited the two-room, single-storey, rented home of Madhaniya and Niyas in Kattankudy on Saturday afternoon. Later in the evening, Niyas claimed that the officer had showed him pictures of two survivors of the blasts at the Kalmunai safehouse — they were of Zahran’s wife’s and one of their two children’s, he said.
Asked about Niyas’s claim, Brigadier Sumith Atapattu, spokeperson of the Sri Lankan Army, said the military was working in collaboration with the police department, and he could not immediately reveal much information.
Sixteen members of the family, including seven children and Zahran’s parents, had gone missing three days before the Easter Sunday blasts. Madhaniya told The Sunday Express she knew nothing of the so-called Islamic State, which had allegedly inspired her brother to kill so many people.
“We (Madhaniya and Zahran) stopped talking in 2017 after he started spitting venom in his speeches. He had been a fiery orator on Islam and a crowdpuller at streetcorner meetings from his teenage days. But I couldn’t take it any longer after he started to preach against the government, the national flag, against elections, and against other religions. He brought catastrophe upon our family,” she told The Sunday Express.
Kattankudy is a Muslim-dominated town on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. Madhaniya and Niyas’s home is situated barely 100 metres from the National Thowheeth Jama’ath masjid, a large two-storey structure with glass walls, the mosque where Zahran was allegedly radicalised. Residents of the area said on Saturday evening that the mosque has been under renovation for over two years.
Her brother, Madhaniya said, had started to claim that his own interpretation of Islam was the only true faith. “He was offensive about other religions, as well as moderate Muslims and Sufis. He would call Sufis drug addicts and smokers. My husband kept away from him as we felt that he was moving in a dangerous direction. The police were already monitoring him,” Madhaniya said.
Even though she had cut off connections with Zahran, she continued to send food to her parents, who stayed with her sister and her family in a nearby street, Madhaniya said. “But they disappeared suddenly on Thursday (April 18). Neighbours told us on Friday that they were not at home. Their phones had been switched off. Then the blasts happened, and we learnt the role Zahran had played,” Madhaniya said.
The whole family, she said, might have “gone together”, leaving only her and Niyas out because she was strongly opposed to “Zahran’s hatred towards the whole world”.
According to Madhaniya, Zahran dropped out of school in Class 6, but retained a strong interest in Islamic studies. He completed a course in Arabic to memorise the Quran, and showed an “unusual interest” in propagating his ideas on Islam. In 2006, he started an Islamic studies centre. “He lost God because he learnt the Hadiths from the wrong people, and he learnt to kill people instead. I should say that I am happy that he is no more,” Madhaniya said.
On some unverified reports that Zahran visited Tamil Nadu, Madhaniya said that in her knowledge, the only foreign trip he had made was to Japan a decade ago. “Someone from Colombo took him to Japan for a month. His job was to give Tamil Muslims there classes on the Quran. After 2017, I doubt he went abroad, because his passport and identification numbers were already with the police by then,” she said.
“He would listen to the Quran alone. He considered everything else a sin, and those who listen to music too were sinners for him. He believed that his interpretation of the religion was the best, and all others were bad. His idea of Islam was not ours,” Madhaniya said.
In March 2017, Zahran and his followers clashed with Sufi Muslims, and he made a provocative speech about moderate Muslims. As the heat on him increased, he fled.
“He was absconding since March 2017 because he was to be arrested. People in the neighbourhood say that he would visit his parents discreetly, in a vehicle with dark windows. He was the victim of the Wahhabi Islam that Sri Lankans who went to Gulf in the 1980s brought back with themselves. Wahhabism has killed our traditional values, and painted moderate Muslims like us as kafirs,” said H M Ameer, secretary of the Sufi Badhariya Masjid, who had contested Zahran’s ideas.
“He challenged and threatened us publicly in meetings. He called us renegades. He ridiculed traditional Islamic practices that we followed. Wahhabi Islam made him a conservative, then an extremist, and finally a terrorist,” said Ameer, who had sent several detailed complaints to the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry and terrorist investigation cells against Zahran.
“The National Towheeth Jama’ath can claim that he was expelled after 2017, but his brother headed it afterward. Now this brother is also missing or killed. He (the brother) would speak about the war in Syria, and tell Muslims that they should all live in the Islamic State,” Ameer said.
At the largely deserted National Towheeth Jama’ath mosque on Saturday, The Sunday Express found two young men who had come for prayers. “We heard of this (the alleged involvement of the National Towheeth Jama’ath in the blasts). I have seen Zahran here many times. We knew that there were problems, but this is a masjid. What is there to fear about a masjid?” one of the two men said.