Paul Maley and Primrose Riordan
The Sri Lankan suicide bomber who studied at a Melbourne university was one of the subjects of a terrorism investigation by Australian security authorities after intelligence emerged linking him to Islamic State operative Neil Prakash.
The Australian can reveal that Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, one of nine suicide bombers responsible for a string of attacks across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, was investigated by the Joint Counter Terrorism Team in 2014.
The investigation was triggered by intelligence that linked Mohamed to several counter-terrorism targets, including Prakash.
Sri Lankan authorities suspect Mohamed was one of the ringleaders of the attacks attributed to Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Islamic State, which have so far killed 250 people (revised down from the earlier toll of 359).
One of Mohamed’s sisters, Samsul Hidaya, last night revealed how he had become “deeply religious” in Australia and returned to Sri Lanka a different man.
Ms Hidaya said Mohamed had became increasingly withdrawn and intense as he descended into extremism.
“My brother became deeply, deeply religious while he was in Australia,” Ms Hidaya told the Daily Mail.
“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 He became serious and withdrawn and would not even smile at anyone he didn’t know, let alone laugh.”
Ms Hidaya said after returning from Australia, Mohamed would berate family members for religious lapses and would not let his children listen to music.
Another of Mohamed’s sisters, Fathima Zeenia, told police in a statement seen by The Australian, that he had completed a “course” in Indian Kashmir, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and militant training.
Mohamed travelled to Syria and joined Islamic State before returning to Sri Lanka.
The Australian understands he had contact with Prakash, who at the time was at the height of his influence as an online radicaliser and facilitator for terrorist violence across the West, including Australia.
The full nature of that relationship is still being investigated but one source said that, at the very least, there was an “online’’ link between Mohamed and Prakash.
Earlier, Mohamed had studied at Melbourne’s Swinburne University from 2009-2013, where he completed postgraduate studies in technology.
His life in Australia was investigated by authorities once his links to Prakash and other counter-terrorism targets emerged, although the investigation produced no evidence suggesting he was a threat while in Australia.
Nor did evidence emerge that he had associated with Islamist extremists while in Melbourne. However, in light of the Easter attacks, the Sri Lanka bomber’s life in Australia is again under the microscope.
Australian Federal Police and ASIO are re-examining his relationships in Australia, particularly the possibility he had links to the small community of Islamic State radicals who ran riot in Melbourne in the early stages of the Syrian civil war.
Prakash, who is in jail in Turkey after he was caught fleeing Syria, left Melbourne in 2013. He had been a regular at the now defunct Al Furqan prayer hall where he met a community of Islamic State radicals. There is no evidence Mohamed and Prakash knew each other while they were both in Melbourne. The Australian has been told it appears the pair communicated once Mohamed returned to Sri Lanka but before he travelled to Syria.
Before coming to Australia he studied aeronautics in Britain, prompting speculation he might have been one of the group’s bomb-makers.
After failing to set off his bomb at the intended target last Sunday, Mohamed detonated it close to the New Tropical Inn guesthouse in the Dehiwala district to the south of the city centre, killing two people. His attack was the seventh of the day and caused the fewest fatalities.
The AFP has flown officers to Sri Lanka to help authorities in what is now a major transnational investigation aimed at tracking down the bombers’ overseas links.
Scott Morrison said yesterday that one of the attackers had spent time in Australia.
He did not name him but said the man had held a spouse and child visa at the time and did not return after leaving in 2013.
Prakash was associated with a small team of English-speaking ISIS operatives who used the internet to radicalise young Muslims and encourage them to launch attacks in their home towns. English pair Junaid Hussein and Sally Jones were also members of the group and it is understood Mohamed has been linked to them.
While in Melbourne, Prakash had contact with 18-year-old Numan Haider, who was shot dead in 2014 after he stabbed two police officers in a terrorist attack.
Eight out of the nine suicide bombers, including a pregnant mother of three, have been identified by police.
Most were well educated and all allegedly pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Australian diplomats indicated they were not told about the multiple warnings Sri Lanka had received about the attacks.
The Sri Lankan government has publicly acknowledged it received as many as three warnings about the possibility of attacks from India, including specific information about the likely targets.
The government’s failure to act on the intelligence is now the subject of a major scandal in Sri Lanka.
Yesterday, Australia updated its travel advice to warn tourists that there could be further terror attacks in Sri Lanka following the Easter bombings.
Australia’s “Smartraveller” website now includes a warning relating to Sri Lanka: “Terrorist groups may undertake further attacks.”
Australia had already made changes to its travel advice for Sri Lanka — for the first time since December — following Sunday’s attack, altering the level of advice to “reconsider your need to travel”.