Place of Residence:
Kattankudy, Sri Lanka
Cleric, assumed leader of National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ)
Main suspect behind the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday attacks
Uploaded his sermons on to YouTube and Facebook, which have since been taken down
Hashim, also referred to as Mohammed Zahran and Moulvi (the South Asian term for imam) Hashim, is said to have belonged to an “average Muslim middle-class family,” according to AFP reports. His radicalization is believed to have begun during Islamic studies at Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka.
“This person was a loner who radicalized young people under the guise of conducting Qu’ran classes,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told AFP.
Ahamed approached authorities repeatedly over the past three years with concerns over Hashim’s hate-filled rhetoric in sermons uploaded on to social media, but his warnings fell on deaf ears.
“We were very concerned that this guy was preaching hate on social media and uploading a lot of videos,” he told The Daily Telegraph newspaper in the UK.
Hashim is said to have been a divisive figure within the Muslim community as well after news emerged that the cleric was radicalizing students during his Qur’an classes. He had dropped out of seminary studies in India after clashing with fellow clerics and had caused trouble at Kattankudy’s Thowheeth mosque after encouraging worshippers to attack rival mosques.
“The mosque saw continuous conflict with the traditional mosque-goers. Once Hashim took a sword out to kill people belonging to the traditional Muslim mosque,” Ahamed said.
While mystery still surrounds the perpetrators of the attacks, with reports alleging international groups were involved and a Daesh video claiming responsibility, many are pointing to National Thowheed Jamath, a group formed by Hashim while studying in Kattankudy in 2014, according to local media.
Another man, Abdul Razik, who was arrested on charges of inciting racism in 2016, was said to be the group’s secretary general.
It is still unclear if the NTJ or a splinter group was responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks.
After Hashim appeared in the Daesh video uploaded on to the extremist group’s official Amaq news agency, media were quick to claim that he was among the suicide bombers who struck across the capital. The video showed the cleric standing at the center of a group of seven people dressed in black tunics and headscarves, carrying rifles, and pledging allegiance to Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The video was the first concrete evidence of the apparently central role played by Hashim in the Easter attacks.
While the video claims that Hashim was among the suicide bombers, other reports claim he fled and is in hiding in the neighboring Maldives.
Hashim’s sermons were also uploaded on Al-Ghuraba Media, a media group that defines itself as part of the “Media Front to Support the Islamic State.” It recycles Daesh official media content and puts out its own productions in support of the extremist group.
It is hard to get a detailed picture of what Hashim was preaching, since his sermons have been taken down from social media, but reports of the group’s beliefs and actions reveal extremist thought.
The stated goal of National Thowheed Jamath is to bring the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka.
On the West
Hashim reportedly uploaded videos in which he declared that only Muslims are fit to rule in Sri Lanka. Believing that Islam is the superior religion, he pushed for the building of mosques and madrassas across the country.
Hashim’s group pushed to make it compulsory for all women to wear a burqa, which is uncommon in Sri Lanka.
On other religions
The preacher uploaded videos of himself railing against non-believers, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.
His group was prosecuted in 2017 for making derogatory remarks against Buddha in a video and offending the country’s Buddhist community.
Hashim’s hateful and incendiary remarks are evident in the sermons he has spread through social media outlets. In Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, he had caused divisions by pushing his extremist belief in spreading the jihadist movement. His appearance at the center of the Daesh video demonstrates his willingness to take intolerance to another, more horrific level.
- He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
- Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media
Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.
Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point personin Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sundayattacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.
A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked menpledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose faceis visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in SriLanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning anotherattack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream ofSufi Islam.
Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankangovernment first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath(NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the fewIslamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen asthe main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to havebeen a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officialssay he left and formed his own faction because the core groupdisapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.
Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka bytownspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings.Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and thentraveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. Hedropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequentlybetween India and Sri Lanka.
Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal,band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousandsof followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTubeand a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media andused to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.
According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh,Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when hebegan posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’svideos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after theSept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.
Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar afterseveral of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central SriLanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weaponscache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on thenorthwestern coast of Sri Lanka.
Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and otherAsian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received helpfrom Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the IslamicState (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, aSingapore-based expert on militancy in the region.
Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction ofthe NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he workedwith international support, given the sophistication of the bombings andthe fact that foreigners were targeted.
“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath)group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the NationalPeace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”
As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claimof responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense MinisterRuwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it haddirectly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was noevidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fightfor Daesh, he said..
“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were apurely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert andfellow at the Pacific Forum.
“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombingsshould be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankangovernment cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.
TIMELINE OF SRI LANKA BLASTS
Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning thatsuicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit“prominent churches.”
8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.
8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.
9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.
2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.
8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.
4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.
8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.
Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.
Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with theirfaces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaringtheir loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his faceuncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known forhis militant views.
Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; USSecretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bombattacks were inspired by Daesh.
Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.