The 38-year-old man, said to be the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday blasts in Sri Lanka that killed 359 people, hailed from a coastal town in eastern Batticaloa where he ran his own radical mosque and had a reputation for making aggressive demands that the Shariah be implemented, security sources told The Indian Express.
Zaharan Hashim, founder of National Towheeth Jamaath, was also one of the two suicide bombers who detonated themselves at the five-star Shangri La hotel in Colombo.
On Wednesday, with President Maithripala Sirisena asking Sri Lanka’s defence secretary and police chief to quit for failing to act on intelligence warnings, officials said Hashim was among the eight suicide bombers who targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.
Officials identified a ninth suicide bomber as the wife of one of the attackers — she blew herself up along with her three children when police raided her Colombo home hours after the blasts.
The Indian Express has learnt that police are now re-investigating the recent explosion of a motorcycle near Kattankudy, Hashim’s hometown in Batticaloa. Investigators suspect the explosion could have been a test for the explosives used in Sunday’s blasts. At the time, police had arrested the owner of the property where the explosion took place.
Residents said Hashim was feared in Kattankudy for his extremist views but also admired for his oratory skills by his small band of followers as well those opposed to his views. Kattankudy, incidentally, is where the LTTE attacked two mosques killing nearly 150 people in 1990. “He could talk very well. He used to say, we must live like how it has been said in the Koran, that you must cut off a person’s hand for stealing and that stoning was the punishment for adultery. He wanted to bring in the Shariah. But we used to argue that this is not Saudi Arabia, that we are a small minority in a Buddhist country and must live within the Constitution,” said Abdul Latheef Mohammed Sabeel, a local urban council member and an ex-member of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation.
Most residents only saw Hashim as an “aggressive loudmouth”, and realised recently that he had crossed over to violent radicalism after police linked him to the defacing of Buddha statues in central Sri Lanka last December. But even then, they did not expect him to be identified as one of the suicide bombers last Sunday.
Unlike some of the other bombers, Hashim was not from a wealthy family. Around 2007, said Sabeel, he was expelled from a tableeghi school in Kattankudy for arguing frequently with teachers. He then disappeared from town, and residents believe he enrolled himself at another such school in central Lanka.
“He returned with an Arabic certificate, and started preaching. Some people got attracted to him because he was a good speaker, and he gathered about 300 followers,” said Sabeel.
Hashim had several run-ins with local residents, a majority of whom remained unconvinced by his version of Islam, according to Sabeel. But three years ago, around the time he founded NJT, he set up his own mosque in Kattankudy.
“We complained to police, and wrote to the department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs to not register this body,” said Sabeel. Around this time, Hashim dropped out of view. Sabeel said the talk in town was he had been invited to preach in foreign countries.
On the website JaffnaMuslim.com, a writer identified as Muheed Jeeran, who claims to be a close friend of Hashim, said that after a police complaint following a clash between him and a section of Kattankudy residents, there was talk that he was living in the Maldives.
Hashim came on the radar again when police started hunting for him and another suspect for vandalising the Buddha statutes in Kegalle district. The search led to an 80-acre coconut farm in Puttalam where explosives, detonators and radical literature was discovered this January.
The motorcycle explosion went unnoticed by intelligence officials at the time. Investigators said records of that blast helped them track some of the suspects in the Easter attacks.
An official said the attacks were planned over two months — by then, the accused had two safe houses on the west coast, in Panadura, south of Colombo, and in Negombo, north of the capital.
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“The safe houses were normal residences, which ensured that their activities went unnoticed,” said the official, adding that the suicide vests used in the attacks were “not as sophisticated” as those assembled by the LTTE.
The female suicide bomber was the wife of the other Shangri-La bomber, who has been identified as the son of Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim, an affluent businessman. Another son of the businessman was also among the bombers, investigators said.
Ibrahim, a well-known spice trader with political connections, has been arrested and is being questioned. One of the two sons — Inshad and Ilham — was among the four arrested after the explosives haul at the Puttalam farm, but was released later.
Speaking to The Indian Express, state minister of defence Ruwan Wijewardene said most of the suicide bombers were from financially stable families and educated abroad. “They had obtained degrees… Masters in Law, etc. One of the suicide bombers studied in the UK and completed his post-graduation in Australia before returning to Sri Lanka. They were all in their 20s and 30s,” he said.