Local Muslims say they reported mastermind of Sri Lanka terror attacks years ago
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Local Muslims say they reported mastermind of Sri Lanka terror attacks years ago

Community leaders sounded the alarm about Zahran Hashim after seminary expelled him for ‘hardline’ views; Hashim had dozens of hate-filled sermons uploaded to YouTube

Zahran Hashim delivers a sermon in an undated online video. Hashim allegedly headed the extremist Muslim group blamed for Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka. (screen capture: YouTube)
Zahran Hashim delivers a sermon in an undated online video. Hashim allegedly headed the extremist Muslim group blamed for Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka. (screen capture: YouTube)

KATTANKUDY, Sri Lanka — Zahran Hashim’s sword-wielding Islamic zealotry fueled fears in the sleepy east coast town of Kattankudy long before the cleric became Sri Lanka’s most wanted man over the horrific Easter Sunday suicide attacks.

The country’s president announced Friday that Hashim led and died in the attack on the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo — one of three hotels and three churches hit by bombers wearing explosive backpacks.

The round-faced preacher headed the extremist Muslim group blamed for the bombings which left more than 250 dead. He featured in a video released by the Islamic State group when it claimed responsibility.

Heavy security surrounded the main mosque in the Muslim-majority town of Kattankudy, where religious leaders say they sounded the alarm about Hashim years ago, beginning with his expulsion from a seminary during his teens.

A photo published on the Islamic State terror group’s propaganda outlet, the Amaq agency, on April 23, 2019, showing what the group says is eight bombers who carried out the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. (Amaq)

“It was the first time a student has been expelled for being a hardliner,” said Mohammed Buhary Mohammed Fahim, a senior official at the Jamiathul Falah seminary who was a younger contemporary of Hashim’s at the school.

“When he arrived here at the age of 12, he was clearly very intelligent, very studious, and asked lots of questions. He was popular and sociable,” Fahim told AFP.

‘Very violent people’

But things began to change as Hashim grew older, with Fahim blaming his exposure to books and CDs extolling a fundamentalist vision of Islam.

“He basically went off-course… We teach moderate Islam here but he was a hardliner.”

When Hashim sought to influence his fellow students, parents complained to the seminary chiefs and the school asked him to leave.

After a few years away he returned to Kattankudy, founded the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) group, and worked with some former classmates to build a mosque where he could preach and share his rabble-rousing sermons.

“He was a good orator… he would pick and choose words from the Quran and twist and misuse them,” one official at a local mosque told AFP. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was terrified of reprisals from Hashim’s followers.

Sri Lankan security personnel walk next to dead bodies on the floor amid blast debris at St. Anthony’s Shrine following an explosion in the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

“These are very violent people. If they know who I am, they can just shoot me in the street,” he said.

Hashim’s violent streak attracted police attention three years ago when he brandished a sword during clashes with members of another Muslim organization, the official said.

But just as the net seemed to be closing in, he went into hiding with some followers, operating what appeared to be an NTJ breakaway group that was linked to vandalism attacks on Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka in December.

In 2014, a group called the “Peace Loving Moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka” published a newspaper commentary saying that the NTJ was “fast becoming a cancer” within Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and warned that the group was making mosque attendance compulsory, forcing a strict implementation of Islamic law and making women cover their faces and wear long robes.

‘Big mistake’

According to Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Hashim shifted base to southern India.

“All his videos have been uploaded from India. He uses boats of smugglers to travel back and forth from southern India,” he told AFP.

Hashim uploaded dozens of hate-filled sermons to YouTube, calling for all “non-Muslims to be eliminated.” Though complains were made about his videos, YouTube declined to remove them on breach of policy grounds until after the attacks, according to Britain’s Sky News. The video sharing platform told Sky on Thursday it was deleting all of Hashim’s sermons, and other videos mentioning him other than news reports.

India has warned Sri Lanka that suicide attacks were possible weeks before Hashim and the other bombers walked into three churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday.

India’s warning was based on videos and other Islamic State-influenced material seized from raids in southern Tamil Nadu state in 2018.

At the largely deserted NTJ mosque in Kattankudy, adherents brushed off any suggestion of continuing ties with Hashim.

In this picture taken on April 26, 2019, security personnel display seized items after they raid what believed to be an Islamist safe house in the eastern town of Kalmunai. (STRINGER / AFP)

“Because of Zahran the mosque has got a bad name now. We have had no contact with him for two years… We have no connection to him, he is not a member of the NTJ,” said chief cleric Mohammed Yoousuf Mohammed Thoufeek.

Thoufeek said he has been questioned by police several times since the attacks.

Despite the link to Hashim, the mosque appeared to be functioning normally on Thursday evening, though only about a dozen worshipers attended prayers.

“When the attacks happened, even we couldn’t imagine that he would do something like this,” said the unnamed mosque official. “The police made a big mistake. If they had arrested him in the beginning they could have stopped this. All this could have been avoided.”

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