Mohammed Zahran the founder – leader of the National Thawheed Jamath and suspected ring leader of the Islamic State (IS) inspired attacks on Easter Sunday has been officially reported dead by the Sri Lankan Police. According to an official communique issued by the Sri Lankan Police , Mohammed Cassim Mohommed Zahran was one of the two suicide bombers involved in the explosive attack on Shangri-La Hotel at Galle Face. A media release by the Aamaq news agency on behalf of the Islamic State (IS) revealed that Zahran had adopted the nom de guerre “Abu Ubaidah” in the IS. Abu Ubaidah refers to Abu Ubaidah Amir ibn Abdillah ibn al-Jarra who was one of the ten prominent companions of Prophet Mohammed. He later served as a commander of the Rashidun Army under Caliph Umar. Abu Ubaidah , credited with several military victories , was hailed then as the “commander of all commanders”.
“The evil that men do lives after them” said Mark Antony in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar”.Likewise the evil that Mohammed Zahran alias Abu Ubaidah did lives after him. This perpetrated evil and its consequences have drastically affected Zahran’s family members, his hometown Kattankudi, his community the Sri Lankan Muslims and Sri Lanka the land of his birth.
Zahran was the eldest of five children. His parents were Hayath and Sameema Cassim. Zahran had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. All were married with children. Zahran himself was married and had two children. All of them including Zahran’s wife and two kids were living in Kattankudi in Batticaloa district. On April 18th all except one sister and family had disappeared abruptly from Kattankudi. The Easter attacks took place on April 21st. On April 26th the authorities were informed by residents at Sainthamarudhu in Amparai district that some “suspicious strangers”had rented out a house in the area. When a Policeman went to inquire he was fired upon but escaped without injury
Thereafter a contingent comprising security personnel from the Army, Police and Special Task Force(STF) surrounded the house and called for surrender. There was retaliatory fire. A shoot – out and stand – off ensued for some hours. Three explosions wetre heard from within the house. When security forces entered the premises at day- break they found the house wrecked by explosions. Several bodies -some mangled – were found in the debris. An injured woman and a four year old child were rescued and hospitalized. It was discovered later that the injured woman was Zahran’s wife Fathima Hadiya while the child was his daughter Ruzaniya.
The bodies of six men, three women and six children recovered from the damaged house were buried later. Officials believe three of the men killed were Zahran’s father Hayath and brothers Zain and Rilwan. The women killed are said to be Zahran’s mother Sameema and sisters in law Afrin and Nafha. The children are believed to be the off -spring of the three brothers including Zahran’s eight year old son. Apparently Rilwan and Zain had set off explosives and killed themselves and their families. It is unclear whether Zahran’s youngest sister Yasira and her husband Rishad were also killed or had exited the dwelling of death earlier. Only Zahran’s other sister Madaniya who remained in Kattankudi seems to be the sole survivor of the siblings.
Zahran Met Madaniya in Mt.Lavinia Hotel
But she too has now been arrested. Earlier Madaniya had stated that she and Zahran were not on speaking terms and that there was no love lost between her husband and brother. She had also condemned Zahran to authorities as well as the media and said she had not set eyes on him for many months. However it was found later that Madaniya had not stated the truth. Rupees two million in 5000 rupee notes were discovered in her house during a Police search. Apparently the money had been given to Madaniya personally by Zahran a few weeks ago. Madaniya had been in Colombo on April 12th to 14th. Zahran had met her at a luxury hotel in Mt.Lavinia and given her the two million.
Madaniya was not the only person connected to Zahran who has been arrested from Kattankudi. The organization he founded and headquartered in Kattankudi named “Theseeya Thowheed Jamath” or National Thowheed Jamath has been banned. The mosque run by it has been sealed. The Mosque administrator and acting head of the National Thowheed Jamath (NJT) M.U.M. Thowfeek and several others linked to NJT from Kattankudi have been arrested. Zahran’s brother Rilwan’s father in law and mother in law from Kattankudi have been arrested and an explosive -laden suicide jacket recovered from their residence.
Among other Kattankudi residents arrested is Mohammed Sharif Aadham Lebbe known as “Gaffoor Maamaa” (Gaffoor uncle) who associated closely with Zahran and had functioned like an unofficial chauffeur to him. What the 53 year old Gaffoor uncle disclosed to the Police has been shockingly stunning. It was information revealed by Gaffoor that led to the raid on a safe house in the “Sennel” colony of Sammanthurai. A huge quantity of Gelignite, Drones, Uniforms, Suicide Jackets and an Islamic State(IS) flag were among the things seized. Seven persons including the driver of Amparai district parliamentarian M.I.M Munsoor have been taken into custody.
Killing of Two Policemen at Vavunatheevu Checkpoint
Another sensational piece of information gathered by sleuths from Aadham Lebbe alias Gaffoor was about the brutal murders of two Police constables on November 30th 2018 at a Police check point near Valaiiravu in Vavunatheevu in Batticaloa district. PC’s Niroshan Indika Prasanna (34) and Dinesh Ganesharajah (28) had been knifed and later shot at close range. Their side arms had been taken away by the unknown assailants. The incident had occurred around 1.30 – 2 pm in the night. It was then suspected that some former LTTE members has committed the crime in revenge for not being permitted to stage the “Maaveerar Naal” (Great Heroes day)commemoration on Nov 27th in the region. Several rehabilitated ex -tigers were arrested and interrogated. At least two were detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
But the statement made by Gaffoor to the Police turned the entire situation around. Gaffoor said that he and two other NJT members from Kattankudi had committed the murders. He also provided details of where the two firearms seized from the murdered policemen were buried. Acting upon his information the Police went to a coconut plantation in Wannaathivillu in Puttalam and recovered an arms cache including the two guns taken from the dead Policemen at Vavunatheevu. In a further twist Cabinet spokes man Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has said that four military intelligence operatives had coordinated the killings of the two cops in Vavunatheevu. The minister also alleged that 26 members of the National Thowheed Jamath had been on the payroll of Military intelligence when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president and his brother Gotabaya the defence secretary. It remains to be seen whether there is some substance to Dr. Senaratne’s allegations or not.
It could be seen therefore that several persons suspected of having had “illegal” links with Zahran are being arrested in Kattankudi and in other parts of the country. Some have gone underground. Many more in Kattankudi who have interacted with Zahran and his brothers in the past are anxiously fearful. Even though many of them may be innocent they are worried that the Police may act on wrong information and penalize them.
Visible “Kattankudi Connection to Recent Violence
Compounding matters further is the visible “Kattankudi connection” to recent violence. Apart from Zahran and his family members, some others from Kattankudi too have died as a result of their involvement with the Islamic State inspired violence.The suicide bomber who targeted the Evangelical Zion Church in Batticaloa and killed a large number including children attending Sunday school was also from Kattankudi. His name was Mohammed Nazar Mohammed Azad. He was a resident of Cemetery road in Kattankudi and was identified by his widowed mother.
Another Kattankudi resident was killed in the Sainthamarudhu skirmish on April 26th. He has been identified as 36 year old Mohammed Niyaz who was also Zahran’s relative. Niyaz an NTJ activist and freelance journalist had posed as a telecommunication engineer from Kattankudi and rented out the Sainthamaruthu house by paying 5000 rupees upfront as rent advance. It has now transpired that it was the same Mohammed Niyaz who had rented out safe houses in Sammanthurai, Ninthaavoor and Addaalaichchenai in the Muslim -majority Amparai district by using the same stratagem of posing as an engineer and paying several month rent up front as advance.
For all these reasons Kattankudi is now being viewed as a hot bed of terrorism by many in Sri Lanka. I have written earlier about Kattankudi pronounced in Tamil as “Kaathaankudi. This eastern coastal town in Baticaloa district is reportedly the most densely populated area in Sri Lanka with 6,726 residents per square kilometre. The 2014 Census estimated the population in the Kattankudy urban council as at 47,603.
The thickly populated Kattankudy is arguably the most prosperous Muslim town in the East. It is said that Kattankudy is the busiest business centre in the Batticaloa District. The first Muslim Central College in Sri Lanka was established in Kattankudy in 1930 thus paving the way for a commendable educational tradition. Kattankudy has produced many teachers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, academics and diplomats over the years. In addition, the natives of Kattankudy are well-known for their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. A very large number of leading Muslim commercial establishments in the East as well as in several parts of the island belong to people from Kattankudy. There is also a blooming apparel industryin Kattankudy.
Abayas, Beards, Date Palms and Arabic Sign Boards
In recent times, many Kattankudy residents have sought employment in the Middle-East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. This has resulted in increased Islamisation of the Wahabi variety. Wahabis are an orthodox Islamic sect originating in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is an ultra–conservative version of Islam that harks back to the past and rejects any religious innovation that came into being after the first three centuries of Islam. It seeks to purify Islam by practicing monotheistic worship and rejecting other deviant forms. The Kattankudy of today is a modern township bustling with women clad in Black Abayas and men sporting bristling beards. Date palms are grown within urban precincts and many signboards have Arabic lettering. Kattankudy has more than 60 registered Mosques most of them of the Wahabi variety.
To strike a personal note relating to Kattankudi. I worked as the Batticaloa staff correspondent for the Tamil daily “Virakesari” for three months in 1977. I stayed at the Batticaloa YMCA then housed at the vintage Methodist mansion “Burghley House” which crumbled a year later during the 1978 cyclone. I used to cycle frequently with friends to Kattankudi about 7km away from B’caloa town. The reason was to gulp down the “Aattukkaal “mutton leg soup and gobble up the “Kothu rotti” Kattankudi was famous for. There were also some distinct Kattankudi dishes like “moolaippirattal” (mixture of goat brain with egg) and“Koalimaangaai”(chicken gizzards) to be eaten with veechu rotti.. Then there was that “special” Kaatankudi coffee. Kattankudi in those days was renowned for its sarongs, handloom sarees and hand woven sleeping mats. It was a peaceful welcoming kind of place then and those pleasant memories continue to linger.
Sadly the Wahabi phenomenon and the advent of organizations like the National Thowheed Jamath have transformed the image of Kattankudi altogether. Despite its highly educated and talented population, Kattankudi is now being perceived by outsiders as the birthplace of “Muslim terrorism”in Sri Lanka. This is somewhat comparable to the plight of Valvettithurai(VVT) in the North those days. Just like Kattankudi many people in Valvettithurai(VVT) too were well -educated and holding good jobs. However after Tamil militant organizations like the LTTE and TELO were born on VVT soil and later flourished there, Valvettithurai too came to be known as the cradle and citadel of “Tamil Terrorism”. I know from first -hand experience about the pain of mind and grief suffered by many decent,law abiding Valvettithurai people due to this “terrorist image of VVT”. Again from thoughts communicated by Kattankudi people I can recognize the same pain and sadness in their hearts and minds about this terrorist image.
Muslims in Multi-ethnic, Multi-Religious Sri Lanka
While the misguided zeal and fanatical passion of Mohammed Zahran has caused great harm to his family, associates and hometown, worse still is the damage done to the Muslim people of Sri Lanka. The Islamic State(IS) objective of eliminating or subjucating the “Kaffirs” (non -believers/infidels) and establishing a world-wide Islamic “Calpihate” has only brought much death, destruction, displacement, misery and sorrow to many people of the Islamic faith living in different parts of the world. Sri Lanka is no exception. Thanks to the Easter Sunday violence, the Muslims living in multi-ethnic,multi-religious Sri Lanka are suffering immensely.
A terrible situation prevails today in Sri Lanka after the suicide bomb attacks on Churches and Five -star hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. The country and its people are terrified and fearful. An irresponsible and inept President and a weak ,vacillating Prime Minister being at loggerheads with each other and indulging in various acts of omission and commission have demoralized the people further. Life has been turned topsy-turvy. The low attendance at work places, the dwindling crowds in cinema theatres, hotels, shopping malls and supermarkets are all symptoms of this prevailing fear and insecurity. The volume of traffic on roads too is less than usual. A telling sign of these troubled times is the single digit number of visitors to the Zoo.
A people made fearful and insecure want action to be taken. Quite justifiably they do not want a repeat performance of the Easter violence. They want the law -enforcement authorities to crack down hard on those responsible for the violence. More importantly they want to prevent or pre-empt further violence. It is against this backdrop that the Police and security forces are engaged in apprehending persons suspected of having committed terrorism or planning to commit terrorist violence in the future. Hence there is universal approval and support for stern mesures against those suspected of having links to terrorism. The law enforcement agencies and security forces too realise this and are going the extra mile in combatting suspected terrorist activity. They cannot be faulted for this. After all they themseves are not extraneous to society and are part and parcel of the Sri Lankan social fabric.
Unfortunately the violence done has been perpetrated by Sri Lankan Muslims for what is said to be a pan-Islamic cause. The people who aided and abetted and helped facilitate the terrorist violence are also Muslims. Moreover the violence has been committed in the name of the Muslim community and Islamic religion. In such a situation the Sri Lankan Muslim community becomes suspect in the eyes of the law and is targeted by anti-terrorist measures. The fact that members of the upper crust of Muslim society in Sri Lanka could engage in such brutal mayhem exacerbates the situation. Furthermore there is a steady flow of news reports about Muslims being taken into custody for questioning on suspicion and about searches and raids leading to the discovery of concealed weapons . But the media does not report that most of those taken in have been released as innocent after interrogation. It also does not say that many of the so called weapons found were for defensive purposes. All this adds up to paranoia and a fear psychosis. Although it is wrong to do so, all Muslims tend to be looked at with suspicion in such a situation. In a reversal of basic justice norms, there is no presumption of innocence unless and otherwise proved guilty. There is only a presumption of guilt unless and otherwise proved to the contrary.
Modus Operandi Adopted by the Suicide Bombers
The fact that some of those who committed violence were involved with family members in this unholy enterprise worsens the situation further. The cruel .cold blooded murder of their own children through mass suicide creates a monstrous impression. This image is further reinforced by the fact that a primary feature of the modus operandi adopted by the suicide bombers was to cause as much loss of life as possible . They chose to target Churches and Hotels at times when there would be a peak congregation or high number of breakfast eaters. All this has helped create a colossally negative image of the Muslim community at large. Thus the Muslim community today is in a beleaguered state. The entire community is being blamed and treated as the enemy by an unusually high number of people if social media comments or reportage by sections of the media are any indicators. This is extremely unfair and wrong. It is only an extremely tiny minuscule minority of Sri Lanka’s 2.2 million Muslims who were or are supportive of this terror. An overwhelming number of Muslims are horrified at the terrorist violence that has been unleashed in their name and in the name of Islam.
The entire Muslim community is being unfairly blamed and targeted for the wrongful violence committed by a few Muslims. A whole community is being demonized. I speak from bitter, personal experience when I say that the Muslims are undergoing what the Sri Lankan Tamils experienced over the years when a section of Tamils adopted violence as a means of achieving political rights. Slowly and steadily the estrangement grew and the Tamil people were gradually demonized and alienated from mainstream society. What happened to the Tamils seems to be happening to the Muslims with a crucial difference. The process of alienating and demonizing the Tamls was prolonged over the years. In the case of the Muslims this process seems to be fast -tracked after Easter and happening rather rapidly. On the other hand the political leaders of the Sri Lankan Muslims have vehemently condemned the terrorism and are extending full cooperation to the authorities.Likewise Islamic religious leaders too have been extremely critical of terrorism done in the name of Islam. In the case of Tamil political leaders such outright condemnation was not forthcoming and criticism if any was lukewarm.
I fully well understand and realise that the terrorist threat and danger to the country and people is not over. I am fully supportive of the Police and armed forces of Sri Lanka as they engage in the arduous task of apprehending suspected terrorists and eliminating terrorism. I also acknowledge the fact that the law enforcement authorities cannot do so by following Dale Carnegie’s manual on how to win friends and influence people. But the time tested tenet on winning the hearts and minds to combat terrorism still holds good. I do not wish to give specific examples at this juncture but I have come to know of many instances where some members of the Police and armed forces have been unnecessarily hard and tough on Muslim people and treat them as if they are the ones who committed terrorism. Worse still is the “backlash” by some civilians who refuse to accommodate Muslims on buses and three-wheelers, urge boycotts of Muslim businesses and try to evict them from their rented homes. Many Muslims live in fear of wrongful arrests by authorities and reprisal attacks by mobs compriising criminal elements.
Muslims Must Be Treated With Dignity,Respect, Justice and Fairplay.
As I stated earlier I don’t want to mention specific instances at this juncture but I do want to emphasise that these things are happening. Many Sri Lankans too know and realise this is happening. What I wish to state here is that the Muslim community should be treated with dignity and respect and above all with justice and fairplay at this critical time. While the efforts to combat and control terrorism in the name of Islam should continue, such efforts should not be allowed to turn into a virtual witch hunt of innocent Muslims. Let us not forget that the Muslims are a vibrant strand of the multi-ethnic, multi -religious Sri Lankan nation. The current phase is indeed a troubling time for Sri Lankan Muslims but this too shall pass “Inshaah Allaah” or as God Wills.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of May 4, 2019. It can be accessed here-