Sri Lankan authorities are pointing to Zahran Hashim as the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka that killed 253 people. The radical Islamic cleric headed up the group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ). Hashim was known to advocate for religious extremism and had pledged his allegiance to ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
ISIS has since taken responsibility for the bombings. “The executors of the attack that targeted citizens of coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka two days ago were Islamic State fighters,” the terrorist organization said, according to Reuters. The coordinated attacks hit two churches and three hotels in the Sri Lankan cities of Colombo and Negombo.
Here’s what you need to know about Zahran Hashim.
1. Hashim Is Believed to be one of the Suicide Bombers who Attacked the Shangri-La Hotel
Authorities are 75% positive that Hashim was the primary suicide bomber at the Shangri-La Hotel that killed a number of tourists including Alma, Agnes, and Alfred Povlsen, three of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen’s four children, and celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter, Nisanga. The explosions went off in the hotel’s Table One restaurant as guests were enjoying Easter Sunday brunch. Results from a DNA test that would conclusively identify Hashim are still pending.
Authorities believe Hashim was assisted by a second bomber named Ahmed Ibrahim. Ibrahim was the son of a prominent Colombo spice trader. The two men can be seen on the Shangri-La’s security video walking through the hotel wearing hats and backpacks and smiling as they enter the elevator.
2. Hashim Was Violent Towards Other Faiths, Including Muslims who Didn’t Support his Extreme Views
Hashim did not approve of anyone who failed to accept his hardline approach and was feared in his own community of Kattankudy, home to many of Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim population.
While Sri Lanka’s Sufi Muslims promote peaceful relations with other religious groups, CNN reported that Hashim believed that anyone practicing Sufism “is a kafir (unbeliever) to be killed according to Sharia law.” Sufis in Hashim’s hometown of Kattankudy were repeatedly harassed by the cleric and his followers. Hashim’s followers were known to vandalize and fire bullets at other mosques and even instigated a group of his supporters to chase down Sufis with swords in 2017.
Approximately 70% of Sri Lanka’s population practices Buddhism, yet Hashim and his adherants would deface Buddhist statues. Hashim justified the destruction by preaching to his followers that Islam prohibits idol worship.
Although locals made complaints to authorities, Hashim always eluded law enforcement.
3. Sri Lanka Authorities Were Repeatedly Warned About Zahran Hashim’s Dangerous Behavior
The Sri Lankan government has been criticized for not heeding the warnings they had received about Zahran Hashim and the NTJ, both from their own law enforcement officials and from neighboring India. High ranking officials in the Sri Lankan government assert the warnings never made their way up the chain of command.
Zahran had been on India’s radar since their intelligence forces discovered disturbing videos of his preaching during 2018 arrest of suspected Indian terrorists. “The videos showed a radical leader in Sri Lanka making threatening comments that indicated suicide attacks were possible,” an anonymous source told Gulf News. The source added that the videos showed Zahran calling for Islamic rule in Sri Lanka and southern India.
CNN is reporting that foreign intelligence officials warned Sri Lanka about possible suicide attacks, on April 9 the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry alerted the Inspector General of Police and included the names of possible suspects. On April 11 a third warning was issued in a memo written by Priyalal Dissanayake, the Deputy Inspector General of Police.
On April 25, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Hemasiri Fernando resigned. According to The Defense Post, Fernando told Sri Lankan Maithripala Sirisena that he accepted full responsibility for not stopping the coordinated attacks.
4. Hashim Used his Mosque and Social Media to Stir Up Violence
Zahran’s mosque in Kattankudy had a much more laid back feel, looking more like a youth club than a religious building. This low-key look attracted local Muslim youths interested in learning the Koran. But unknowing students were unaware that Hashim’s brand of Islam preached intolerance and violence.
The Telegraph reports that Hashim went into hiding in 2017 and began using social media to promote his violent preachings. The videos he posted encouraged violence towards anyone who did not accept his radical view of Islam. “He was mainly a troublemaker,” Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka Hilmy Ahamed told the news organization. “None of us ever suspected that he or his followers were capable of something like what happened.”
5. Hashim’s Extremist Beliefs Started in his Youth
Zahran was the eldest of five children and was described as a happy child who became seemed to become more fanatical in his teens. “Never for a moment did I think he was going to do such a thing,” Hashim’s sister, Mohammad Hashim Madaniya, told the BBC.
Madaniya added that she “deplores the attacks.” She also said that while her brother had a close relationship with the family, he had not been in touch with his parents or siblings for the past two years.
He was just 12 years old when he began his religious studies at Jamiathul Fala Arabic College and spent three years memorizing the Koran. As Zahran matured he gravitated toward a more extreme version of Islam, telling his teachers their interpretations of the Koran were too liberal. He was eventually kicked out of school. “He was against our teaching and the way we interpreted the Koran-he wanted his radical Islam, “the school’s vice principal S. M. Aliyar told NDTV.