For years, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community warned authorities about a firebrand cleric. Now it seems Zahran Hashim may have played a key role in one of the worst attacks in the country’s history.
A video released by the Islamic State group after it claimed responsibility for bombs that killed 359 people, appears to prominently feature Hashim. The round-faced cleric is the only one of the eight figures whose face is uncovered.
Dressed in a black tunic and headscarf, and carrying a rifle, Hashim is seen in the IS video leading seven people in a pledge of allegiance to the group’s chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Sri Lanka’s government has accused Hashim indirectly, saying the Islamist group he was believed to lead -- the National Thowheeth Jama’ath -- carried out the attacks.
Hashim was a virtual unknown before the onslaught -- even inside Sri Lanka. He had attracted several thousand followers on social media sites, including YouTube and Facebook, where he posted incendiary sermons.
Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said he had gone to local authorities with concerns about Hashim three years ago.
“This person was a loner and he had radicalised young people in the guise of conducting Quran classes,” he told AFP. “But nobody thought these people were capable of carrying out an attack of such magnitude.”
Ahamed said Hashim, who has also gone by the names Mohamed Zahran and Moulavi Hashim, was around 40 years old and from the east coast region of Batticaloa. The only one of the attacks on Sunday to hit outside of the Colombo area was at the Zion Church in Batticaloa.
He was considered a menace by the local Muslim community and caused trouble at Kattankudy’s Thowheeth mosque.
Local media said Hashim formed the NTJ in Kattankudy in 2014. Sri Lankan officials are still investigating to what degree IS may have helped the attackers, but Ahamed said Hashim was known by the community to have international ties.
“All his videos have been uploaded from India. He uses boats of smugglers to travel back and forth from southern India,” he said.
“I don’t know if he is dead or alive,” added Ahamed.
And neither do police, who want to know if Hashim was among the suicide bombers.
On Wednesday they were carrying out DNA tests on the bodies of some of the bombers, particularly one who set off explosives at the Shangri-La hotel.