Sri Lanka 'bombing mastermind' named as Moulvi Zahran Hashim

Ben Farmer

Sri Lankan intelligence has named the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, an extremist local cleric who incited his followers to violence with fiery sermons on his social media channels.

Moulavi Zahran Hashim, a radical islamist Imam and preacher, is on the run

The revelation comes after senior government officials accused the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) a little-known group promoting Islamist terrorist ideology, as the perpetrators of the horrific suicide bombings which have now killed 310 people, including eight British citizens.

India’s CNN News 18 channel first reported the possible involvement of Hashim in the massacre, claiming that Indian intelligence sources had indicated to the Sri Lankans that he was planning to attack the Indian High Commission in Colombo in early April.

An initial probe into deadly suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka that killed more than 300 people shows it was "retaliation for Christchurch," the country's deputy defence minister said Tuesday.

"The preliminary investigations have revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka (on Sunday) was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch," state minister of defence Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament.

Over the last two years, Hashim gained thousands of followers and attracted the attention of jihad experts for his incendiary preaching on a pro-Islamic State Sri Lankan Facebook account, known as ‘Al-Ghuraba’ media, and on YouTube.

Robert Postings, a writer and researcher on the Islamic State, said on his Twitter account that he had first encountered Hashim in late 2017 when the “self-styled” preachers was disseminating pro-Isil propaganda on Facebook.

YouTube videos of the Islamist who is now the face of one of the worst terrorist atrocities since 9/11 shows him railing against all non-believers, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, and declaring that only Muslims are fit to rule. The backdrop to his sermons included images of the burning Twin Towers.

Three days after the attack, there have been no claims of reponsibility by Islamic State, the NTJ, or any other group for the series of six devastating bombings across three hotels and three churches on Sunday.

There have also been conflicting reports about the fate of Hashim, with claims circulating that he was one of the suicide bombers who carried out the attack and counter-claims that he may be on the run in the neighbouring Maldives islands.

Although known primarily as a luxury honeymoon destination, the Maldives also supplied hundreds of radicalised fighters to Isil’s failed attempts to set up an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.

Hashim himself was known among the Muslim community as a divisive figure who was said to have dropped out of his seminary in India either because of ideological differences or over money worries. He is believed to have clashed with fellow clerics and encouraged his followers to attack rival mosques.

Hilmy Ahamed, the vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told The Telegraph he had been trying to warn officials about Hashim’s extremism for three years after it emerged that he was radicalisng young pupils in his Koran classes.

"We were very concerned that this guy was preaching hate on social media and uploading a lot of videos,” he said.

Mr Ahamed said Hashim continued to shuttle between India and Sri Lanka, travelling by fishing boat to avoid detection.

Hashim's group began as an offshoot of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath, which has repeatedly fractured due to internal disputes.

People attend burial ritual of the victims of multiple terror attacks during a funeral ceremony in Negomboo Credit: Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The group could not have carried out the attack without external help, added Mr Ahamed.

One working theory among regional security experts is that returning fighters could have provided training and logistics to the marginal NTJ which, although a cheerleader of global jihad, had only been known previously for defacing Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka.

In January, police in Puttalam, some 100 miles north of Colombo, raided a coconut plantation, where they discovered 100kg of C4 explosives, 100 detonators, 75kg of ammonium nitrate and potassium chlorate and six 20 litre cans of nitric acid.  

Reports at the time did not name the group involved but said the site may be linked to a newly emerging militant group that was tied to the vandalising of Buddhist statues. Suspects were arrested but later released on bail.

Three months later, Sri Lankan security agencies received a tip-off from Indian and US intelligence agencies that the NTJ may be preparing to carry out terrorist acts against churches, but the crucial information was not passed to country’s prime minister.

Since the attacks, the Sri Lankan government has apologised for failing to act on the intelligence brief.