Kattankudy (Sri Lanka): From obscurity to terror fame. Yes that is the way the life of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran can easily be described. He was 12 years old when he began his studies at the Jamiathul Falah Arabic College. He was nobody, with no claim to scholarship other than ambition.
Zahran and his four brothers and sisters squeezed into a two-room house with their parents in a small seaside town in eastern Sri Lanka; their father was a poor man who was a street-side food vendor. He also had the reputation for being a petty thief. “His father didn’t do much,” recalled the school’s vice principal, SM Aliyar, laughing out loud.
The boy surprised the school with his sharp mind. For three years, Zahran practiced memorising the Koran. Next came his studies in Islamic law. But the more he learned, the more Zahran argued that his teachers were too liberal in their reading of the holy book.
“He was against our teaching and the way we interpreted the Koran – he wanted his radical Islam,” said Aliyar. “So we kicked him out.” Aliyar, now 73 with a long white beard, remembers the day Zahran left in 2005.
The school would hear again of Mohamed Zahran. And the world now knows his name. Sri Lankan officials have identified him as the suspected ringleader of a group that carried out a series of Easter Sunday suicide bombings in the country, April 21, attacks that killed over 250 innocents.
There were nine suicide bombers who blew apart men, women and children as they sat to pray or ate breakfast. Most of the attackers were well-educated and from wealthy families, with some having been abroad to study, according to Sri Lankan officials. Zahran however, was different.
Sri Lanka’s national leadership has come under heavy criticism for failing to heed warnings from Indian intelligence services – at least three in April alone — that an attack was pending. But Zahran’s path from provincial troublemaker to a jihadist mastermind was marked by years of missed or ignored signals that the man with a thick beard and paunch was dangerous.
His increasingly militant brand of Islam was allowed to grow inside a marginalised minority community – barely 10 percent of the country’s roughly 20 million people are Muslim – against a backdrop of a dysfunctional developing nation.
For much of his adult life, Zahran courted controversy inside the Muslim community itself. In the internet age, that problem did not stay local. Zahran released online videos calling for jihad and threatening bloodshed.
After the blasts, Islamic State (IS) claimed credit and posted a video of Zahran, clutching an assault rifle, standing before the group’s black flag and pledging allegiance to its leader.
The precise relationship between Zahran and the IS is not yet known. An official with India’s security services, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that during a raid on a suspected IS cell by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) earlier this year, officers found copies of Zahran’s videos. The operation was carried out in Tamil Nadu, just across a thin strait of ocean from Sri Lanka.
Back in 2005, Zahran was looking to make his way in the world. He joined a mosque in 2006, the Dharul Athar, and gained a place on its management committee. But within three years they’d had a falling out.
“He (Zahran) wanted to speak more independently, without taking advice from elders,” said the mosque’s imam MTM Fawaz. “He was more conservative, objecting, for instance, to women wearing bangles or earrings. The rest of us come together as community leaders but Zahran wanted to speak for himself. He was a black sheep who broke free,” the imam added.
The mosque’s committee banned him from preaching for three months in 2009. Zahran stormed off. “We treated him like a spoiled child, a very narrow-minded person who was always causing some trouble,” said the head of the committee, Mohamed Ismail Mohamed Naushad, a timber supplier who shook his head at the memory.
At about that time, Zahran, then 23, married a young girl from a small town outside the capital of Colombo and brought his bride back here, according to his sister, Mathaniya. “I didn’t have much of a connection with her – she was just 14,” Mathaniya said.
Despite being ‘a bit rough-edged’, Zahran was a skilled speaker and others his age were drawn to his speeches and Koranic lessons, said friend Thaufeek. He travelled the countryside at times, giving his version of religious instruction as he went.
In 2012, Zahran started a mosque of his own. The Sufis in the area were alarmed as Zahran wanted them to convert to Wahhabis. Complaints to both local law enforcement and eventually national government offices were made. No action was taken. Had it then happened the world would have probably never seen the horrific Easter Sunday.
The then-officer in charge of Kattankudy police, Ariyabandhu Wedagedara, said over telephone that he couldn’t arrest people simply because of theological differences.
“The problem at the time was between followers of different Islamic sects – Zahran was not a major troublemaker, but he and followers of other sects, including the Sufis, were at loggerheads,” Wedagedara informed.
Zahran found another megaphone: the internet. His Facebook page was taken down after the bombings, but Muslims in the area said his video clips had previously achieved notoriety. His speeches went from denouncing Sufis to ‘kafirs’, or non-believers, in general. Zahran’s sister, Mathaniya said she thought ‘his ideas became more radical from listening to Islamic State views on the Internet’.
In one undated video, Zahran, in a white tunic and standing in front of an image of flames, boomed in a loud voice: “You will not have time to pick up the remains of blown-up bodies. We’ll keep sending those insulting Allah to hell.” The warning had already been issued… but no one noticed it.
In 2017, Zahran’s confrontations boiled over. At a rally near a Sufi community, his followers came wielding swords. At least one man was hacked and hospitalised. The police arrested several people connected to Zahran, including his father and one of his brothers. Zahran slipped away from public view.
The next year, a group of Buddha statues was vandalised in the town of Mawanella, about five hours drive from here. There, in the lush mountains of Sri Lanka’s interior, Zahran had taken up temporary residence.
“He was preaching to kill people,” said AGM. Anees, who served as an imam at a small mosque in the area for a decade. “This is not Islam, this is violence, what Zahran was propagating.”
The Thursday morning before the Easter Sunday bombings, Zahran’s sister-in-law knocked on the door of a neighbour who did seamstress work. She handed over a parcel of fabric and asked for it to be sewn into a tunic by the end of the day. “She said she was going on a family trip,” said the neighbour, MH Sithi Nazlya.
Mathaniya sister said that her parents turned off their cellphones on Friday. Sunday, when she visited their home, they were gone. She does not know if Zahran arranged for them to be taken somewhere safe. Or why he would have carried out the bombing.
Here many people never knew him. But now even in death here and across the world, he has become the new face of terror… a face and a name people won’t easily forget.