Sri Lanka bomber Jameel Mohamed 'under police surveillance' while he plotted attack

Qadijah Irshad
A photograph has been obtained by Sky News which, according to a security source, is of the suspected Sri Lanka suicide bomber who studied in Britain - Sky News

The Easter Sunday suicide bomber who lived and studied in the UK had been under police surveillance in Sri Lanka for years, it emerged on Thursday.

Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, 36, who studied aerospace engineering in the UK for almost two years, was on a Sri Lankan terror watchlist, according to sources close to his family.

The claim raises further embarrassing questions for the Sri Lankan authorities over their failure to stop Sunday’s coordinated attacks on churches and hotels.

The source, close to his brother, said: “He was under surveillance for years.”

It came as footage emerged on Thursday night believed to show Jameel Mohamed with a rucksack laden with explosives, and a suitcase at the Taj hotel in Colombo on Easter Sunday.

In the pictures, obtained by Sky News, he is wearing a baseball cap just like two other suspected bombers pictured on CCTV footage before they struck the Shangri-La hotel.

British intelligence officers are combing through Jameel Mohamed’s connections made in the UK to determine whether he could have been radicalised in this country. He flew into the UK on January 1 2006 and lived in a rented bedsit in Tooting in south London before flying home at the end of September 2007. He returned again in 2008.

The guesthouse blown up by Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, who lived and studied in the UK Credit: Sam Tarling

The Daily Telegraph has been told that he was initially denied a visa to enter the UK but that his father - a wealthy tea trader in Sri Lanka - had threatened to bring a legal claim against the High Commission if it didn’t reverse the block on his son’s travel.

Sources have insisted Jameel Mohamed was initially prevented from entering Britain because of ‘administrative problems’ with his visa application, and not because he posed any danger at that time.

He enrolled at Kingston University on an aerospace engineering course as part of a programme tied to the Asian Aviation Centre in Colombo.

Kingston was one of four universities ‘named and shamed’ in 2015 by then prime minister David Cameron over claims it had hosted the most events with extremist speakers. 

The claim was vehemently contested by Kingston, which insisted that it was ‘highly unlikely’ students were being radicalised.

Family friends said Jameel Mohamed, who spent a year at Kingston University in 2006, was being monitored by police in Sri Lanka as he plotted the terror attacks with seven other suspected jihadis.

Jameel Mohamed killed two people when he detonated his bomb at a guesthouse near Colombo zoo. His original target was the five-star The Taj Samudra hotel, located close to three other high-end hotels targeted in coordinated attacks. But his bomb failed to detonate and he was forced to return to a safe house before launching his the attack.

As the investigation into the attacks continued in the UK and Sri Lanka, more details were emerging on Thursday about Jameel Mohamed. People who knew the suspected bomber told The Telegraph that the he was sympathetic towards Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). “But we never took him seriously when he talked about his views,” said a childhood friend. “Who would have thought we would have maniacs who would commit this kind of atrocity and kill all innocent people?”

Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, 36, is bearded with a rucksack, thought to contain explosives, and a suitcase at the Taj hotel  Credit: Sky News

Some of Jameel Mohamed’s friends and family members have been taken into police custody for questioning, including an older brother and a brother-in-law. A police spokesman confirmed that at least one of his brothers, who runs the family tea trading business, is currently detained and is being interrogated.

Other friends and acquaintances told The Telegraph that he was “a bit different” from the others.

“He was always a bit weird,” a friend, who did not want to be named told The Telegraph. “A bit of a recluse.”

His sister, Samsul Hidaya, said her brother had been radicalised during his studies abroad, but thought that followed a stint in Melbourne, Australia, rather than in London.

On Friday The Australian newspaper reported  that  Jameel Mohamed studied at Swinburne University in Melbourne between 2009 and 2013.

Samsul Hidaya, one of Mohamed's sisters, told the Daily Mail that her brother came back from Australia after his post-graduate studies a “changed man.” Quoting AAP, the report said her brother became "a different man" in Australia and became withdrawn and intense.

"My brother became deeply, deeply religious while he was in Australia," Ms Hidaya said.

"He was normal when he went to study in Britain, and normal when he came back. But after he did his postgraduate in Australia, he came back to Sri Lanka a different man.

"He had a long beard and had lost his sense of humour. He became serious and withdrawn and would not even smile at anyone he didn't know, let alone laugh."

A Kingston University spokesman said: “The University does not tolerate any form of incitement to hatred or violence, and condemns in the strongest terms extremist activity. It has been fully compliant with the Government’s Prevent duty guidance since its instigation, and takes these responsibilities extremely seriously.”

The fresh details emerged amid growing public concern about further attacks in Colombo. Tensions remained high as it was reported that the mastermind of the bombings may still be alive. 

The fate of Zahran Hashmi, an extremist cleric also called Mohamed Kasim Mohamed Zahran, has been unknown since Sri Lankan intelligence accused him of orchestrating the multiple suicide bombings that killed 359 people. 

Hashmi, the alleged leader of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group that the government believe carried out the atrocity, was thought to have been killed. But his death has not been confirmed, BBC Sinhala reported on Thursday. 

The report was based on a statement by Ruwan Wijewardene, the deputy defence minister, who declined to comment specifically on the fate of Hashmi. He did say, however, that the 'leader' of the suicide bomber team that struck three churches and three luxury hotels had died.

Zahran Hashmi, the alleged mastermind of the plot, may still be alive

Previously it had been reported that Hashmi had died after blowing himself up at the Shangri La hotel breakfast buffet, but the police have disputed these claims. 

Close to 60 people have been detained in sweeping arrests across the island as the government faces growing anger over its failure to act on crucial Indian intelligence earlier this month about possible attacks on churches. 

The public’s nerves were frayed further by a small blast near a magistrates court on Thursday morning in Pugoda town, about 25 miles east of the capital, Colombo. No casualties were reported. 

Traffic was also disrupted near the island’s main international airport as the police inspected a suspicious vehicle. 

The Indian Ocean island remains under curfew and emergency security measures while the counter-terrorism operation, assisted by experts from the US, UK, Australia and UAE, is underway.

All Catholic churches have been instructed to stay closed and suspend services until security improves. 

Christians in Jaffna, in the north of the country, issued a statement urging “patience and peace as the truth of these heinous crimes emerges,” adding: “our grief is never a call for retribution.”

Their appeal came as Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community spoke of their fears about retaliation and reported online abuse and stones being thrown at Muslim homes and businesses.

Sri Lanka’s government believes that the massacre was carried out with the NTJ, previously an obscure local Islamist group, with assistance from overseas terrorism networks due to its precise and coordinated nature and the use of military-grade explosives.

Sri Lanka is on a heightened state of alert Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

The targeting of Christians and hotels popular with westerners bore the hallmarks of global jihadi terrorism. 

The Islamic State terrorist group on Tuesday claimed credit for the bloodbath and released a video of the suicide bombers swearing allegiance to the militant group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

It did not provide further proof that it had engineered the attack. However, the Hindu newspaper reported on Wednesday that investigators had found that two of the suspects had recently returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq. 

The video released on Isil’s Aamaq news agency showed Hashmi at the centre of a group of eight attackers in front of an Islamic State flag. He was the only person to keep his face uncovered. 

India’s CNN News 18 channel first reported the possible involvement of Hashmi 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.

Over the last few years, Hashmi has gained thousands of followers for his incendiary sermons denouncing non-Muslims on pro-IS social media accounts. 

A woman mourns her mother, killed in the St Sebastian's church Credit: Carl Court /Getty Images

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

Hashmi's group began as an offshoot of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath, which has denied any involvement in the bombings. 

Hashmi was reported in the local press as a divisive figure within his own community who incited violence against other Muslims. 

According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Hashmi was operating out of southern India, or had links there, in the months before Sunday's bombings.

"All his YouTube videos of hate speech were uploaded in India," claimed Mr Hilmy. "He has a base in either Chennai or Bangalore."

Hashmi’s Indian ties are expected to come under closer investigation. India's National Investigation Agency had specific intelligence ahead of the serial blasts, which it passed on to Colombo, but no action was taken by the Sri Lankans.

The Hindu reported that Indian investigators unearthed the plot during an interrogation of an IS sympathiser in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu six months ago.