The Mastermind of the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday Attacks: A Brief Sketch of Mohammed Zahran Hashim of National Thowheeth Jama’ath

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 5

Following the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed over 250 people and injured many more, the Sri Lankan authorities and a devastated populace are still left with troubling questions. How had this unheard of ‘Islamic extremism’ reach its shores unnoticed and who nurtured this deadly strain of jihad in the country?

While initial investigations unearthed evidence of the involvement of little known local Salafi jihadist groups National Thowheeth Jamaat (NTJ) and Jamathei Milathu Ibrahim (JMI), on April 23 Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility through its Amaq news agency. The 59-second Amaq video prominently featured Muhammad Zahran Hashim, a.k.a Abu Ubeida, spiritual leader of the NTJ and the mastermind behind the mayhem, along with seven others pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Two suicide bombings at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo were carried out by Hashim and Mohammad Ibrahim Ilham of JMI (Ada Derana News [Colombo], May 21). The rest of the suicide bombers have since been identified, including Mohammad Ibrahim Inshaf (brother of Ilham), Mohamed Hasthun, Ahmed Muaz, and Abdul Latif Jameel Mohammed (News.Lk, May 21). Intriguingly, except for Hashim—who was clearly leading other members in that IS fealty video—the other attackers covered their faces and dressed in black tunic and monochrome headscarves. The video to some extent proves that both NTJ and JMI members are part of a covert network inspired by transnational jihadist ideals espoused by IS.

Hashim was born in 1985 to a poor Muslim family in the coastal town of Kattankudy. During his education at the Jamiathul Falah Arabic regular madrasa, in the township of Kattankudy, he was exposed to literature on the fundamentals of Islam, especially Towheedism or Islamic monotheism. After dropping out in 2007 due to his rebellious nature and his radical views on Islam, Hashim joined the Ibn Mas’ood Madrasa in Kurunegala, which is the capital city of the North Western Province, and later became a member of Sri Lanka Toawheed Jamaath (SLTJ) (Sunday Times, April 28). The SLTJ has been operational under another Islamic cleric, Abdul Razik.

Zahran Hashim was also associated with another organization, Dar-ul-Athar, which was founded by his like-minded mentor Nowfar Maulavi. However, Zaharan Hashim parted with this group due to a conflict of interest, and went on to set up NTJ sometimes in 2012 (News First, May 1). A controversial figure within the Muslim community in Kattankudy and nearby localities, Zahran Hashim succeeded in pushing his followers towards a violent strain of Islam.

He proclaimed himself a cleric and a preacher of monotheist Islam. A natural orator himself and well versed in both Arabic and Tamil, he established his own mosque in the town and led regular Friday prayers and sermons. His influence spread to the other parts of Sri Lanka, the southern states of neighboring India—especially Tamil Nadu—and possibly to the Maldives (Daily Mirror, April 27).

Hashim was well known for giving incendiary speeches on social media sites, including YouTube and Facebook. The cleric had several thousand online followers.

Though there is conflicting information on the NTJ’s actual formation, both Razik and Hashim have long engaged in sectarian confrontation with Buddhist vigilante groups over socio-religious issues under the banner of SLTJ. Late last year in December 2018, Hashim exhorted NTJ members during a Friday prayer to attack Buddhist and Christian places of worships. This reportedly resulted in a three-day-long rampage where several Buddha shrines and statues in Mawanella were vandalized (Colombo Page, November 16, 2016; Colombo Telegraph, December 28, 2018). Before the Mawanella vandalism, Hashim came to public attention in March 2017, during clashes between NTJ members and followers of Sufi cleric Moulavi Abdul Rauf at the Aliyar junction in Kattankudy (Colombo Telegraph, March 14, 2017). He reportedly went underground following the violence and may have been influenced by Syria war returnees and IS literature like the magazine Dabiq. The magazine featured a rich tribute to Mohamed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam, one of the first Sri Lankans killed while fighting alongside IS forces in Raqqa, Syria in July 2015 (See Terrorism Monitor, December 2, 2015).

A cursory look at Hashim’s online speeches and social media postings suggest that he vehemently supported Sharia laws and Islamist ideals. With an objective of bringing the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka, Hashim circulated propaganda videos on YouTube and Facebook. Under his leadership, the NTJ organized regular Islamic tutorial and orientation programs and advertised event information (mostly taking place at madrasas) through its social media handles (e.g. Twitter). A deep probe into various advertised programs on social media revealed that his family members were also actively engaged in conducting these events, especially his brother Zain Hashim (Aththa Withthi News, May 2).  Several audio-visual materials were found during an April 26 raid on a Sainthamarudu (Ampara district) hideout. One such video circulated over the internet, which was perhaps recorded in this hideout, featured Zahran Hashim’s brothers Zain and Rilwan Hashim, along with their father Hayath Mohamed Hashim, announcing that they are waging a ‘holy war’ (jihad) (Daily Mirror, May 2). Most of the family members of Zahran Hashim, including his brothers, Zain Hashim and Rilwan Hashim, and father Hayath Hashim, were killed during the raid.

Zahran Hashim often bragged about having received messages and instructions from “Sham” (Syria) before members of his motley group, likely in an attempt to gain new recruits and followers. IS’ Amaq News claimed responsibility for the Sainthamarudu events and identified three of their members as Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan, and Abu al-Qa’qa (The Morning, April 28). On May 5, Sri Lankan police discovered NTJ’s sprawling training camp in Olikkulam, located on the outskirts of Kattankudi, the Hashims’ hometown (Daily News, May 6).

Along with his anti-Buddhist activities in the country, Hashim openly endorsed and supported Salafi-Wahhabi preachers including India’s Zakir Naik. According to Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Division, Hashim received encouragement to follow IS ideals from a local cleric and Syrian war returnee, Mohammed Imaath Fakir. Fakir was reportedly arrested from Dehiwala along with 15 others in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks (News First [Colombo], May 1). Most of them have returned from the Syrian war over the last couple of years. If police sources are to be believed, several of these arrestees had undergone training in Turkey. However, another IS and NTJ-linked suspect, Abu Bakkar, a close associate of Hashim, had fled the country following the Easter Sunday attacks (Daily Mirror, May 27). While more information on NTJ and Hashim’s extremist network is still emerging, it is still unclear how he connected with JMI members like Mohamed Ibrahim Inshaf and Mohamed Ibrahim Ilham, both brothers with rich family background from Dematagoda, Colombo.

Amid rising religious tensions in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday violence—especially in the town of Negombo, which has recently suffered heavily from clashes between Buddhists and Muslims—the Sri Lankan president banned NTJ and JMI, along with the group Willayath As Seylani (WAS) on May 14, for “the purpose of ensuring the continuance of peace within the country and in the interest of national security, public order, and the rule of law” (Colombo Page, May 14). The investigation is now on to discover if Hashim or his networks had received any logistical support or direct orders from IS’ central leadership in Syria, and to establish the level of Islamic State’s communications with and control over local Sri Lankan groups or individuals like Hashim.

Despite Indian intelligence agencies warning Sri Lankan security agencies that Hashim and his group were possibly planning terror strikes in Sri Lanka targeting Catholic churches and the Indian Embassy in Colombo, local officials failed to act on the information in early April. However, with assistance from India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Sri Lankan security apparatus must now unravel and contain the spread of Hashim’s network within Sri Lanka and beyond.