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

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

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

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.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

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.


Pakistan reopens Afghanistan border crossing held by Taliban

Pakistan reopens Afghanistan border crossing held by Taliban
Updated 45 sec ago

Pakistan reopens Afghanistan border crossing held by Taliban

Pakistan reopens Afghanistan border crossing held by Taliban

QUETTA/ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Monday reopened a major southwestern border crossing with Afghanistan that is currently under Taliban control on the Afghan side, Pakistani customs officials said, allowing over 100 trucks carrying goods to cross into Afghanistan.
The Chaman-Spin Boldak crossing, a key port for landlocked Afghanistan, had been closed by Pakistan for commercial traffic since fierce fighting for control of the crossing erupted between Taliban insurgents and Afghan security forces earlier this month.
“Pakistan has opened its border with Afghanistan at Chaman today and resumed Afghan Transit Trade which was suspended since the last one month,” Arif Kakar, a senior official of the Chaman border district, told Reuters.
He said it would remain open six days a week.
Two Pakistani customs officials, requesting anonymity, told Reuters that Spin Boldak and the border town of Wesh were still under Taliban control, and they did not know what arrangements were in place across the border or who was clearing the goods through customs.
They said Pakistani officials were under pressure by traders to let trucks pass through as the goods they were carrying would otherwise perish.
Afghanistan’s interior and finance ministries, and the Taliban spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment.
US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, which oversees American forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul on Sunday that Spin Boldak was a “contested space” and the Afghan government was looking to regain control of it.
The reopening came hours after 46 Afghan soldiers sought refuge in Pakistan after losing control of military positions further north along the border following advances by Taliban insurgents taking advantage of foreign forces’ withdrawal.
The Afghan military commander requested refuge at the border crossing in Chitral in the north, the Pakistan army said in a statement, adding safe passage into Pakistan was given on Sunday night after clearance from Afghan authorities.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers and civil officials have fled to neighboring Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan in recent weeks after Taliban offensives in border areas.
“Afghan soldiers have been provided food, shelter and necessary medical care as per established military norms,” the statement said.
Relations between neighbors Afghanistan and Pakistan have taken a sharp downturn in recent weeks, particularly over repeated allegations by Kabul that Pakistan is backing the Taliban — a charge Islamabad denies.
Afghanistan recalled its diplomats from Pakistan after the brief kidnapping of the Afghan ambassador’s daughter in Islamabad earlier in the month.
Afghan officials did not respond to a request for comment on the soldiers’ crossing.
The Taliban has escalated its offensive since the United States announced in April that it would withdraw its troops by September, ending a 20-year foreign military presence.
Washington has said it will continue to carry out air strikes to support Afghan forces facing insurgent attacks.
Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have failed to make substantive progress since beginning in September last year.
Reeling from battlefield losses, Afghanistan’s military is overhauling its war strategy to concentrate forces around critical areas such as Kabul and other cities, and border crossings.
The Pakistan army said the soldiers who sought refuge will be returned to Afghanistan after due process, as had occurred in the case of another batch of 35 soldiers earlier in July.


Libyan election talks get underway in Rome

The meeting in Rome will include representatives from across Libya, as well as members of the UN Support Mission in Libya. (Reuters/File Photo)
The meeting in Rome will include representatives from across Libya, as well as members of the UN Support Mission in Libya. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 26 July 2021

Libyan election talks get underway in Rome

The meeting in Rome will include representatives from across Libya, as well as members of the UN Support Mission in Libya. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Members of respective parliaments meet to discuss ways of enhancing Libyan-Italian cooperation

ROME: Intra-Libyan talks on adopting the legal framework for the country’s next general election began in Rome on Monday, July 26, and are expected to continue until July 29.

A source in the Italian Prime Minister’s office told Arab News that members of the Libyan special commission arrived in Rome on July 25, “to discuss … an electoral law for the next general elections” scheduled for Dec. 24, 2021.

The commission, which holds a largely technical role from a legal perspective, will present a proposal to the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk for its final approval.

The meeting in Rome will include representatives from across Libya, as well as members of the UN Support Mission in Libya.

Parliamentary spokesman Abdullah Blehik told Italian news agency Nova that House Speaker Aguila Saleh “will not participate in meetings aimed at developing a constitutional foundation for the parliamentary and presidential elections.”

Piero Fassino, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, told Arab News: “We are very happy that the meetings will be held in Rome — it signals that the new democratic Libya sees Italy as a reliable partner on the path towards democracy and the final end of the violence in that country.”

Fassino recalled that in the past few weeks, several meetings had taken place between members of the Italian and Libyan parliaments, which were attended also by Saleh.

“When he met us, Aguila Saleh stressed that cooperation with Italy is very important as it is the closest European state to Libya, and there are so many common interests between the two states,” Fassino added.

“We believe that this meeting, starting today in Rome, shows another real sign of the wish to enhance our cooperation.”


New Zealand to accept alleged Daesh militant, 2 kids

New Zealand to accept alleged Daesh militant, 2 kids
Updated 26 July 2021

New Zealand to accept alleged Daesh militant, 2 kids

New Zealand to accept alleged Daesh militant, 2 kids
  • PM Ardern: New Zealand could not remove citizenship from anybody if it left them stateless
  • The woman and her children were arrested when they tried to illegally cross from Syria into Turkey

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand on Monday agreed to repatriate an alleged Daesh militant and her two young children, who have been detained in Turkey since February.
The decision follows a bitter dispute with Australia over which country needed to shoulder responsibility for the woman, who had been a dual citizen of both countries until Australia stripped her citizenship under its anti-terrorism laws.
The woman and her children were arrested when they tried to illegally cross from Syria into Turkey, according to Turkey’s Defense Ministry. Turkey identified her only by her initials, S.A., while New Zealand media say she is Suhayra Aden, who was 26 at the time of her arrest.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand had taken into account its international responsibilities and could not remove citizenship from anybody if it left them stateless.
“I made very strong representations to Australia that she should be permitted to return there. Her family moved to Australia when she was 6 and she grew up there before departing for Syria in 2014 on an Australian passport,” Ardern said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Australia would not reverse the cancelation of citizenship.”
Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the woman lost her citizenship as a result of her own actions, and that ending citizenship for dual nationals engaged in terrorist conduct was an integral part of Australia’s response to terrorist threats.
“The government’s first priority is always to protect the Australian community,” Andrews said in a statement.
Ardern said the safety and wellbeing of New Zealanders was the government’s paramount concern. She said there had been extensive planning with the police and other agencies.
“I can assure people great care is being taken as to how the woman and her young children are returned to New Zealand and how they will be managed in a way that minimizes any risk for New Zealanders,” Ardern said.
Authorities declined to say when the family would be repatriated, citing legal and security concerns.
Ardern said anybody suspected of being associated with a terrorist group should expect to be investigated under New Zealand laws, although the case remained a matter for the police.
New Zealand police confirmed an investigation was underway but declined further comment on whether the woman would face any criminal charges.


Southern India’s only chief minister from PM Modi’s party resigns

Southern India’s only chief minister from PM Modi’s party resigns
Updated 26 July 2021

Southern India’s only chief minister from PM Modi’s party resigns

Southern India’s only chief minister from PM Modi’s party resigns
  • BJP has failed to make inroads in other southern states despite running the country since 2014
  • Modi recently dropped many senior ministers from his cabinet as he tries to reinvigorate his administration

BENGALURU: The chief minister of India’s Karnataka, the only state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in the country’s prosperous south, resigned on Monday in the latest political shake-up in the Hindu nationalist group.
B.S. Yediyurappa, a four-time chief minister of the state, home to India’s technology capital of Bengaluru, had helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) form its first government in India’s southern region in 2008.
The party has failed to make inroads in other southern states despite running the country since 2014. Aside from Yediyurappa’s resignation, Modi recently dropped many senior ministers from his cabinet as he tries to reinvigorate his administration dented by a huge second surge in coronavirus infections.
Yediyurappa, 78, quit because he was older than its cut-off age of 75 years for ministerial positions, BJP spokeswoman Malavika Avinash said.
“I had no pressure from senior party leaders. I am voluntarily submitting my resignation,” Yediyurappa said in an emotional address broadcast live on local television channels.
Bengaluru hosts offices of big multinational companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Goldman Sachs.
Analysts said the BJP will have to move fast to name a successor or risk being outmaneuvered by the opposition.
“If the BJP cannot come up with a name soon enough, it would give the opposition a chance to swoop in,” said Narendar Pani, dean, School of Social Sciences at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru.
“The challenge for the BJP will be to find a successor who will have the same kind of pull and can bring various groups together.”
The BJP changed the chief minister of the northern state of Uttarakhand twice this year, months ahead of local elections. Karnataka elections are due only in 2023.


Malaysian doctors stage walkout amid worsening COVID-19 outbreak

Malaysian doctors stage walkout amid worsening COVID-19 outbreak
Updated 26 July 2021

Malaysian doctors stage walkout amid worsening COVID-19 outbreak

Malaysian doctors stage walkout amid worsening COVID-19 outbreak
  • The doctors are on contracts for a set period and say their treatment is worse than that of permanent government staff

SUNGAI BULOH, Malaysia: Hundreds of junior doctors at state-run Malaysian hospitals staged walkouts Monday demanding better conditions as the country faces its worst coronavirus outbreak yet.
Dressed in black and holding signs with slogans including “equal pay, equal rights, equal opportunity” and “we are your future specialists,” they protested at medical facilities nationwide.
The doctors are on contracts for a set period and say their treatment is worse than that of permanent government staff, even as they have found themselves on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19.
They complain of a lack of job security, poor benefits and that very few are eventually offered permanent positions.
We want “equal rights, to be a permanent doctor,” said a medic at a government hospital that treats virus patients outside Kuala Lumpur.
“We would definitely not be here if we were treated fairly... we should be appreciated for what we do,” the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
The medic was among dozens who took part in the action at the hospital, which lasted around half an hour.
Local media reported that several hundred participated across the country, but some doctors complained they were threatened by police and senior hospital staff in a bid to halt the protests.
Those involved said senior doctors took over their duties before they walked out, to ensure that patient care was not jeopardized.
Malaysia is currently battling its most serious outbreak, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. Officials have reported over one million cases and about 8,000 deaths.
There are over 23,000 doctors on these contracts in Malaysia — about 45 percent of the total medical doctors in the public health care system, according to official estimates.
Last week, the government said it would extend junior doctors’ contracts for up to four years in a bid to forestall the protests.
But they stopped short of offering permanent jobs, and the organizers of Monday’s walkout criticized the move as “short-sighted.”