link: An undated image posted by the Islamic State’s news agency apparently
shows Zahran Hashim in the middle | AP
gateway featuring verses from the Quran welcomes you to Kattankudy, a coastal
town in the eastern Batticaloa district of Sri Lanka. Date palms line the road
beyond the arch. Cafes sit cheek by jowl on either side of the road and offer
tiny cups of Middle Eastern coffee; a rarity in the land of Ceylon tea. A
monument in the shape of a Rehal (book rest) adds to the Arabic ambience of the
rest of Sri Lanka, Kattankudy, too, is in grief after the April 21 blasts that
killed more than 250 people in multiple cities across the country. But there is
fear, too. For the mastermind of the attacks—Zahran Hashim—was a native of
Kattankudy. It is here that he established the National Thowheed Jamaath, the
radical group that bombed Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Zahran reportedly blew
himself up for the attack.
Islam the wrong way,” Mohammed Aliyar Falahi, who once taught Zahran, told THE
WEEK. Falahi is vice principal at the Jamiathul Falah Arabic College, which had
kicked out Zahran because of his radical views. “He was a half-baked person and
did not even complete the course to become a Maulvi. He was always ambitious,
radical and violent in his thoughts.”
But he was
not alone. Most of the Muslim youth in Kattankudy have turned to monotheism and
radical preaching, which came from the Middle East. Kattankudy, which borders
the Tamil towns of Manjanthoduvai and Arayampathy, has 66,000 Muslims. Overall,
Muslims make up 9.7 per cent of 21 million people in Sri Lanka. But unlike the
Tamil minority, Muslims have largely kept away from violence and have kept to
Terror link: An undated image posted by the
Islamic State’s news agency apparently shows Zahran Hashim in the middle | AP
Terror link: An undated image posted by the Islamic State’s news agency
apparently shows Zahran Hashim in the middle | AP
In its early
days, Kattankudy had been a Sufi town. But, in the late 1970s, things began to
change. The youth who went to work in the Middle East brought back more than
just dates and perfumes. Saudi money started pouring in, and mosques and
madrasas were built. “This is when Wahhabism began coming into our country,”
said M.I. Mohammed Jaseem, vice chairman of the Kattankudy Urban Council. The
youth began questioning the Sufi way and turned to early Islam.
basically practising traditional Sufism and believed in idol worship,” said
Falahi. “It is believed that our ancestors came from Yemen and married the
Tamil women here. This is why we speak Tamil. Our women never covered their
faces with a hijab. They used to veil their head with the sari.”
Kattankudy spans just 3.9 square kilometres, it has more than 45 mosques. The
new Kattankudy Grand Jumma Mosque, with its blue mosaics and Arabic letters on
the dome, looks exactly like the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest
site in Islam.
By the late
1980s and early 1990s, Wahhabism, born in Saudi Arabia, began taking hold on
the Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka. “Their first campaign was against the Sufi
Muslims,” said a senior member of the Alhaj Abdul Jawadh Ali Walaiyyullah
trust. “The youth who came back from Saudi Arabia, even before people like
Zahran [came up], began criticising our worship practices. They wanted us to
runs the Badriya Jumma mosque, which was one of the Wahhabis’ early targets.
The first terror attack was on May 29, 1998, when Farooq Maulvi, who fought the
Wahhabi ideology, was killed. The seeds of distrust were sown in Kattankudy.
October 31, 2004, a mosque at Irumbuthaikkan in Batticaloa was attacked. Though
no one was hurt and the mosque was undamaged, it led to a weeklong episode of
violence in the area. Reportedly, even the Sufis got rough. Though the dust
settled and people went on with their lives, their minds had been partitioned.
Many of the women who had returned from the Middle East began wearing Hijabs.
“In our society, the women could decide whether to cover their faces or not,”
said Mohammed Jaseem. “It was only during the early 2000s that the youth began
talking about the Hijab being compulsory.” The Wahhabis also told their women
not to wear jewellery. “We were always for jewellery,” Jaseem said. “The women
were like their Muslim sisters in regions like Ramanathapuram and Nagoor in
had set in. The liberal women of Kattankudy started staying indoors and covered
their faces while outside. The town also saw the advent of radical preaching on
the “morality of the right things”, and emotional sermons on the Quran and
Hadith. By mid-2006, the region was a tinderbox.
And then a
match was lit. According to the Sufis, various small outfits, including the
Kattankudy mosque federation and Jamiat ul Ulema, came together under the name
Eemaniya Nenjangal. The members of this group began telling the Sufis to
convert to Wahhabism.
On July 31
the same year, one of the radical groups reportedly abducted Maulvi Mohamed
Rizvi while he was going to the Oddamavadi Grand Mosque. He was blindfolded and
taken to an unknown location, where he was beaten up and his beard was shaved.
He was freed two days later. The Maulvi had been punished for his remarks
against one of the Wahhabi groups.
same time, a man called Abdul Samad, alias Kaju Samad, known to be a weapons
procurer for a local radical group, was found dead in Eravur. The police closed
the case, saying that he was “abducted and killed” by an “unidentified group”
because of “rivalry between two local groups”.
year, about 50 Sufi houses and madrasas were gutted. “Our people became
refugees in our own land,” says Zareen Mohammed, a practising Sufi. A week
later, on November 7, Abdur Rauff Maulvi of the Alhaj Abdul Jawadh Ali
Walaiyyullah trust was shot at. He escaped unhurt.
when jihadi training began in Sri Lanka. The monotheists started getting
weapons into the country. They said it was their “duty to correct the Muslims
who are going on the wrong path,” said Sahani, a resident of Kattankudy,
recalling their speeches. The ground situation remained tense for the next few
2014, Zahran Mohammed Hashim founded the National Thowheed Jamaath with just 40
members. His speeches lured hundreds more. Within a year, there were 400
members. A section of Muslims began looking at him as a promising leader. The
NTJ’s monthly magazine regularly wrote against Buddhists and Sufi Muslims.
Zahran even said that Muslims did not come under the Sri Lankan constitution
and they need not follow any government rules.
1986 in Kattankudy, Zahran had had a difficult childhood. His father, Mohammed
Hashim, sold small packets of food on the streets to make ends meet. But the
money was not enough to sustain his family—him, his wife and five children
(three boys and two girls). Perhaps that is why he turned to petty thievery; he
was called ‘Kallan Hashim’ those days.
placed its hopes on Zahran, who joined the Jamiathul Falah Arabic College when
he was 12. For three years, Zahran memorised the Quran, but at 15, he argued
that his teachers were too liberal in their reading of the holy book. “He
wanted radical Islam, so we threw him out,” said Falahi. The white-bearded man
last heard of Zahran years ago. “I remember the day in 2005 when we kicked him
out,” he said. “His father came to ask me where his son would go.”
Kattankudy, learned Arabic, and returned to join the Dharul Athar mosque in
2006. Slowly, thanks to his oratory, he became a member of its management
committee. But he fell out with the mosque after three years. Apparently, he
never listened to the elders. He was conservative and advocated stoning people
who spoke against Islam. “He had the habit of misquoting Islamic scriptures,”
said Mohammed Yusuf Thowfeeq, a friend and now the in-charge of the NTJ.
Because of heated arguments with members of the community, he left for
Kurunegala, in northwest Sri Lanka, and married Fathima Cader Sadiya. It was
here that he studied Islamic law and got the honorific mashoodi. “He was not a
maulvi. He was only a mashoodi,” said Mohammed Jaseem. But Zahran was popularly
known as Zahran Maulvi.
back to Kattankudy and formed the NTJ. “He was always emotional,” said
Thowfeeq. “An able spiritual leader who could deliver lectures on the Quran and
to make his speeches at the Thowheed Jamaath mosque, which he started, and
takers for his ideology grew. But things came to a head in 2017, when the NTJ
held a special conference. Though Zahran claimed it was an anti-drugs event,
one of the pamphlets, accessed by THE WEEK, said it was a talk on monotheistic
ideology. The topic was—“Why not call pantheists the people who converted from
conference turned violent, following which eight people were arrested and four
others—Zahran, his brother Rilwan, Anwar Asthaq and Bathrudeen Mohideen—went
missing. While Rilwan returned to lead the NTJ, Zahran went into hiding. The
NTJ decided to dismiss Zahran, as he had turned radical, and Rilwan signed the
the violent conference, Sufi Muslims, placards in hands, demanded Zahran’s
arrest. “We prepared a long list of these people, with their names, addresses,
their fundamentalist ideologies and IS (Islamic State) inclinations and sent it
as a complaint to every top authority in the country,” said Sahani, who did not
want to disclose his second name. “We sent it to the attorney general and also
to the IGP (inspector general of police) office in Colombo. But no one took it
even the people of Kattankudy did not think Zahran would go to such extremes.
“We thought people like Zahran were just loudmouths. We never expected that he
would harm the country with such terror,” said Abdul Latheef Mohammed Sabeel, a
local urban council member.
numbers, however, show his impact. Apparently, 80 per cent of the Muslims in
Kattankudy now follow Wahhabism. “The Muslims who follow Sufism are around just
20 per cent,” said a member of the Badriya Jumma Mosque.
always very kind and helpful,” his sister, Madhaniya Niyas, told THE WEEK.
“But, in 2017, I stopped meeting him as he began talking about hardline
religion. My husband didn’t like Zahran. So I stayed away.”
26-year-old mother of three, Madhaniya was in a bad state. She and her husband
had not eaten properly after learning of the Easter blasts. “We were shocked,”
said Niyas. Their nine-month-old son was crying, presumably from hunger. “Now
no one from my family is alive,” said Madhaniya. She had just returned from the
Ampara government hospital, where she was made to identify the bodies of her
two brothers, their wives, their children, her younger sister and her husband,
and the daughter of Zahran’s friend Niyas. They had died in a gun battle with
security forces in Sainthamaruthu, near Kattankudy. Apparently, the men in the
safe house had detonated explosives, blowing up themselves and the others. “My
sister was pregnant,” Madhaniya said in a low voice.
and Niyas live on rent in a small, two-bedroom house. Niyas, who buys and sells
autos, has had a horrid time in the past few days. Investigative agencies have
mistaken him for Zahran’s friend with the same name, who died at the safe
house. “The special task force came looking for Niyas and took me into
custody,” said Madhaniya. “I had a tough time making them understand that my
husband is alive.”
Zahran went missing in 2017, Madhaniya was not in touch with him. In fact, she
was only in contact with one of her brothers, Zaini. And her parents. They
lived three blocks away from her, and she sent them food the Thursday before
the April 21 attacks. But, on Saturday, when she went looking for her parents,
their house was locked. “I didn’t know where they went. The neighbour said they
had gone out on Friday,” she said.
Sunday, when the blasts happened and the news of Zahran’s involvement came out,
she thought that the family had gone to a safe hiding place. A week later, she
found out that the whole family had died. “It was a horrible scene at the
hospital,” she said. “The bodies had been blown to pieces and were kept in
plastic bags. I could not identify anyone except Niyas. I identified them only
in the video and in the photos shown to me.” As she spoke, her four-year-old
daughter played with a soft toy with broad eyes and white hair. THE WEEK had
seen a similar toy at the blast site in Sainthamaruthu. “My sister’s daughter
had a similar toy,” she said. “My daughter cried when she saw it and I bought
it for her.”
Back at the
Ampara hospital, near the mortuary, Zahran’s wife and four-year-old daughter
sat in silence. “She is in terrible shock, but is not injured,” said Madhaniya,
before calling out to her. She did not respond. Fathima and her daughter were
inside a room at the Sainthamaruthu safe house when it was raided. “She is
innocent, as far as I know,” said Madhaniya. “She is sitting like a stone in
then saw Niyas’s wife, Syed Ahmed Asmia, at the Kattankudy police station.
Niyas had left home a few weeks before the Easter attacks, saying he was going
to Saudi Arabia for a job. The police were interrogating Asmia, who was seven
months pregnant, to find out more about him. “Did he talk about IS at home?”
asked the officer. “He talked about Zahran and his talks on Islam,” Asmia
replied. “He would say non-Muslims have to be killed. But he would never wait
for my reply.”
Pains, Intelligence Errors
Zahran started the NTJ in Kattankudy, his connections are said to have grown
steadily, especially through organisations in Colombo.
many organisations in Colombo that bring people from other countries to preach
Islam,” said a civil society leader in Batticaloa. “Organisations like Sri
Lanka Thawheed Jamath and Ceylon Thowheed Jamath.”
the focus of the security agencies elsewhere, Zahran decided to take a chance.
Last year, two policemen were stabbed to death near the Kallady Bridge in
Batticaloa. The police got suspicious of some former LTTE cadres and arrested
them. However, Zahran’s driver Gaffur has now confessed to the police that he killed
the policemen, and it was a test to know if the police would suspect them for
any attacks. “He has confessed,” Kasthuri Araichchi, the officer in charge at
the Kattankudy police station, told THE WEEK.
Zahran married Fathima, he starting spreading his ideology in Kurunegala, too.
And his connections grew. It was after 2017, when Zahran went missing, that his
Facebook postings became aggressive. “The National Thowheed Jamath, though
founded by him, always supported peace,” Yusuf Mohammed Thowfeeq told THE WEEK.
It was in the later years that Zahran began talking about the Shariah law. “We
are for the Shariah law,” said Yusuf. “But we don’t agree with the crude parts
like stoning or cutting off hands for stealing. We said women should wear a
Hijab, cover their faces and not wear jewellery. This is because piercing the
ears could harm them.”
were investigating how Zahran got in touch with the sons of spice trader M.Y.
Ibrahim in Dematagoda, Colombo. Inshaf and Illham were involved in the Easter
attacks in Negombo. Ibrahim has been arrested. “Islamic fundamentalism in Sri
Lanka began in 2007 itself,” said a former intelligence officer who worked in
the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. “There were at least 25 home-grown groups
that were talking Islamic fundamentalism.” But the Rajapaksa government
apparently had a tight grip on the Muslim community and some of them even
helped the government fight the LTTE.
towards the end of the civil war, said the officer, the government became
suspicious of a senior Muslim politician providing weapons and training to some
radical groups. It was in 2010, a year after the war, that the radical groups
became prominent in Sri Lanka. “They became more powerful than their own
brethren in the community because of their connections with politicians,” said
when preachers from countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan began coming
to Sri Lanka. Apparently, three days after the Easter attacks, security
agencies detained a preacher from Egypt, who did not have a valid visa or
passport, and was preaching in schools on the outskirts of Colombo. “This is
how it was working,” said the officer. “The government failed to keep tabs on
the fundamentalist preaching happening in the capital.”
after the war, Sri Lanka had a military intelligence unit that exclusively
monitored Islamic radicalisation. However, according to officers who were part
of the unit, the Maithripala Sirisena government did away with it.
A few days
after the Easter attacks, the police detained one of the brothers of Industries
Minister Rishad Bathiudeen; he was later let off. Also, people have alleged
that the governor of the Eastern Province, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, was promoting
fundamentalism. Apparently, he was involved in the setting up of a Sharia law
university near Batticaloa. Being built at a cost of 1500 million Sri Lankan
rupees, the university is said to be partly funded by Saudi Arabia. THE WEEK
could not reach Hizbullah; sources said he wanted to stay away from any
controversy. The construction has been halted after the recent attacks.
January, security agencies had arrested four men after a huge cache of
explosives was found on an 80-acre coconut farm in Puttalam district in
northwestern Sri Lanka. They were released later. The police are now
investigating whether the case is connected to the blasts.
have also found another safe house of Zahran, from information given by his
driver Gaffur, at Hambantota. They had earlier seized a huge haul of detonators
and weapons, and an IS flag, from another safe house in Sammanthurai. According
to intelligence sources, the NTJ’s route to Syria was through Afghanistan. The
Kattankudy police are now on the lookout for at least 56 people who they think
have IS links.
has been more than a week since the Easter attacks, and curfew has been lifted
in Colombo and Batticaloa, people are still wary. “On Sunday, we organised a
mass, eight days after the attacks,” said Rajan Roshan, the priest at a
Batticaloa church. “But people did not turn up.”