By Secunder Kermani
Lying on a hospital bed, Mohammad Razak Taslim’s face contorts with pain. The left side of his body is completely paralysed, but he reaches out with his right hand, trying to clutch at his wife and brother-in-law who stand anxiously over him.
His wife, Fatima, presses a handkerchief to his head. One side of his skull has caved in. It’s where he was shot in the head in March. Ever since, he’s been unable to speak, unable to walk.
Police believe Taslim was one of the first victims of the Sri Lankan extremist network, linked to the Islamic State group, that would go on to kill more than 250 people in a series of suicide bombings on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in April.
According to officials he was shot on the orders of the ringleader of the attacks, Zahran Hashim.
Months before the bombings, Taslim, an earnest 37-year-old local politician from a Muslim-majority town in central Sri Lanka, had been at the forefront of efforts to investigate the extremists.
Taslim’s story encapsulates both how the country’s Muslim community actively tried to stop the emergence of radical elements in their midst, and how the authorities failed to recognise repeated warning signs ahead of the Easter attacks.
The town of Mawanella is just a few hours’ drive east of the capital, Colombo. It’s surrounded by a lush green landscape, and the area is dominated by Buddhist and Muslim communities.
In December last year, a number of Buddhist statues around the town were vandalised – an attempt, officials now believe, to inflame tensions and provoke communal rioting.
Taslim was a member of Mawanella’s town council, and also worked as the co-ordinating secretary for a national cabinet minister.
I met his wife, three young children and extended family at their modest home in a village outside Mawanella. Coconuts crashed noisily onto the roof from the trees above as Fatima told me about her husband.
Taslim often volunteered to help others in the community, she said. He had played a prominent role in organising support for residents affected by floods and landslides in previous years. So, when the Buddhist statues were desecrated, it was natural that he stepped up to help investigate.
“He always used to say people of different races and religions should live together in unity.
“He said, ‘What they did is wrong, our religion does not condone such acts…. We need to catch those responsible.'”
Police made a number of arrests, but the chief suspects, brothers Sadiq and Shaheed Abdul-Haq, disappeared.
The pair would be placed on a “Most Wanted” list after the Easter Sunday bombings and arrested. Their alleged role in the attacks isn’t clear and they are yet to go on trial, but investigators believe Sadiq Abdul-Haq may have travelled to Syria in 2014 and met figures linked to the Islamic State group.
I met one young man in a village close to Mawanella who had been part of the brothers’ inner circle. He wanted to remain anonymous, but claimed they would preach that Sri Lanka “is the land of Allah, and no-one else can be worshipped… Non-Muslims have to convert or pay jizya (an Islamic tax).”
The brothers came from a deeply religious family, and their friend said they regularly talked about the obligations of jihad, both in a spiritual and a military sense.
A cousin of the brothers, Afwan Abdul Haleem, who was a leading figure in an Muslim student organisation they were all part of, told me he had regularly argued with them, telling them that “violent and aggressive behaviour is not accepted in Islam”. In 2015 the organisation expelled both brothers.
Their cousin said the men had been deeply affected by communal riots around the nearby city of Kandy in 2018, when Buddhist mobs targeted Muslim-owned businesses and residents.
Sadiq Abdul Haq allegedly said: “They are taking away our lives, our properties… We have to do something,” his cousin claimed.
After the Abdul-Haq brothers went on the run, Taslim was involved in efforts to track them down, and kept in touch with police investigating the case. At one point he walked with them deep into the jungle where it was thought the brothers were hiding.
In January detectives told him they had received new and startling information during the interrogation of some of those suspected of vandalising the Buddhist statues – a stash of explosives had been hidden in a remote piece of farmland about 100 miles away.
Taslim went with detectives to the site, a coconut grove in the north-west of the country. There police discovered nearly 100kg of explosives, detonators, tents and a camera.
Taslim’s wife says when he returned home, he was worried. “There must be more explosives out there,” he told her. “We must get together as a community, find those responsible and deal with them.”
The volume of explosives found should have alerted the authorities to the danger of a jihadist attack. But while four people were arrested, in a country where the security forces had long focused on the dangers posed by ethnic Tamil separatists, it seems the possibility of Islamist violence wasn’t regarded as a high priority.
It has now been revealed that the explosives found on the farmland are linked to some of those directly involved in the suicide bombings, including the ringleader, Zahran Hashim.
Hashim was a preacher from the east of Sri Lanka. He too had been flagged as an extremist long before the attacks.
Over the years, he had repeatedly fallen out with mainstream Muslim groups, both in his home town, and in other places he visited, including a village close to Mawanella.
He became well-known for uploading fiery videos on social media. In one, the background is an image from the 9/11 attacks.
Hilmy Ahamed, the vice-president of Sri Lanka’s Muslim Council, says he and other members of the council were shocked by the level of hate in the online sermons and raised concerns with the intelligence services.
But the authorities couldn’t manage to track Hashim down and prosecute him. Ahamed admitted he “never dreamt” that Hashim would go on to “become a threat to the entire nation”.
But we now know Hashim was plotting to carry out a deadly attack in Sri Lanka, and after the discovery of the explosives, it seems he was worried Taslim was getting in the way of his plans.
A senior Sri Lankan police source told me that one of Hashim’s close associates confessed that Hashim ordered Taslim be killed for acting as an “informant”.
In March, just over a month before the Easter attacks, a gunman quietly entered Taslim’s house in the early hours of the morning. He was lying in bed, next to his wife, and his youngest son. The gunman shot him once in the head.
“At first I thought the phone charger had exploded, but I looked and it was fine,” Taslim’s wife told me. “Then I tried to wake him up, and I could smell gunpowder… I reached out to him and I realised he wasn’t conscious. I thought he was dead.”
Taslim was rushed to hospital. He survived the attack, but it’s not clear if he will ever fully recover.
Sri Lanka’s army commander, Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake, is now playing a leading role in the investigation into the Easter Bombings. He told me it had been confirmed that the “same network” was also responsible for the desecration of the Buddhist statues, the explosives hidden in the coconut grove, and the shooting of Taslim.
He admitted that the previous incidents should have made the authorities more alert to the dangers of a jihadist attack. Instead, warnings in the days and hours leading up the bombings weren’t followed up by the Indian security services, due to what the army commander referred to as problems with “intelligence sharing” between different departments.
Taslim’s family say, despite his injuries, he is able to understand what they say to him, and occasionally, to scribble responses. When he learned of the Easter attacks, his wife says he wrote her a message and began to cry, “I told you something like this could happen.”
In the aftermath of the bombings there have been episodes of anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka, with shops attacked and at least one person killed. Claims that the community is harbouring terrorists have angered many Muslims, especially in light of the repeated attempts to help police or raise concerns with the authorities.
Taslim’s wife is proud of his sacrifice. “He would say to us, ‘I’ve given you everything you need, so we should work on reaching paradise in the afterlife… We have to help those around us, that’s what our religion teaches.'”