Little is known about Sri Lankan cleric Moulvi Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind behind the bomb attacks that hit the country’s capital Colombo, as well as the towns of Negombo and Batticaloa, on Easter Sunday.
Hashim, also referred to as Mohammed Zahran and Moulvi (the South Asian term for imam) Hashim, is said to have belonged to an “average Muslim middle-class family,” according to AFP reports. His radicalization is believed to have begun during Islamic studies at Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka.
“This person was a loner who radicalized young people under the guise of conducting Qu’ran classes,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told AFP.
Ahamed approached authorities repeatedly over the past three years with concerns over Hashim’s hate-filled rhetoric in sermons uploaded on to social media, but his warnings fell on deaf ears.
“We were very concerned that this guy was preaching hate on social media and uploading a lot of videos,” he told The Daily Telegraph newspaper in the UK.
Hashim is said to have been a divisive figure within the Muslim community as well after news emerged that the cleric was radicalizing students during his Qur’an classes. He had dropped out of seminary studies in India after clashing with fellow clerics and had caused trouble at Kattankudy’s Thowheeth mosque after encouraging worshippers to attack rival mosques.
“The mosque saw continuous conflict with the traditional mosque-goers. Once Hashim took a sword out to kill people belonging to the traditional Muslim mosque,” Ahamed said.
While mystery still surrounds the perpetrators of the attacks, with reports alleging international groups were involved and a Daesh video claiming responsibility, many are pointing to National Thowheed Jamath, a group formed by Hashim while studying in Kattankudy in 2014, according to local media.
Another man, Abdul Razik, who was arrested on charges of inciting racism in 2016, was said to be the group’s secretary general.
It is still unclear if the NTJ or a splinter group was responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks.
After Hashim appeared in the Daesh video uploaded on to the extremist group’s official Amaq news agency, media were quick to claim that he was among the suicide bombers who struck across the capital. The video showed the cleric standing at the center of a group of seven people dressed in black tunics and headscarves, carrying rifles, and pledging allegiance to Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The video was the first concrete evidence of the apparently central role played by Hashim in the Easter attacks.
While the video claims that Hashim was among the suicide bombers, other reports claim he fled and is in hiding in the neighboring Maldives.
Hashim’s sermons were also uploaded on Al-Ghuraba Media, a media group that defines itself as part of the “Media Front to Support the Islamic State.” It recycles Daesh official media content and puts out its own productions in support of the extremist group.
It is hard to get a detailed picture of what Hashim was preaching, since his sermons have been taken down from social media, but reports of the group’s beliefs and actions reveal extremist thought.
The stated goal of National Thowheed Jamath is to bring the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka.
On Islamic superiority
Hashim reportedly uploaded videos in which he declared that only Muslims are fit to rule in Sri Lanka. Believing that Islam is the superior religion, he pushed for the building of mosques and madrassas across the country.
Hashim’s group pushed to make it compulsory for all women to wear a burqa, which is uncommon in Sri Lanka.
On other religions
The preacher uploaded videos of himself railing against non-believers, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.
His group was prosecuted in 2017 for making derogatory remarks against Buddha in a video and offending the country’s Buddhist community.
Hashim’s hateful and incendiary remarks are evident in the sermons he has spread through social media outlets. In Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, he had caused divisions by pushing his extremist belief in spreading the jihadist movement. His appearance at the center of the Daesh video demonstrates his willingness to take intolerance to another, more horrific level.