How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Zahran Hashim was shunned in his Sri Lankan hometown, but found loyal followers online with his divisive message. (Image grab from press release of the Daesh propaganda site Amaq)
Updated 26 April 2019
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How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • 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

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: 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 person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between 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 thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used 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 he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

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Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the 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 National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.

 

TIMELINE OF SRI LANKA BLASTS

 

April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

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
east coast.

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.

April 22

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.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.


New Chicago mayor gives Arabs hope

Updated 21 min 46 sec ago
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New Chicago mayor gives Arabs hope

  • The election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor gives Chicago’s Arabs an opportunity to reverse the damage that Rahm Emanuel has caused
  • Emanuel’s first acts as mayor included blocking the annual Arabesque Festival, which Jewish groups complained against

Plagued by ongoing controversies and criticism that he tried to hide a video of Chicago police killing a black teenager in October 2014, Rahm Emanuel decided he had had enough as the city’s mayor and decided to retire.

Elected in 2011 with a big boost from his former boss, US President Barack Obama — also a Chicago native — Emanuel served two full terms.

But his hopes of reversing the city’s tumbling finances, improving its poorly performing schools, and reversing record gun-related violence and killings, all failed.

However, Emanuel did have one success. He managed to gut the involvement of Chicago’s Arab-American minority in city-sponsored events, responding favorably to its influential Jewish-American community leadership, which complained about Palestinian activists who advocated for statehood and challenged Israeli oppression.

Emanuel’s first acts as mayor included blocking the annual Arabesque Festival, which Jewish groups complained included photographs of Palestinians protesting against Israel. The festival had only been launched four years earlier by his predecessor in 2007.

Emanuel also disbanded the Advisory Commission on Arab Affairs, and ended Arab American Heritage Month, which had been held every November since it was recognized by Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

Emanuel refused to discuss his reasons for these decisions with leaders of Chicago’s Arab community.

He declined repeated requests by me to interview him, despite my having interviewed seven Chicago mayors. He declined similar requests from other Arab journalists.

While he hosted iftars for Muslims, he never hosted an Arab heritage celebration during his eight years in office.

His father was a leader of the Irgun, which was denounced as a terrorist organization in the 1940s by the British military.

The Irgun murdered British soldiers and thousands of Palestinian civilians, and orchestrated the bloody Deir Yassin massacre on April 9, 1948.

Before becoming mayor, Emanuel volunteered at an Israeli military base repairing damaged vehicles. His pro-Israel stance was never challenged by the mainstream US news media.

But with the election in February of Lori Lightfoot as mayor, Chicago’s Arabs have an opportunity to reverse the damage that Emanuel caused.

Lightfoot was sworn into office on Monday and serves for four years. She has already reached out to Arabs, appointing at least two Palestinians to her 400-person transition team, whose members often remain and assume government positions with new administrations.

The two Palestinians in her transition team are Rush Darwish and Rami Nashashibi. Darwish has organized several successful marathons in Chicago and Bethlehem to raise funds for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Nashashibi is involved with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN).

As an African American, Lightfoot knows what it is like to be the victim of racism, stereotypes and discrimination. That makes her more sensitive to the concerns of Chicago’s Arabs.