Sri Lanka: The Hunt Widens

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As Sri Lankan investigators unpeel layers of Islamist radicalisation unleashed by one man, Mohammad Zahran Hashim, V Shoba follows the terror trail on an Island still reeling from the Easter Sunday attacks

THE SEASIDE TOWN OF Sainthamaruthu in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province knows a thing or two about terror. It lost nearly a thousand lives to the tsunami of 2006. The peace that had capsized in the tides of the 26-year-long violent conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was restored to these parts only in 2009. After a decade of calm, Sainthamaruthu now faces what is arguably its worst nightmare ever. On April 27th, the town woke up to the realisation that it had unwittingly sheltered the most powerful terror syndicate in the world. Five days after the Vesuvian eruptions across Sri Lanka that killed over 250 on Easter Sunday, a team of suspected jihadists affiliated with the suicide bombers, on the run from the widening dragnet of the country’s security forces, blew themselves up, along with three women and six children, in their lair in Sainthamaruthu, Ampara district. Two days later, yellow tape cordons off the gutted building and the crowd that has gathered outside to take in the miasma of horror, has to contend with visuals of tattered books and piles of shoes through the grilles of the gate. They sneak a peek each time an investigator—or a water board official who has come to cut off the supply after someone complained of a leaky tap—pries it open. Some crouch over the narrow drains lining the street, looking with dreaded fascination for grisly flotsam from the night of April 26th, when the armed forces—according to locals, three busloads and two vanfuls of them—swooped down on the hideout, killing at least 15 in a battle that stretched on for over two hours. The dead include Mohammad Qasim, the father of Mohammad Zahran Hashim, the 33-year-old Islamist preacher and founder of the now-banned National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ) who is believed to have orchestrated the April 21st attacks under the guidance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and his two brothers Rilwan and Zaini. Zahran’s 26-year-old wife, who hails from Kekunagolla in Kurunegala district, and their four-year-old daughter, survived the incident that involved at least two detonations by militants holed up in the single-storied house. They are being treated at the government hospital in Ampara.

The safehouse is located in a village in Sainthamaruthu where 580 families displaced by the tsunami had been resettled. Inside, the safehouse presents an indelible scene of everyday domestic life frozen in time. Diapers and school exercise books, a wheelchair, new clothes, a top-loading washing machine and other household items are strewn amidst the rubble. The walls are frescoed with char and dried blood and an entire room has been taken over by maggots. Death feels small and grimy here, far removed from the self-fulfilling prophesy of martyrdom that Zahran preached to potential jihadist cadres from the town a couple of years ago. Spent cartridges, scattered carelessly like so many curry leaf seeds sprouting healthy saplings along the outer walls of the house, speak of an ordeal that the family was not prepared for. The Sri Lankan police, wrenched out of a state of suspended calm on April 21st, had been furiously smoking out men and weapons from safehouses along the coast. But holed up in a low-profile neighbourhood among other Muslims, Zahran’s family could have hidden in plain sight. Yet, they made several revealing mistakes under pressure.

A week after two men rented the three rooms of B-183 for 5,000 Sri Lankan Rupees a month, paying 15,000 Sri Lankan Rupees in cash as advance, they went shopping for household goods and groceries, possibly expecting to spend months hidden here along with their families. The newcomers were from Kattankudy, 38 km south of here, and had tried to make friends at jumma prayers on April 26th (Friday) at the local mosque, but a stream of people and boxes filing in and out of the house through the day put the landlord on edge. After an urgent and somewhat delirious exchange with his new tenants, he returned with four elders from a mosque nearby and the local administrator, known as grama sevaka, to question them. The man who answered the door appears to have panicked and pointed his gun at the official. “If it is money you want, here, take as much as you want and leave us alone to do the work of God,” he supposedly said, flinging 5000-Rupee notes at him, claims a source privy to the investigation. The apprehenders fled, only to return shortly with police and the armed forces. When the militants realised they had been cornered, one of them detonated his explosive vest sometime after 7:30 pm and another explosion followed. An unverified video has emerged on jihadist networks purporting to show Rilwan—with amputated fingers and a missing eye from a bomb trial gone wrong—and two other men inside the house claiming that even if they were destroyed, the movement would not stop. Armed personnel, arriving in hordes, slowly advanced upon the enemy by firing endless rounds into the night. “There was a power cut and we have eyewitness accounts that say that the security forces fired blind. Ambulances were spotted ferrying the injured out of the scene, although the government denies any casualties or injuries on their side,” says a local source. “Only one gun, a Type 56 Chinese assault rifle, was recovered from the site.” A civilian driving past in an autorickshaw was killed in the crossfire.

Zahran was convinced of his greatness right from when he was a teenager; his ego was thwarted at every step by mainstream Muslim society but he thrived as an unmitigated star along the fringes. His radical interpretation of Islam attracted many followers

Investigators are coming to terms with the profiles of the attackers, some coming from sections of society not associated with terrorism. Two of them, Inshaf Ahmed Ibrahim and Ilhan Ibrahim, were part of a wealthy family of spice traders. Ilhan’s pregnant wife too blew herself up along with her three children when the police raided their house in Colombo later. They are also wondering if, despite Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi’s latest video—an 18-minute release where, in an apparent later addition, he makes a reference to the Easter attacks, dubbing them an act of revenge for ISIS’ defeat in Al-Baghuz Fawqani in Syria—the threat of further attacks on Sri Lankan soil may have been neutralised for the time being. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned that 70 militants could still be at large, many of them capable of blowing themselves up. Ahead of the holy month of Ramadan and Vesak Poya, the festival commemorating the birth and the enlightenment of the Buddha, the island-nation has vowed to search every house and to keep a gimlet eye trained on suspicious movements.

According to a highly placed source in the intelligence, however, the shootout at Sainthamaruthu represents a turning point in the war against the new face of terror in Sri Lanka. “Rilwan and Zaini’s haphazard and emotional response when cornered shows they have been tamped down. They were in a state of thoughtless panic. We think that the trained militants who are at large are not in a position to plan another coordinated attack anytime soon. With every hideout that we storm, their mental game is slipping. Of course, stray explosions cannot be ruled out and we have to be very vigilant,” he says.

With their paterfamilias duly felled in the bombing of Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo’s Galle Face drive, one of the six sites targeted on Easter, the group of 200-odd frothing converts to Zahran’s strain of extremism could be forced to lay low. Over 120 are already in police custody and other possible sympathisers and accomplices are being rounded up without delay. In the Eastern Province, home to a third of Sri Lankan Moors, most of them traders and farmers, the police, the STF and the armed forces have raided safehouses in Nintavur, where a unit was reportedly making explosive vests, and Samanthurai, where a stash of explosives and a black-and-white banner similar to that of the Islamic State were found in a garage that had been recently rented for a large sum of money, ostensibly to assemble footwear. “We will take no chances. This is not the first time these people have raked up trouble. The latest warning came in the form of a motorcycle blast on April 16th on a 43-acre piece of bare land near in Palamunai near Kattankudy,” says Kattankudy’s Officer-In-Charge Kasturi Arachchi. Arachchi has been working on connecting the dots between previous attacks in the past few months that he says could have been trials leading up to “the saddest day in Sri Lanka in a decade”. Within 24 hours of the motorcycle blast, his team had discovered that the bike, which now stands at the police station burnt down to a fourth of its size and riddled with small holes, had changed hands at least thrice, with the previous owner, a bank manager, recently selling it to two Muslim youth. “I informed my higher-ups. The CID got involved. It was clearly the work of extremists. Even ministers knew. But no urgent action was taken,” says Arachchi.

Among the arrests the Kattankudy police has made so far are those of Latheefa Bibi, the mother of Nasar Mohammed Azar, a resident of New Kattankudy who has been identified as the man who blew himself up at the Zion Church in Batticaloa killing 30, and Gafur alias Mohammad Salim Adam Lebbe, Zahran’s driver and close associate whose daughter was married to his brother Zaini. Gafur was arrested disembarking from an overnight bus in Kattankudy last week. He sported a wig, but Arachchi’s men were waiting for him. “He had joined the gang a year ago after working at a service station in Kallady. We have been watching him for a while. He stayed with Zaini in Colombo for two months while he was undergoing treatment after losing an eye and messing up his fingers in a mishap while handling a bomb. He gave up details of six safehouses in Colombo when we picked him up,” the officer says.

Gafur, according to Kattankudy police, also owned up to knifing two policemen to death in December last year at a checkpost in Vavunathivu. In a vexed land hardened to the violence of the LTTE, the episode was dismissed as a stray incident, but many such alarming connections are now tumbling out as the quest to unravel the origins and the motives of the extremist movement headed by Zahran intensifies. Zahran’s force had apparently been mobilising for months. Police now say that the desecration of a Buddhist statue in Mawanella in central Sri Lanka on December 26th, for which 13 people were arrested, was the first rumble in what would become a devastating quake that has reshaped the socio-cultural contours of the land. In the Buddhist majority country, the act was widely condemned but there seemed to be little at the time to suggest it was more than a sectarian squabble. Mawanella, it has now emerged, was an early ideological battlefield for Zahran, who had been exiled from his hometown of Kattunkudy in 2017 for fomenting violence and for using religion as a cover for climbing to fame. It is believed that the Islamic State, which claimed credit for the blasts in Sri Lanka, may have advised him to choose his targets diabolically to maximise the impact of his attacks and to establish himself as an international scene-stealer.

All roads of inquiry lead to Kattankudy, a coastal trading town of about 50,000 Tamil-speaking Muslims who form one of the densest clusters in Asia and share a troubled past. In 1990, at the height of the civil war in the north and the east of Sri Lanka, Tamil militants entered two mosques in Kattankudy and opened fire at kneeling devotees, killing over 140. The LTTE, which had been fighting for a separate land for ethnic Tamils, suspected the Muslims of sympathising with the Sinhala-dominated government, and targeted them on several occasions. After the war, the people of Kattankudy have banded together to work hard at rebuilding their lives, and yet, they remain a riven society where a vicious man, who is unlikely to have experienced the humid horror of the Yala monsoon of 1990 that washed the blood of innocents into the gutters of the town, managed to find a small group of people to play along with his desire for legitimacy as a religious leader. Convinced of his greatness right from when he was a teenager studying at the Jamiathul Falah Arabic College, Zahran’s ego was thwarted at every step by mainstream Muslim society, but he thrived as an unmitigated star along the fringes. The vice-president of the college, Moulavi Asheikh SM Aliyar, who is also a trustee at the Mohiuddin Meththai Grand Jumma Mosque in Kattankudi, says Zahran never believed in institutions. “He fought with the elders on our ways of prayer. He caused confusion among youth and exhorted them not to wear caps. He certainly knew how to foment trouble,” Aliyar says. Zahran joined the college in 1998 at the age of 12 and after spending three years committing the Quran to memory, continued to learn Sharia. When the differences with the moulavis at the school escalated, he was expelled and denied a certificate.

Investigators are coming to terms with the profiles of the attackers, some coming from sections of society not associated with terrorism. Two of them, Inshaf Ahmed Ibrahim and Ilhan Ibrahim, were part of a wealthy family of spice traders

“He was shallow and depressive,” says Mohammad Mohilar, 48, secretary of the Islamic Centre, a social institution Zahran was associated with in 2005-2006, located on a labyrinthine street in Kattankudy only a local can negotiate. “He was a good social worker but lacked maturity. I thought of him as a brother and advised him to study more, but he didn’t want any guidance. For instance, we are all for gradually banning seedhanam [dowry, often given in the form of a house when a girl gets married] but he said you have to outlaw it overnight, otherwise you are not true Muslims. He took the route of instant fame. Once, when we gave him a chance to speak for 14 minutes at a jumma, he went on for an hour-and-a-half and that was the end of our association.” Zahran later founded several institutions, including the Darul Adar Jumma School, the Kattankudy Thawheedh Jamaat, and finally, the NTJ, all of which have been quick to dissociate from him, citing his incendiary speeches and differences over the basic tenets of Islam.

His radical interpretation of the faith, however, attracted youth who attended his public programmes in the thousands. A day before Kattankudy police locked down the NTJ, picking up the current president and spokesperson Yusuf Mohammad Toufeeq and treasurer Moiuddin Bawa Ahmed Faisar, and recovered from the bare, two-storeyed mosque near the beach road an Acer laptop with a cheeky password referencing the CID, Toufeeq and two other men were the only ones there offering prayers. Toufeeq produced proclamations by the Jamaat dated December 29th, 2017 and August 31st, 2018, where it claims to have severed ties with Zahran and Zaini, respectively, and washes its hands of their activities. “We are now down to about 50 members. When Zahran was around, every public meeting drew two or three thousand people. But over time his speech became vulgar and violent and we distanced ourselves from him,” Toufeeq said. Mohammad Mohiuddin Mohammad Rifaas, a 32-year-old who lives near the mosque, said he had joined the NJT after listening to Zahran’s stentorian speeches condemning rape and dowry. At one such meeting in March 2017 at the Aliyar Bakery junction in Kattankudy, a riot broke out after Zahran allegedly stoked tempers and gave his supporters access to petrol bombs that had been hidden under the stage. Nine youth associated with the NTJ, including Rifaas, were charged in the case. Eight of them were remanded to judicial custory for a period of eight months even as Zahran fled town, never to be seen again in Kattankudy. “We are looking into the NTJ’s finances and we have booked the moulavis under the Terrorist Act,” says Arachchi, penning the details in red ink on one of the last few pages in the register. “We will arrest every single co-accused in the 2017 case. They could be accomplices and a danger to society.”

The case should have signalled the emergence of Zahran as a noxious radical who could build a bonfire from a spark and perpetrate unfathomable crimes. And yet, the state did not actively pursue him. “We thought he left the country in 2017. We knew his group were into radicalised religion. We didn’t expect them to be terrorists,” says MLAM Hizbullah, the Eastern Province Governor, a former minister and MP from Kattankudy. The terror attacks of April 21st have exposed Sri Lankan politicians as a tribe of expedient fence-sitters who allowed pre-existing wounds to fester.

Zahran first shot to fame for his trenchant critiques, not of Christianity or Buddhism, but of Islamic society, targeting the Sufi Badhriyya Jumma mosque in particular. The minority Sufis, under the leadership of moulavi Abdur Rauff, had been targeted as ‘murtad’ (converts) since the late 1970s and Zahran capitalised on the rift that saw Sufi shrines in town coming under attack in 2004 and 2006. “Between 2012 and 2015, we complained to the authorities on several occasions about the radical nature of the NTJ and the Jamaat-e-Milathu Ibrahim, both of which have been belatedly banned now,” says Hyattu Mohammad Amir, spokesperson of the mosque. “There is no dearth of wahabis. If you disband an NTJ, there is another J waiting to be formed.” The mosque, the only one in Kattankudy with a shrine to an auliya, has been identified as a prime target for terror attacks and is under constant supervision, with a young moulavi tirelessly scanning CCTV footage from the streets on all sides with a hawk’s eye. In 2006, 12 people had barged into the office of moulavi Abdur Rauff and fired 32 shots at him in an attack that was blamed on the LTTE. Miraculously, Rauff escaped unscathed, but the threats to his life remain. Single-handedly responsible for jumpstarting Zahran’s career as a spewer of religious invective, Rauff made a suitably soft target for the upstart preacher, who would soon outgrow his clothes and reinvent himself as a full-blown Islamist supremacist.

THE MUSLIMS OF Sri Lanka, and especially of the Eastern Province, have never before been an accused community. “The many Thawheedh Jamaats of Sri Lanka have always been a thorn in the flesh. Muslims are largely moderate in this country and we don’t like these guys—we called them veralaattis [literally, finger-twitchers, for their practice of repeatedly raising the index finger during prayer],” says Samanthurai Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman AM Mohammad Noushad. “In a town like ours that has seen war, people don’t even listen to me when I ask them to heed the curfew. We have 22,000 acres of paddy around the village, we don’t have time for some puritanical form of Islam.”

In the grief-stricken town of Batticaloa, where the attack on the Zion Church claimed 30 lives including those of 14 children, there is palpable hatred against the people who “sheltered the killers in Kattankudy”. “We do not venture into their part of town,” says Karunya Kumar, a 42-year-old mother of three whose family lives in a tiny cottage off Pillaiyar Koil Road in Kalladi, abutting Kattankudy. “When I see a Muslim man parking a vehicle by the side of the road, I am alarmed. Such is the fear they have struck in our hearts.” Praying next to a row of candles lit in honour of the victims at a public square in Batticaloa a week after the Easter attacks, S Subramanian, the proprietor of Shanmuga Agency, a grocery store in town, says locals may even boycott Muslim shops. “Most businesses are Muslim-run but they have remained shuttered so far. Festival season is almost upon us and if the Hindus and the Christian Tamils decide to boycott them now, they will suffer huge losses,” says Subramanian.

Some of the sanest voices in these days of mourning have come from the mourners. “I don’t think the Batticaloa bomber wanted to target children. He arrived after 8.30 am. Had he wanted to kill children, he should have arrived between 7.30 and 8.30 when Sunday school is in progress,” says Father Thirukumaran, the assistant pastor at the church who ran into the bomber on his way out. “He had two backpacks on and he was sweating. But I didn’t think he looked suspicious. I asked him if there was something bothering him and he said his umma’s (mother’s) leg was giving her constant trouble. From his dialect, I could tell he was Muslim,” says the pastor. Twenty minutes later, a panic call made him rush back to find a blown-up church strewn with bodies. His two sons had attended Sunday school, and he feared the worst. His youngest, Shalom Malkiya, 12, had indeed died in the explosion that by a stroke of luck was set off in front of the building, and not inside, where over 400 people had congregated for Easter mass. “We had to identify the body by a scrap of his shirt that was still stuck to the shoulder. The rest had been burnt,” he says, forcing a smile at guests who have come home to express condolences as much as to seek spiritual guidance. “It is unclear why he targeted a Pentecostal church. We have sheltered many Muslims in our church during wartime,” the pastor says.

As Sri Lanka grapples with the unfurling trauma of April 21st, its beaches and boulevards continue to remain desolate and the cyclonic clouds darkening its skies give it the look of a blue-period Picasso. If there are answers at the end of the tunnel, they seem too few and too far.