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Why Wealthy Sri Lankan Brothers of A Moderate Muslim Family Became Suicide Bombers?

By Samanth Subramanian

July 2, 2020

There’s a video of the exact moment Inshaf Ibrahim decided to abandon his life as a rich young man and turn into a mass murderer. In one sense, he had made up his mind weeks earlier, which was why he was loitering in the Cinnamon Grand hotel’s breakfast buffet on Easter Sunday last year in Colombo, strapped into a knapsack of explosives. Once he arrived, though, he appeared to dither. Later, investigators picked him out of CCTV footage, standing near a vacant table, wearing a baseball cap and a T-shirt, his back to the camera. In the footage, he moves like a perplexed penguin. Two steps forward, half a step back, a turn, another turn: a choreography of hesitation. Perhaps he is reconsidering? But no, the investigators concluded; he is waiting for more people to come in. Finally, a microsecond of stillness, arms heavy by his side; then his hands reach toward the front of his waist, and the film goes dark.

Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Coordinated attacks by suicide bombers in April 2019, which killed 269 people, are still reverberating throughout the country. Credit...Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times


The restaurant, Taprobane, was one level below the lobby, so when a hotel employee on the same floor heard the muffled boom, he thought something must have fallen into the dining room, possibly a chandelier. When he got closer to the scene, he saw smoke and people carrying out bodies. He asked what happened, but no one had time to talk. A fire, he figured. Then he entered the restaurant, saw the devastation and revised his guess: gas explosion. On his phone, he has a video he shot: the glass windows overlooking the garden blown out, ceiling panels ripped away, the omelette stations pulverized. “Some of the foreign guests were bigger than us, so we had to put them onto banquet tables and carry them out, four to a table,” he told me.

Relatives mourn beside a coffin of a bomb blast victim during a burial ceremony, days after a series of bomb attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka left 359 people dead. (AFP file photo)


After the bodies — 20 of them — had been cleared, the employee went back in with the police. “That was when I saw the head of the bugger,” he recalled. “I knew it was a suicide bomber. We all know that if a bomber blows up a bomb on his torso, you’ll find his head separately.”

Sri Lanka has a long, morbid familiarity with suicide bombing. During a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009, the guerrillas of the Tamil Tigers used the tactic extensively, trying to compel the government to grant the island’s Tamil-speaking minority its own nation. Men and women in suicide boats, ramming into naval ships; in suicide vests, assassinating presidents and prime ministers; in a suicide plane, hurtling into a government building; in suicide trucks stuffed with explosives, driving into a Buddhist temple in Kandy, the World Trade Center in Colombo and the Central Bank down the road from the Cinnamon Grand.

Even so, Easter Sunday came as an incomparable shock. The Tigers had never pulled off an attack so audacious and meticulous. Ibrahim was one of eight bombers who struck across Sri Lanka that morning. His associates attacked two other hotels; his younger brother, Ilham, was one of two human bombs at the Shangri-La. Others detonated themselves in churches in and around Colombo and in the eastern town of Batticaloa, just when the faithful had assembled for Easter Mass. Two hundred sixty-nine people were killed in all. Their bodies were left in so many pieces that, at first, the authorities thought the death toll to be at least 350.

Everything about Easter Sunday was confounding: the scale of the destruction, coordinated under the nose of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus; the selection of churches as targets, even though Christians, who make up just 7.4 percent of the population, have never fallen neatly on either side of Sri Lanka’s various communal divides; and ISIS’s claim upon these attacks two days later, complete with the obligatory video of the eight men swearing allegiance to the caliphate’s chief at the time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi— even though ISIS wasn’t known to have a toehold in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan security personnel standing guard after the bombing at the Shangri-La Hotel.Credit...Ishara S. Kodikara/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images


Easter Sunday turned out to be the most horrific example of ISIS’s successful franchising of terrorism — worse than the siege in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2016, or the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, or the Bataclan attack in Paris that same year. The bombings surprised Bruce Hoffman, a longtime scholar of terrorism and insurgency at Georgetown University, both because they were planned amid heavy ISIS losses in Iraq and Syria and because the bombers, such nobodies, were able to build and detonate these sophisticated explosives. They proved that small cells can now operate with the capacities of established groups, Hoffman says, and that these franchise attacks will continue without any direct supervision from ISIS headquarters — even after the United States killed al-Baghdadi last October. Such strikes, he says, “can be carried out on the ground by locals, if they’re determined and frustrated enough.”

In this respect, the Ibrahim brothers flouted all expectation. Many Muslims have suffered in Sri Lanka: targeted by the Tigers in the 1990s, or by Buddhist extremists over the past decade. Not the Ibrahims; the country was good to them. Their father, Yusuf Mohamed Ibrahim, came to Colombo as a boy from a village in the hills and, by becoming one of Sri Lanka’s leading spice exporters, built a fortune, owning land all over Colombo.

Inshaf, who was 36, worked in his father’s company and then set up his own, to refine and export scrap copper. He lived with his wife and four children in downtown Colombo and was considered a consummate success. Ilham, who was 33, didn’t want to work and didn’t have to. His family lived with his parents in a plush pocket of bungalows called Mahawila Gardens. The Ibrahim residence was the grandest on the street; one neighbor told me she called it “the palace.” On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, when the police raided the house, Ilham’s wife, Fatima, flipped the switch on her own suicide vest, killing herself and their three children. She was expecting a fourth.

Of all the bombers, these two young men proved the most baffling to other Sri Lankans. There have always been well-off terrorists, even wealthy ones. Still, when new examples emerge, they force us to re-examine a tenet of modern life: our belief that security and economic comforts are the rudiments of a peaceful community, and that people turn against strangers only when they face some material peril or privation. Most of us associate violence with desperation. What did the Ibrahim brothers have to be desperate about?

Two days after the bombings, Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency, allowing its Criminal Investigation Department to arrest whomever it liked without a warrant and hold detainees indefinitely. Until the emergency was lifted, on Aug. 22, the country was dangerous for anyone who admitted to knowing any of the bombers, or indeed for any Muslim at all. Nearly 300 people were arrested, among them Muslims who owned a suspicious number of SIM cards, or had a Quran, or wore a caftan printed with what looked like the sacred wheel of Buddhism. It wasn’t just the state that lashed out. Not far from Colombo, Muslims were attacked by vigilante mobs. In November, Sri Lanka elected as president a former defense chief named Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose ruthlessness against minorities and dissidents prompted his own family to call him the Terminator. Under Rajapaska, a spate of new arrests ensued — including, in April, that of Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer who has represented Mohamed Ibrahim in some of his business affairs.

When I was in Colombo last August, some of the Ibrahims were still in detention for questioning. The others were soon released, but the father remains in custody, so I couldn’t reach him; he could be held for up to 18 months without charges under an antiterrorism law. The last time he was seen in public was at the time of his arrest, outside his house. A photograph showed a stocky man of 65, with close-cropped hair and a spray of gray beard. He wore a white sarong, a blue T-shirt and a look of bewilderment. His feet were bare, as if his slippers had fallen through the gulf that had opened between his old and new worlds.

Everyone called him Hajiar — one who has performed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Hajiar was a man of plain habits, the kind of millionaire who, if his car was unavailable, was happy to hail a trishaw to go to his office: Ishana Exports, 37 Old Moor Street. A three-floor building done up in smooth red and cream, Ishana looked nothing like other structures in Pettah, the commercial heart of old Colombo. Pettah lies just outside the walls of the city’s first colonial fort, constructed by the Portuguese in 1518, and its lanes are jammed with handcarts, trishaws and small trucks delivering vegetables, vendors selling sliced fruit and cars parked at brazen angles. Other buildings wear their age in their scabby, rain-damaged paint; Ishana was the sleek, prosperous beast in the pack.

Mohamed Ibrahim’s Ishana Exports building in Colombo.Credit...Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times


One morning, I went to the store of another spice merchant, a relative of Hajiar’s. He sat behind a glass-topped table with a phone and a calculator at hand. The floor was filled with open sacks and barrels of spices. The air was savory: cinnamon, black pepper, a hint of cardamom.

No names, he requested. You know the situation. You know what the political climate is like.

When Hajiar was 13, he left his village of Deltota for Colombo. His father married a second time after his first wife died, and Hajiar was the 17th of 18 children. They weren’t well off, and a young man wishing to make the most of life had to seek the metropolis. In Colombo, Hajiar worked in a shop, earning 60 rupees a month cooking meal for the other employees. He got to know Pettah’s vegetable vendors and quit his job to become a broker. “Onions, potatoes, things like that,” the relative said. “He’d buy from here and sell there. For every sack, he made a two-rupee brokerage fee.”

Hajiar invested his earnings in his first spice business, then moved to manage another and finally started Ishana in 1986. His representatives around the country bought spices, which Ishana shipped overseas: areca nuts to the Maldives, and pepper, cloves, nutmeg and mace to India. Hajiar built his company until a full third of Sri Lanka’s black-pepper exports were going out with Ishana’s name on the cargo manifests. In his business dealings, one of his associates told me, Hajiar had very few rules. He was the sort of guy you see in Tamil movies, the associate said: the rich man who came up the hard way. “He has a lot of money, a lot of influence. He massages the system, and he massages it for the good of other people as well.” At its peak, Ishana exported 250 full shipping containers in a year, one of Hajiar’s managers told me. Its revenues touched eight billion rupees, or more than $40 million. In Sri Lanka, where the per capita income is around 660,000 rupees, the Ibrahims became wealthy beyond the dreams of little Deltota.

When Ishana was still a fledgling enterprise, Hajiar lived alone in Colombo. He had married a woman named Kadija from Welamboda, another hill-country village. An appavi, Hajiar’s relative called her: a naïf. They started a family — they would have nine children — but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that they left Welamboda for Hajiar’s tiny apartment above the store on Old Moor Street.

No one I spoke to seemed to have quite worked out how to discuss Inshaf and Ilham. What could they say about these men they thought they had known? Instead, they talked up Hajiar, heaping praise on his philanthropy. I heard from a neighbor about how, during Ramadan one year, he ran into Hajiar in the Maligawatta market. “He was saying, ‘Ten kilograms of beef to this mosque; 10 kilograms to that mosque,’ and I wondered how much he was spending.” I heard from his relative, the spice merchant, about how when parts of Colombo flooded, Hajiar didn’t care that millions of rupees’ worth of his spices were submerged. “He didn’t even go to the warehouse,” the relative said. “He was here, packing parcels of food and distributing them to the poor.” These stories were true, but they were delivered with anxious eagerness, as though the people who knew Hajiar were straining to offer compensation for the sins of his sons.

One beneficiary of Hajiar’s generosity was the Colombo Grand Mosque, a polygonal structure with a golden dome, on the next street over from Ishana. From 2015 to 2018, Hajiar served on the mosque’s board. He didn’t always make it to the monthly meetings, but he was a ready source of funds, the mosque’s vice president, ThawfeekZuhar, told me. “If we needed 25,000 rupees or whatever — for electricity bills or other matters of finances — whenever we fell short, he’d just pay.”

The Grand Mosque is Sri Lanka’s oldest. When the Portuguese arrived in 1505, it is said, the mosque had already been there for the better part of a millennium. Arabian traders had visited and settled on the island since before the birth of Islam, and the Moors — as these traders and their descendants came to be called — married into the local population. They spoke Tamil as a practical language for trading with South India and became the engine of Sri Lankan commerce. Traveling through colonial Pettah in 1850, an Englishman named Henry Charles Sirr was impressed by “the Moormen” who owned a string of shops and warehouses. “Every imaginable commodity is here to be procured,” Sirr wrote, “from a lady’s bonnet to a ship’s anchor, from a paper of pins to a marlin-spike, from a bottle of pickles to a saddle, from a web of fine muslin to strong canvas for sails.”

Despite their long residence, Muslims always inhabited an interstitial space in Sri Lanka’s demography. The island’s most prominent social divide is a linguistic one, although ethnicity and religion map closely onto language. Seven out of 10 Sri Lankans are Buddhist, and they all speak Sinhalese, just as all the Hindus speak Tamil; Christianity cuts across both language groups. Within this mosaic, Muslims are a tile set askew. They make up 9.7 percent of the populace — not the main minority but a secondary one. Their first language is Tamil, so they can never be considered Sinhalese, and because they trace their ancestry to Arab countries rather than India, they’re also held apart from ethnic Tamils. Appropriately, the journalist Latheef Farook titled his book about Sri Lankan Muslims “Nobody’s People.”

As a result, Muslims have been burned from both directions. During the civil war, they tried to maintain a low profile, until they were judged untrustworthy by the Tigers. In 1990, in the northern towns the Tigers held, Muslims were told to leave, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice. In the east, where the Tigers also held territory, the guerrillas surrounded two mosques during Friday prayers on an August evening the same year, shooting the men and boys inside, killing 147 worshipers. After the Tigers were defeated in 2009, Sri Lanka’s newly emboldened Buddhist nationalists trained their violence upon Muslims. Right-wing groups attacked Muslim-owned shops, painted pigs on the walls of mosques and tore down a shrine to an Islamic saint. In 2014 and 2018, riots erupted in different parts of the country, during which Muslims and their properties were targeted. The violence spread so fast that it seemed as if some groups needed only the flimsiest excuse — a WhatsApp rumor of an incident miles away — to torch or loot the nearest Muslim business.

From the precariousness of their place in society, Muslims drew some axioms on how to be model citizens. Stay on the good side of the state. Be moderate — something that was, in any case, second nature to Sri Lanka’s Muslims, many of whom follow the softened, syncretic customs of Sufism. Keep tightly within your community. Give plentifully. Just as Hajiar followed the mercantile tradition of generations of Muslims before him, so too did he abide by their collective wisdom on how to live as a Muslim in Sri Lanka.

Mahawila Gardens is laid out like a tuning fork, and the Ibrahims lived on the northern tine, in a chalk-white three-story mansion with steel-railed balconies. On a weekday morning last August, the house was mute and vacant; black-and-yellow caution tape ran from a sapling on one side of the road to a drainage pipe on the other, so that nobody could pass in front of the building. A lone policeman was on duty, and we stood together and gazed at the house. There must be 10 rooms in there, he said, or maybe a dozen. He pointed to a window in the middle floor. That was where Fatima triggered her bomb, killing not just herself and her children but three policemen as well. A wooden shutter was hanging by a single hinge; in the next row of windows, the glass was shattered. The white BMW parked in front was smudged with soot. It seemed inconceivable that anyone would wish to return to sponge down the car, repair the windows and begin to live here again.

Hajiar and his wife raised three daughters and six sons in this house, and I met one of them: a young man with an unfailingly polite manner, who asked not to be identified. He was worried about being pulled into detention for questioning, as others had been. He sat on the edge of his chair, as if the pain of the past few months wouldn’t permit him the respite of leaning back. His wife, next to him, spoke very little, except when she couldn’t contain herself.

The Ibrahims moved into their big white house in 1998, when Inshaf, the second-oldest of the children, was finishing high school at the prestigious D.S. Senanayake College. He was in the section of the school where lessons were taught in Tamil, his brother remembered. “So he didn’t interact at all with the Sinhalese boys. Only when they played sports, probably.” Ilham, the surly one, attended Alexor International College, a school with a higher proportion of Muslim pupils. They never had many friends, their brother said. “Just each other.”

Others noticed this as well. Mahawila Gardens is home to several Muslim families, and every year for Avurudu, the Sri Lankan New Year, the young people threw a celebratory dinner. The Ibrahim boys never attended. Some thought they were proud of their wealth, or shy because of it. “Maybe they thought they wouldn’t fit in,” said one neighbor who lived down the road. “They were very self-conscious, not the kind to just let loose.” And people remarked upon the differences in Inshaf and Ilham. Inshaf was good-looking and well built, a fine student, always ready with a courteous smile; Ilham was shorter and a bit chubby, not quite as smart and so reserved that even his father’s employees thought him gruff. Everyone liked to say that they had known Inshaf and thought the world of him; everyone was quick to add that they hadn’t known Ilham at all.

The Ibrahim family mansion in the Mahawila Gardens section of Colombo. Ilham’s wife, Fatima, detonated her own suicide vest here as the police were closing in.Credit...Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times


It wasn’t that Hajiar was too strict. As his son said, wryly: “He was too busy to be strict. … Even after he came home in the evening, he was on the phone a lot, talking to suppliers and so on.” And it wasn’t that the Ibrahims were pious in a misanthropic way. Kadija was a very religious woman, the neighbour remembered — barely seen outside the house, and when she was, her head was always covered. Their brother said that Ilham took after their mother but that Inshaf was “only a little more religious than average.”

“They never smoked or drank,” his wife said. “They never went to clubs. And no girls. They were real goodie-boys. They did nothing wrong — until they committed the worst crime of all.”

Among the Ibrahims, Hajiar was the most gregarious. He told his children that he learned, when he first came to Colombo, how to interact with every type of person. You have to be like a reed that can bend in difficult times and bounce back, he told his sons. His custom was to sling an arm around the shoulders of the men he knew or worked with and walk through the streets of Pettah in this manner. On the top floor of his house, he built a hall where he held Ramadan dinners for all of Mahawila Gardens. When his children married, he hosted banquets where he served quail to his friends and family, and to the politicians and businessmen who invariably attended.

After school, Inshaf joined Ishana. He had Hajiar’s mind, his sense of trade and money. When he was a teenager, he would buy watches — and once even a motorcycle — and sell them to his friends at a profit. Ten years ago, he married the daughter of a prominent Colombo jeweller. Then in 2012, he started a copper business called Colossus, which bought scrap metal at auction, in the form of disused telecom cables or electrical transformers. Colossus stripped out the copper and cast it into eight-millimetre tubes for export. A manager at Ishana remembered Inshaf as a terrific boss. He would organize cricket tournaments for his staff: rent a ground, print team T-shirts and even go out to bat himself. He paid workers bonuses for their weddings or during Ramadan. But he was also prone to paternalistic self-righteousness. “We had an accountant, an older man,” the manager said. “He would drink. He would smoke heavily. He was a Muslim, but he didn’t go to the mosque. And he was always in debt.” Inshaf frequently gave this wayward man advice. Mend your life. Stop drinking. Find your way back to Islam.

Ilham married, too. “Fatima, I think, was a religious scholar,” his brother said.

His wife laughed scornfully. “She was not a scholar.”

“She’d memorized the Quran, though.”

It proved hard to put Ilham to work. He joined Ishana’s board, and Hajiar set him up in a shop in the town of Kegalle to buy pepper and cloves from local farmers. But he displayed faint enthusiasm for this job and contrived to be in Colombo most of the time. Then Hajiar bought him a pepper estate in the hills in Matale, and Ilham farmed it halfheartedly for a couple of years before giving it up. Hajiar installed him as the treasurer of a small nongovernmental organization he financed, but Ilham was eternally at loggerheads with his colleagues, and the organization had to hire an assistant treasurer to do Ilham’s work for him. He was “an absolute idiot,” one of Hajiar’s associates said of Ilham. Hajiar was at his wits’ end trying to socialize Ilham, “because I think he realized there was something wrong with this son.”

But what that was, nobody could quite diagnose. Even as Inshaf and Ilham transformed over the last five years, those closest to them felt mystified by their newly severe religiosity. Their brother heard about the Easter Sunday attacks while he was out, and a friend called to tell him that there had been trouble in Mahawila Gardens. He called his father, but there was no reply, so he went to a relative’s house nearby, just in time to watch on television as the police surrounded his family’s home. Perhaps some of the terrorists had gone on the run and holed up inside the house, he reasoned. Then, he said, he saw the news about Inshaf and Ilham. He shook his head, nearly speechless with despair. “I’m so angry with them,” he said. “They were traitors. We came up because of this country, and they destroyed it.”

Inshaf Ibrahim (right) with his father, Mohamed, at an awards ceremony in 2016.


One afternoon, an employee rolled open the shutters to the Ishana office — then, as now, closed indefinitely after the bombings — and took me in. Everything smelled musty; the air-conditioning hadn’t been switched on in so long that its remote control had to be thumped to make it work. In the office, with its weak fluorescent lights and closed shutters, it could have been any hour of the day. We sat in Hajiar’s cabin on the ground floor, next to a rack of prizes he’d collected for his company. I remembered that one of the few photos of Inshaf to emerge in the press showed him in a sharp gray suit, accepting an award on Ishana’s behalf from a government minister. The two men are shaking hands; behind them stands Hajiar, beaming.

Four years ago, Inshaf and Ilham started to learn Arabic in Ishana’s conference room, sitting around the long table with a tutor every Saturday. Arabic, they believed, brought them closer to the Prophet, by enabling them to read the Quran in its original language. The classes featured a third student: Abdul Latheef Jameel Mohamed, the younger brother of one of the Ibrahims’ neighbors in Mahawila Gardens. Jameel always wore a lush beard and a jubba, a long tunic favored by Muslim men in the Middle East.

After attending college in England, Jameel went home to Sri Lanka in 2006, then moved to Melbourne for a postgraduate degree. During his four years there, he became such an extremist that Australian counterterrorism authorities investigated him for suspected links to ISIS. He returned to Colombo a scold, telling off his family for not being sufficiently religious, for failing to abolish music from their lives. He once persuaded his brother Hakeem, a tea trader, to take him and another friend to Turkey, where Hakeem was attending an exposition. In Turkey, Jameel’s friend vanished — absorbed into ISIS in Syria, Sri Lankan intelligence later learned. After that, some members of Colombo’s Muslim community warned the Criminal Investigation Department about Jameel. The C.I.D. put Jameel on a watch list. If you were to get hold of CCTV footage from near Jameel’s house, a source with knowledge of the investigation told me, you would see the C.I.D.’s undercover department in action. The same people always seemed to be hanging around Mahawila Gardens: a man hawking lottery tickets but never really interested in selling any, or beggars keeping an eye on the house.

Jameel was an eloquent fellow, prone to argument, said one person who spoke to him often. He told me that Jameel considered any Muslim who accepted the Sri Lankan legal system to be a kafir, a nonbeliever. One of his pet themes was the vulnerability of Muslims in Sri Lanka, and when riots against Muslims occurred, they stoked his outrage. The notion that the legal system will protect you is nonsense, he would declare. So was the very idea of human rights and due process.

An intelligence official, who was newly retired when I met him and asked not to be named because he was speaking about confidential investigations, said he came into contact with Jameel in 2015. The official, also a Muslim, already knew Hakeem, Jameel’s brother. “Hakeem wanted me to have a word with Jameel,” he said, because “he was maintaining very rigid, extreme ideas.” When they first met, in a mosque, Jameel spoke for four hours. “He was so good as a speaker!” the official said. “Ooh, he was excellent! And he was trying to manipulate me.” Now considering him a friend, Jameel gave the official a handbook on Wahhabism, the strict strain of Islam that has put more Muslim women in veils and men in thick beards. “He took me to bookshops that had no names and that stocked these kinds of ideological books. He knew where to go to find such books, clearly.”

In 2014 or 2015, soon after returning from Australia, Jameel met the Ibrahims — most likely in Mahawila Gardens, where he hung out at Hakeem’s house. Ilham and Jameel took to each other: long chats in the mornings after prayers, upstairs in Ilham’s room; long chats in the evenings, on the veranda; long chats as Ilham drove up and down the avenue lining the ocean. Late one night, one of the Ibrahims’ neighbors, out for a stroll, spotted Jameel and Ilham in a parked car, crouched over laptops. The intelligence official thinks Jameel first recruited the wayward Ilham — to a cause as yet indistinct, for an act as yet undecided. Then, he said, they groomed Inshaf together.

Roping families into acts of terror is a new pattern in the ISIS franchise model, Hoffman, the insurgency scholar, told me. It happened in Barcelona in 2017, when three sets of brothers participated in an attack; it happened in Indonesia in 2018, when a family bombed three churches in Surabaya. “It’s a real, problematic wrinkle,” Hoffman says, “because penetrating family networks becomes impossible. What informant do you plant inside a family? What suspicions can they arouse by consorting with one another?”

From 2015 onward, there are gaps in our knowledge of the Ibrahims. Intelligence officials can only offer theories: about how, for instance, Jameel pulled the brothers into the orbit of Zaharan Hashim, a preacher in eastern Sri Lanka who uploaded fanatical videos to YouTube and whose followers once took up swords to assault a Sufi rally. (Sufis are considered heretics by many Islamic conservatives.) Zaharan was both a beneficiary and an agent of a well-studied trend that has, for a couple of decades, been shaping Sri Lankan Islam. From Saudi Arabia, rich patrons send money and clerics to build new mosques and seed Wahhabism. Well before Easter, the authorities knew that Zaharan was kindling violence in the name of orthodoxy; that he instigated the vandalism of Buddhist statues in the town of Mawanella in 2018; that he most likely had links with quasi-militant organizations outside the country, including in India. In January 2019, following leads from Mawanella, the police found weapons and 220 pounds of explosives on a farm in Wanathavilluwa, up the coast from Colombo. Intelligence agencies in India and Sri Lanka warned the government that Zaharan was plotting a suicide attack.

Only afterward did they learn that Zaharan had possibly received an education in terrorism in India; that he had set up safe houses in Sri Lanka to train his men; that the money for at least one such house came from Inshaf. This house, near Wanathavilluwa, was disguised as a poultry farm. “There was a lagoon on one side,” the intelligence official said. “A direct run from South India. All these explosives and chemicals could have come through that sea route.” A brother of Zaharan’s built the bombs, The Wall Street Journal reported. He taught himself bomb-making online, and although he lost fingers and damaged an eye in these experiments, he learned enough to jury-rig triggers out of washing-machine timers. A few days before Easter, they successfully blew up a motorcycle. Somehow, Zaharan had rustled up a band of men, persuaded them to incinerate their bodies and those of hundreds of others and furnished them with the bombs to do it.

Zaharan was pudgy and empty-eyed, with a habit of waggling his index finger as he raved and yelled. His videos had barbaric green-screen backdrops: One showed a town on fire, presumably during one of the riots against Muslims; another showed a knife and a splatter of gore. There was nothing coded or subtle about what he said. “Buddhist kafirs, we will come for you,” he said. “You will have to scrape up your scattered bodies.”

Around 2017, Zaharan talked openly about supporting ISIS. “He pitched himself as an ISIS representative in Sri Lanka, while putting forth very little evidence of it,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Ontario and an ISIS specialist. It never seemed as if ISIS were paying Sri Lanka any attention. Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, spent years lurking in ISIS chat rooms as research for a book on ISIS in South Asia. “Sri Lanka was almost never mentioned,” Taneja says. Analysts like Taneja believe that, like some other ISIS-inspired attacks, these bombings weren’t a top-down directive. Rather, Zaharan and his associates set themselves up as a satellite operation, committing their acts in the caliphate’s name. In a report published last September, the International Crisis Group called Zaharan “an extraordinary outlier.” One outlier is all it takes.

But even if Zaharan wasn’t being overseen directly by ISIS in Syria or Iraq, he may have relied upon other forms of assistance. The bombings were too elaborate to have been cobbled together locally, Hoffman says. “The expertise had to have been acquired from somewhere else.” One possibility is that Zaharan was plugged into an ISIS affiliate in the area. Hoffman singled out a node called ISIS Khorasan, which adapts an old name for the region where Central Asia melds into South Asia. This node, Hoffman says, is attached to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and it’s likely that Sri Lanka falls into its purview.

ISIS Khorasan splintered out of the Pakistani Taliban in 2015 — a few thousand fighters who decided, as Taneja says, “that if you wear an ISIS T-shirt, you’ll get a spotlight to fall on you.” The same year, an ISIS spokesman officially recognized ISIS Khorasan as an arm of the caliphate. From 2015 to 2019, while it was gathering influence and conducting attacks across Pakistan and Afghanistan, ISIS Khorasan would most likely have had direct lines of communication with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Taneja says. Though it held little territory of its own, ISIS Khorasan took on some of the caliphate’s traits, “urging South Asian Muslims to come join them.”

Zaharan’s connection with an ISIS node explains certain aspects of the bombings. The idea to strike churches and hotels, for instance, might have been provided by an ISIS network. When the police raided one of Zaharan ’s safe houses, they found orange robes and white clothes — a clue that he might have initially schemed to attack Buddhist gatherings. ISIS doesn’t care about that kind of local impact, Amarasingam says. “For them, it’s always been tourists and Christians.” When I first spoke to Taneja, last December, he thought it unlikely that ISIS Khorasan had the ability to orchestrate an attack in Colombo. By June, he was less certain of that; new research had shown that local ISIS nodes had more sway than previously thought. The complexity of the bombs suggests that an explosives specialist might have traveled in and out of Sri Lanka to advise Zaharan and his crew, he says. “But how did they do this over months and months without triggering a warning? Where did the money to finance this come from? These are questions no one has answers to.”


The Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo, where Inshaf Ibrahim detonated a bomb in a restaurant in April 2019.Credit...Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times


After the bombings, there was a backlash against Muslims. In west-central Sri Lanka, during a mid-May weekend, shops, houses and mosques were set afire or vandalized. A Muslim-owned factory and its pasta-making equipment were destroyed. One Muslim carpenter was stabbed to death in his workshop. Hundreds of refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan, forced out of their homes by hostile landlords and threatening mobs, had to move for their own safety into police-run camps. After a rumor spread that a Muslim doctor had sterilized 4,000 Buddhist women without their knowledge, he was held for two months under an antiterrorism law.

The presidential election was on the horizon, and the bombings made it vital for politicians to style themselves as guarantors of national security. For four months, the government banned the niqab, which some Muslim women wear to cover their faces and bodies. A Buddhist monk, serving six years in prison for contempt of court, received a presidential pardon and resumed his place among the most vocal Buddhist militants in the country. The monk belonged to the BoduBalaSena, a Buddhist nationalist group that began calling for an exclusively Sinhalese government. “Muslims don’t love us,” a prominent priest said. Don’t eat at Muslim-owned restaurants, he went on. “They have fed poison to our people.” Days later, sharing a stage with this priest, President Maithripala Sirisena said that Sri Lanka ought to heed its Buddhist clergy. You will have heard what the priest said, Sirisena added. “I am not going to say anything about it.”

From the opposition, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his decision to run for president. He had been the defense secretary until 2014 under the presidency of his brother, Mahinda, and was accused of war crimes and extrajudicial assassinations. (Last year, he faced two civil lawsuits in California courts — one by 11 Tamil and Sinhalese people who accused Rajapaksa of ordering their torture, and another by the daughter of a Sri Lankan journalist who was believed to have been murdered on Rajapaksa’s instructions. Rajapaska has denied the charges; while campaigning for the presidency, he called the lawsuits “a little distraction.” After he won, he became immune to prosecution, so the plaintiffs dropped their actions; they can still pursue them whenever he leaves office.) Sirisena was too fond of talking about human rights and individual freedoms, Rajapaksa said, promising to dismantle Islamist radicalism by mounting surveillance of Muslim groups. In November, Rajapaksa won with a comfortable majority; the data showed his popularity among Tamils and Muslims to be feeble. “The main message of the election,” he told Agence France-Presse, “is that it was the Sinhalese majority vote that allowed me to win.”

Rajapaksa didn’t have time to make any sweeping moves before the coronavirus sent Sri Lanka into lockdown. But he has managed to signal his approach to dissidents and minorities. In February, when the government celebrated Independence Day, Sri Lanka’s anthem was sung only in Sinhalese. A police officer who had been investigating corruption and murder accusations against Rajapaksa and his allies received death threats after the election and fled to Switzerland. Rajapaksa named army officers accused of war crimes as his defense secretary and his acting chief of defense; the second appointment was so egregious that the Trump administration barred his entry into the United States. Human Rights Watch reported that activists and the families of Tamils who “disappeared” during the war are being intimidated and kept under surveillance.

The pandemic provided cover for some of these actions. In mid-April, Hejaaz Hizbullah, the lawyer who sometimes represented Hajiar, received a phone call from someone claiming to be a health official. He was led to believe that an A.T.M. he used might have been contaminated with the coronavirus and was asked to wait at home for a testing team. Instead, the Criminal Investigation Department arrived, searched his files without a warrant and subsequently arrested him. A police representative told journalists that the Easter Sunday investigations were being “reopened with a fresh approach” and that Hizbullah, having known the Ibrahims, was suspected of involvement in the attacks. But an outcry arose over the arrest; the International Commission of Jurists has deemed it “arbitrary,” and Amnesty International accused the government of targeting Hizbullah for “his professional work as a lawyer in various civil and political rights cases.” For weeks after Hizbullah’s arrest, the C.I.D. didn’t produce him before a magistrate, as required by law, and he was permitted to meet at length with his lawyers only after long delays. One of Hizbullah’s associates told me that the authorities cited worries over the spread of the coronavirus as the reason to restrict access to him.

The prospect of Rajapaksa’s presidency had deeply worried Sri Lanka’s Muslims. If the past is any guide, he will cite terrorism as a reason to trample their rights, giving them perpetual cause to doubt their safety. In this way, Zaharan will earn for his community exactly the sort of victimization he vowed to avenge, and the state will sow the ground for exactly the sort of extremism it vows to uproot.

To get the Ibrahim brothers to enact their suicidal violence, Zaharan must have convinced them of two things. The first was the importance of being uncompromising in their religious practice. The second was the notion that in Sri Lanka, Islam would wither away if its defenders didn’t fight for it. The riots against Muslims in 2018, in the midst of the Ibrahims’ radicalization, fanned that belief further. But even from here, the men had to traverse a final, moral distance to justify to themselves the slaughter of innocent people. How they did that is unknown, unknowable.


The Shangri-La Hotel (right) in Colombo, where Inshaf Ibrahim’s younger brother, Ilham, detonated a bomb the same morning. Credit...Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times


Around 2016, Ilham took his two oldest children out of school and taught them at home, and, although they weren’t quite old enough to pray, he took them to the mosque every evening. He began to parrot Jameel’s words, arguing that only God could frame the law for Muslims. (“Don’t follow the highway code then!” one interlocutor shot back in exasperation.) Ilham kept asking one brother, an atheist, to return to prayer and fast during Ramadan, then severed ties with him entirely. Ilham also stopped talking to his 93-year-old grandmother, who argued with him about his new rigidities. You’re wasting your time, Hajiar told him heatedly. You have to do things in proportion. Your workers out there at the pepper farm have nothing to eat but stones, and you’re here talking about religion.

Inshaf also grew out his beard, and he, too, stopped speaking to his atheist brother. In 2018, the brothers quit Ishana’s board. Inshaf had always been uneasy with Hajiar taking out bank loans, because earning interest conflicts with Islamic strictures. But since 2016, he and Ilham grew more insistent, pressing Hajiar to stop borrowing money. As a director, Inshaf signed loan documents; he was worried that “for signing them, he’d have to answer to Allah,” the Ishana manager said. But Hajiar refused. He was a pragmatic man who liked the handsome returns from real estate, and he needed some leverage from time to time. Inshaf saw this as unnecessary greed. He ran his copper factory without any loans.

His staff found that he had become fond of moralizing. He talked about the path to heaven, about the principles of Islam. Late in 2018, he pressed copies of a book upon some employees, saying it held the truest account of the Prophet’s life. In a plastic crate near Inshaf’s desk, I noticed five volumes he hadn’t managed to give away. They were still in cellophane wrapping, sealed with their price tags still visible. In the conference room, I was shown more than 200 other books, a small seminary’s worth. “He bought all these over the last three years,” the manager said, laying some of the English titles out upon the table: “Islamic Verdicts on the Pillars of Islam,” “In Pursuit of Allah’s Pleasure,” “The Hardness of the Heart.”

For those who knew Inshaf well, it would have been impossible to interpret this piety as preparation for a suicide bombing. In curious ways, he still appeared to be a man living for the future. He renovated the Colossus factory during this time: more office space, better furniture, new machinery that arrived in February 2019. Well in advance, he booked a trip for his family to Mecca, to be there for the end of Ramadan in early June. It was as if he was denying what he had planned for himself, or as if one part of his life was progressing through sheer inertia even as he was coldly calculating the other. A few weeks before Easter, he transferred the ownership of his house and factory to his wife without her knowledge, the Ishana manager told me. In his last year, Inshaf’s routine transformed. He rarely went to Ishana and went to Colossus just for two or three hours daily. Instead, he took his children to school and picked them up; he spent his mornings with his wife, his afternoons with his children and his evenings with his mother, like a man who knew that he was running out of time.

On Wednesday, April 17, around the start of the pepper-harvest season, the intelligence official ran into Inshaf at a mosque. How’s business? he asked. Inshaf replied that he was headed to Zambia for work.

On Thursday evening, Inshaf went by Old Moor Street. He had bought a new car, a Mitsubishi Montero, for 34 million rupees, and it was delivered that day. He parked outside the office but didn’t go in; instead, an employee came out to collect the car’s documents and to bring him a batch of 10 blank checks to sign. He always did this when he left the country, in case expenses had to be met. Inshaf took some cash as well, which he put into a bag and stowed in the car’s trunk. It was a new bag, the employee noticed — a knapsack.

On Friday, Inshaf’s wife rode with him to the Colombo airport to see him off to Zambia. A report in The Sun in Britain claimed that, unusually, he held his wife’s head and said, “Be strong.” Then, having pretended to catch his flight, he doubled back to Colombo and joined Zaharan, Jameel, Ilham and at least four other men in an apartment in the center of the city.

The next day, around 1 in the afternoon, Inshaf checked into Room 425 in the Cinnamon Grand. He provided a fake name, Mohamed Mubarak Mohamed Azzam, and a fake address: 138/B New Moor Street. Later, he left the hotel, presumably to go back to the apartment to join his collaborators. He didn’t return to the Cinnamon Grand until 7:07 a.m. on Sunday, when a small blue car dropped him off at the hotel.

Which means he had almost two hours in his room that morning, by himself: long enough to look at his backpack and its contents, think about his wife, children and parents and pull out of his monstrous mission. He could have fled the hotel, chucked his bomb into the sea and gone home to grieve his brother and support his father. With time, he might have resumed his life: the copper business, the cricket games, the community dinners during Ramadan. But perhaps he thought that he had already gone too far, that there could never be any normalcy for him even if he left. Or perhaps he never considered any of this at all.

Shortly before 9 a.m., Inshaf left his room wearing a baseball cap and carrying his knapsack. He made his way to the ground floor and passed through the atrium, where giant urnlike lamps lit the space like beacons. He descended the staircase to Taprobane, gave his room number at the entrance and walked into the breakfast buffet.

Original Headline: Two Wealthy Sri Lankan Brothers Became Suicide Bombers. But Why?

Source: The New York Times


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