The Daily Mirror of Sri Lanka produced a deep dive into the background of suspected Easter Sunday bombing mastermind Mohamed Zaharan Hashim that includes assertions by the Islamist group National Towheeth Jamaath (NTJ) that Hashim was long ago expelled for preaching hatred and violent extremism.
The Sri Lankan government named NTJ as one of the prime suspects in the bombing attacks, which killed 359 people at the last count – a death toll that makes it the single deadliest attack carried out by the Islamic State on foreign soil.
The most recent comments from defense officials portrayed the attackers as “breakaway members” of NTJ and another obscure Islamist group called Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. NTJ itself splintered off from a larger Islamist group several years ago, making the precise affiliations of the bombing suspects difficult to pin down. The Islamic State claimed all of them as its “soldiers” in a statement released on Tuesday.
The Daily Mirror portrayed Hashim as a charismatic preacher who grew increasingly radicalized over the past three years despite pleas from several members of his large family. Several close family members – including Hashim’s two brothers, a sister, and his parents – “disappeared” with Hashim and broke off contact with the rest of the family shortly before the Easter Sunday attacks. One of his brothers was arrested by Sri Lankan police after the bombing.
“I went and gave food to my parents and my sister’s family on April 18 and haven’t heard from them since,” Hashim’s remaining sister Mohomed Hashim Madaniya, 25, told the Daily Mirror.
“It was early 2017 when he started preaching things that we thought were out of line. They were things like the world was made for Muslims and he was against other religions,” she said.
“My husband didn’t like what he was saying so we stopped our connections with him. That didn’t mean we were angry. It’s just that we stopped following him,” she said. She told the Daily Mirror she fears the missing members of her family have joined Hashim’s radical cause.
According to Moulavi Thawufeek, the alleged current leader of National Towheeth Jamaath, Hashim helped to found the organization beginning in 2011 but broke off contact after a street battle with other Muslims in March 2017.
Thawufeek denounced Hashim’s murderous actions and said his group reported Hashim to the authorities as a potential ISIS sympathizer long ago. He said Sri Lankan intelligence agents frequently visited Hashim’s mosque and were well aware of his extremist views.
According to the Daily Mirror, the Muslim community in Hashim’s part of Sri Lanka is fractious, with most mosques preaching relatively moderate Sufi versions of Islam but about a dozen of them pushing the extreme Wahabbi doctrine originated in Saudi Arabia.
The NTJ-aligned mosque Hashim belonged to claimed it expelled him after he began posting extremist videos on Facebook in 2017, describing him as a “peaceful preacher” until that point, but other Muslims from the area disputed this claim and said Hashim visited the mosque as recently as six weeks ago and was radicalized long before the NTJ supposedly broke with him in 2017.
These skeptics further disputed NTJ claims that Hashim collected local donations to build his own mosque, saying instead that his activities were funded by “foreign entities.”
Hashim’s sister also said her brother was an outspoken radical who preached “things against the government, against courts, and against other religions” long before the NTJ says it became aware of his extremism. The Daily Mirror reported Hashim’s fiery sermons drew crowds of two or three thousand people as far back as 2012.
News reports about Hashim tend to characterize him as a “loner” and “virtual unknown,” while also admitting he had thousands of followers and was repeatedly reported to the police because he kept radicalizing young people from other mosques. The Daily Mirror report paints him as a well-known menace, widely seen in his town as a time bomb who has been loudly ticking for six or seven years. Perhaps international media outlets have been describing him as obscure and unknown because that is what Sri Lankan officials are telling them, but he was actually on their radar screens long before the Easter attacks.
Hashim’s fate after the bombings has not yet been determined. His sister told the Daily Mirror she hopes he is dead, but the authorities are uncertain if he was one of the suicide bombers who died on Sunday. Sri Lankan officials have made vague references to a “leader” of the attackers perishing in the blasts, but it is unclear if they are referring to Hashim. One theory advanced by investigators is that Hashim relocated to India, from where many of his incendiary YouTube videos have been uploaded, and could still be operating from there.