Zahran Hashim, Kattankudy and the Islamic State in Sri Lanka.

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

The final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday attacks was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the Chairman of the Commission Supreme Court judge Janak de Silva at the Presidential Secretariat on February 1st 2021. Former President Maithripala Sirisena appointed the Commission of Inquiry on September 22, 2019 to investigate and report on the series of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday and to recommend necessary action based on the findings. The first and second interim reports were handed over to President on December 20, 2019 and on March 02, 2020 respectively.

pic via: Screengrab of video by Aamaq

The report’s release has once again drawn attention to Mohammed Zahran Mohomed Hashim known as Zahran Hashim. The fiery Muslim preacher from Kattankudy in Batticaloa was a man about whom very little was known outside of Islamic circles before the Easter Sunday bombings. However his name is now a household word as the alleged mastermind behind the Terror attacks on April 21st 2019. This column intends to focus on Zahran Hashim alias “Abu Ubaidah” and his deadly legacy this week.

Kattankudy

Mohammed Zahran Mohomed Hashim was born in the Muslim coastal town of Kattankudy in 1985. Kattankudy pronounced in Tamil as ‘Kaathaankudi’ is situated 211 miles away from Colombo in the Eastern littoral known as ‘Ezhuvaankarai’ (shore of the rising sun).It is a very small place with a land area of 2.56 sq. km. and 1.33 sq. km. of inland waterways. Kattankudy is reportedly the most densely populated town in Sri Lanka with 6,726 residents per square kilometre. The 2012 Census estimated the population in the Kattankudy urban council area as at 47,603. Many in Kattankudy dispute these estimates saying thousands of permanent residents who were temporarily away overseas or in other parts of the Island were not counted.

Mosque in Kattankudy

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. 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. So much so that there is a popular saying in Tamil about there being no place in Sri Lanka without a “Kaaham”(crow) or a “Kaathaankdyaan”(Man from Kattankudi)There is also a blooming apparel industry. Kattankudy is reputed for its mats,carpets, sarees and sarongs. Kattankudy was also famous once for its delicious dishes like “Aattukkaal”(Mutton leg) soup, “Moolaippirattal” curry(goat brain scrambled with egg) and fried “Koali Maangaai”(Chicken gizzards).

“Qahtankudy”

Interestingly enough there is a widely held belief among Kattankudi denizens that their ancestors hailed from the Qahtan region of South Arabia in what is present day Yemen. It is said that Arabs who came from Qahtan known as Qahtanis married local Tamil women and got domiciled. The name Kattankudi is said to mean “Qahtan Settlement”. Kattan is derived from Qahtan while Kudi/y means settlement in Tamil. Some years ago there was even a proposal that Kattankudy’s name be changed to “Qahtankudy”. It was rejected. However in recent times Kattankudy has acquired the hallmarks of a small Arabian town. This is due to greater interaction between the people of Katankudy and middle-eastern countries.

In recent times, many Kattankudy residents have sought employment in the Middle-East. 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. Kattankudy 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 and street arcjes have Arabic lettering. Kattankudy has more than 60 registered and unregistered mosques. Except for a handful, most of them are in practice influenced by Wahabi ideology.

It must also be remembered that Kattankudy is the place where the LTTE in 1990 shot and killed people in four mosques while they were praying. 147 died in all. Kattankudy was affected badly in the 2004 tsunami too. 108 were killed and 93 reported missing. Some 2000 dwellings were destroyed or damaged.

Born in 1985

It is in this Kattankudy milieu that Zahran Hashim was born in 1985 to Hayath Mohomed Hashim and Sameema Hashim. It is said that the surname Hashim was earlier spelled as Cassim but later changed to Hashim. The family resided at the Ward 3 area in the town. Zahran was the eldest of five children. Following Zahran were two brothers Zeyin and Rilwan. The youngest two were sisters Madaniya and Yaseera. All of Zahran’s siblings were married with children. The parents as well as siblings with their families were killed in the incident at Sainthamaruthu in Kalmunai where mass suicide was committed. Youngest sister Madaniya and her family staying at Kattankudy survived but she is being held in custody now.

Zahran Hashim himself was married in 2010. His wife Fathima Haadiya is from Kekunagolla near Narammala in the Kurunegala District. She was a student at the Kekunagolla National School when the wedding took place. They had two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was killed in the Sainthamaruthu safe house explosion.. The mother and daughter Ruzaniya who was four years old then escaped death with minor injuries. Haadiya too is under detention now.

Jamiyyathul Al-Falah Madrasa

After obtaining primary and secondary education up to GCE O/L at a government school in Kattankudy, Zahran enrolled at the Jamiyyathul Al-Falah Madrassa (Theological College) in Ward 4 of Kattankudy in 2001. He was a very bright student but soon fell foul with his teachers due to his insolence and contrarian views. Young Zahran became very fluent in Arabic and was soon attracted to fundamental Islam and Tawheedism encapsuling the ‘indivisible oneness concept of monotheism in Islam.’

Zahran Hashim became extremely rebellious at the Madrassa and argued vehemently with his teachers. He also refused to abide by norms and rules. As a result, he was expelled from Al–Falah Madrassa in 2007. Had he completed his full course of studies, Zahran would have become a ‘Moulavi’ or religious scholar/teacher. But he did not and therefore was officially denied such status. In later years, many of his followers addressed him as Zahran Moulavi and Hashim did not correct them. Some of his disciples opined that Zahran had completed his studies at a school in the South.

After being ejected from the Madrassa, Zahran Hashim attached himself to Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaat. Tawheed, also spelled as Thawheed and Tawhid, denotes oneness with God. The Oxford dictionary of Islam states as follows: Tawhid is the defining doctrine of Islam. It declares absolute monotheism—the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe. Used by Islamic reformers and activists as an organising principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Jamaat on the other hand means assembly or congregation in Arabic.

There are different organisations in India and Sri Lanka calling themselves Tawheed Jamaat. In India, there is the Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaat (TNTJ) which is closely associated with its Sri Lankan counterpart, Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaat (SLTJ). Some members of Sri Lankan Tawheed Jamaat split from SLTJ due to its perceived subservience to the Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaat and formed Ceylon Tawheed Jamaat (CTJ).

National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ)

Zahran Hashim initially worked with the SLTJ in Kattankudy after his Madrassa studies ended abruptly. But Zahran with his ultra-radical views was soon at loggerheads with SLTJ. He then struck out on his own and formed his own organisation called National Tawheed Jamaat (NJT). Associated with Zahran in this venture was his one-time mentor Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Naufer known as Naufer Mpulavi. Neither SLTJ nor CNT in Sri Lanka had anything to do with Zahran Hashim’s National Tawheed Jamaat. Although short of funds, Zahran set up a makeshift prayer centre at a wooden shed in Kattankudy and got down to work. There were unproven allegations by his rivals that a prominent Sri Lankan intelligence agency had infiltrated the NJT and even “turned” Zahran into being a paid informant. There were few takers then for these conspiracy theories.

Hashim was a very powerful orator in Tamil and Arabic. He was forcefully effective in putting his viewpoint across. Soon Zahran Hashim became a popular figure in Kattankudy. Furthermore, he was invited by Muslim devotees in different parts of the island to conduct religious lectures. Zahran Hashim travelled to many districts in Sri Lanka to address Muslim congregations. It was during the course of such visits to the Northwestern Province that he met his wife Fathima Haadiyaa in Kekunagolla and married her. She was introduced to Zahran by Naufer Moulavi who was married to Haadiya’s aunt.

Zahran Hashim with his ultra-radical views and flowery speeches became a magnet for young people of both sexes. He opened a Tamil website for NJT and propagated his viewpoint. This attracted many in Tamil Nadu as well as those from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu who were working in gulf countries. He later operated a Facebook account on the same lines. Soon donations began to pour in. The NJT Mosque was now housed in a modern building at New Kattankudy – Ward 3.

‘Tharul Athar Athaviya.’

Although Zahran’s oratory was relished by many at meetings, not many participated in the prayers conducted at the National Tawheed Jamaat Mosque also known as ‘Tharul Athar Athaviya.’ This may have been due to the proliferation of different mosques in Kattankudy. Though mosque attendance was poor, Zahran Hashim was able to draw large crowds for the outside meetings where he spoke. He would also walk around the town at times and hold wayside meetings at random.

One particular incident that boosted his ego and enhanced his popularity was a public debate between Zahran and a Tamil-speaking Muslim scholar attached to the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The meeting held near the Aliyar junction in Kattankudy began at 3.00 p.m. and went on for 10 hours till 1.00 a.m. The academic was a well-read scholar but his command of the Tamil language was not very good. Zahran Hashim ran rings around his much-qualified, more knowledgeable opponent. It is said that the academic was no match for the wit, witticisms and repartees of Zahran Hashim. The audience of about 3000 applauded Zahran enthusiastically on that occasion. The membership in his NTJ swelled as a result.

Zahran Hashim also travelled around the country enrolling members for his National Tawheed Jamaat. It is said that NJT at one time had about 600 full-fledged members and 4,500 associate members. It is said that he travelled to Tamil Nadu, the Maldives and some Middle-Eastern countries to conduct meetings with expatriate workers from Sri Lanka and India. National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) began to grow in strength and influence. Still Zahran Hashim was virtually unknown outside segments of Muslim society in Sri Lanka and India. Zahran was however a ‘pain in the neck’ to many other mainstream Muslim organisations and their leaders on account of his ‘radical populism.’

Even as NTJ began developing into a significant entity, Zahran Hashim’s political thinking became more and more extreme. He began sympathising openly with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).. The turning point came in June 2014 when ISIS re-branded itself as Islamic State (IS) and announced the creation of a ‘Caliphate’ (Islamic State) erasing all State borders and making Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi the self-declared supreme leader of the world’s estimated 1.5 billion Muslims. Thereafter, Zahran Hashim became an avid propagandist of IS in Tamil. He kept posting news items about IS battlefronts in Tamil and also wrote opinion pieces in support. Zahran Hashim was seen as the voice of IS in some Muslim circles.

Baduriya Mosque

Everything seemed hunky-dory for him but Zahran Hashim got into trouble by overreaching himself. To most Wahabi influenced Muslims in Kattankudy, the Baduriya Mosque at the Aliyar junction in Ward 6 is anathema. This is because Baduriya Mosque adheres more to mystical Islam known as ‘Sufism’ and adopts practices such as paying homage to saints and indulging in grave worship. Wahabis regard this as blasphemous and heretical.

So in an ill-advised bid to teach a lesson to Baduriya Mosque people, Zahran Hashim organised a National Tawheed Jamaat meeting at the Aliyar junction in close proximity to the mosque. When the meeting commenced on March 16, 2017, speaker after speaker made insulting references to Baduriya Mosque. The intention was to provoke Baduriya Mosque devotees. Zahran Hashim had brought clubs and swords clandestinely to the venue and kept them concealed on the stage. As expected, Baduriya Mosque devotees were provoked by the insults and retaliated by pelting stones at the stage. Zahran Hashim and his followers then set upon their rivals and attacked them with swords and clubs.

In the clash that ensued several persons on both sides were injured. Three sustained serious injuries and were hospitalised. The people of Kattankudy were incensed at the violence done in the name of religion. A protest demonstration organised by the Baduriya Mosque management opposite the Kattankudy Islamic museum was well attended. There was tremendous pressure on the police to take action. As a result, nine from NTJ Mosque and two from Baduriya Mosque were arrested and remanded for several months. These included Zahran’s brother Zeyin. Zahran himself was wanted by the police. He chose to evade arrest by absconding. A story was spread in Kattankudy that Hashim had gone to the Maldives.

Tamil Nadu and Kerala

Zahran Hashim left Kattankudy and moved to the Northwestern Province from where his wife hailed. After spending some time in Sri Lanka, Zahran relocated to India where he began interacting with Muslim extremist groups in the South Indian States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He moved frequently without staying at one place for a lengthy period. His sojourns were mostly in the Malappuram District of Kerala and the Coimbatore. Trichy, Thirunelvely, Vellore, Nagapattinam. Kanniyakumari and Ramanathapuram Districts of Tamil Nadu. All these districts have sizeable Muslim populations.

Zahran spent a considerable period of time in the Ramanathapuram District. He is reported to have addressed meetings in Muslim villages like Azhagankulam, Sitharkottai, Athiyoothu, Puthuvalassai, Panaikkulam and the Muslim majority coastal town of Keezhakkarai. It is said that he openly advocated the IS cause in these places and canvassed for volunteers to join the fighting forces of IS. It is during this time that Zahran came to the attention of Indian intelligence services. It is also suspected that Zahran Hashim set up a smuggling link between Keezhakkarai on the Ramanathapuram coast in India and Kalpitiya in the Puttalam coast of Sri Lanka.

It was during his lengthy stay in India that Zahran Hashim underwent a transformation. From a radical activist propagating fundamental Islamic ideology and eulogising the Islamic State, Zahran Hashim turned into an exponent of armed militancy and practitioner of violence. In a remarkable turnaround, Zahran Hashim resolved to return to Sri Lanka and engage in violence for what he thought was the cause of Islam.

Jamaate Millat Ibrahim (JMI)

After returning to Sri Lanka Zahran began cultivating links with rich and educated supporters of the Islamic State(IS). The aim was to enlist more volunteers to go to the middle-east and fight for the IS. But the anti-Muslim violence in Amparain in February 2018 and the Kandy district anti-Muslim violence of March 2018 made him change his mind. Zahran now wanted to attack a symbolic target like the Ruwanweliseya or Esala Perahera. New members were recruited, arms and explosives collected and arms training workshops held. This new extremism caused a split in the NTJ. Zahran and his more militant disciples began functioning as a separate entity in tandem with the Jamaate Millat Ibrahim (JMI).

The Islamic State (IS) objective of eliminating or subjucating the “Kaffirs” (non -believers/infidels) and establishing a world-wide Islamic “Calpihate” was something which Zahran embraced wholeheartedly. I have seen some video clips of his speeches. They were very powerful spectacles of persuasive oratory of an inhuman nature. He referred to the Christians as “Siluvai Vanangihal”(worshippers of the cross) and Hindus and Buddhists as “Silai Vanangihal”(worshippers of statues). While calling for the destruction of “Kaffirs”, Zahran emphasized one point strongly. He said that even if the Kaffirs were good people friendly and helpful towards Muslims, they had to be destroyed when necessary.

Damaged church, on Easter Sunday

Those disturbing words came brutally alive when Zhnran and his followers launched the Easter bombings of April 21st 2019. Two Catholic Churches,Two upmarket Tourist Hotels and an Evangelical Church were targeted in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa near simultaneously. Suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies exploded themselves while worship was on in Churches and breakfast being partaken of in Hotels. 268 people were killed and over 500 injured as a result of that “bloody”Easter Sunday. It is suspected that the Islamic State (IS) persuaded Zahran into attacking Hotels and Churches. It is also believed Naufer Moulavi played an important role in influencing Zahran. Naufer Moulavi succeeded Zahran as leader of the group after his demise. He was however arrested within a few days after Easter in Dambulla. The original plan was for Zahran and dedicated accomplices like the Ibrahim brothers commit suicide attacks first. This was to be followed by a second wave of more suicide attacks. This did not take place as security authorities arrested Naufar and many others in an intensive crackdown. More importantly the Muslim people at large were horrified by the attack and condemned those responsible.

Islamic State (IS)

Two days after the Easter attack, the international ‘Jihadist’ or Islamic militant movement known officially as Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the terror and horror of ‘bloody’ Easter in Sri Lanka attributing the attacks to “Islamic State fighters”.A few days later in April 2019, the then-leader of ISIS Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi praised the attackers for what he called a retaliation against “the West” for defeating ISIS the previous month in Baghuz, Syria.

The IS, known earlier as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), aims at establishing a worldwide ‘Caliphate’ or a single Islamic government. In 2014, the IS controlled extensive swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Subsequently the areas held by IS shrank greatly, thanks to the military defeats inflicted by the US-led coalition of forces.

While the IS adopted positional warfare to preserve territorial control in the Middle-East, it also resorted to brutal terrorist attacks on a worldwide basis at another level. After its territorial hold began to diminish in Iraq and Syria due to military reversals, the IS began to intensify and accelerate terrorist attacks elsewhere. This was to demonstrate that the movement could not be crushed by the loss of territory and that it possessed a lethal, global reach. In order to carry out attacks in other parts of the world, the IS utilised militant Islamic organisations in those countries as agents by outsourcing deadly missions of violence to those entities. This is what is deemed to have happened in the case of Sri Lanka too.

Damaged hotel in the aftermath of the bombings

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the USA, men who were part of a group of ISIS supporters which called itself “ISIS in Sri Lanka “ had collaborated with IS in carrying out the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. Zahran and his followers were some kind of IS “wannabees” copy catting the real Mccoys. It appears that Zahran Hashim and his group provided manpower while the Islamic State supplied the input and technical expertise necessary for the explosive attacks. The blueprint for the well-coordinated attacks, aimed at shocking Sri Lanka in particular and the world at large, seems to have been devised by IS strategic planners too. Four Maldivian naionals who were IS operatives are suspected of being responsible in this regard. It is believed that Zahran Hashim was the linchpin in this lethal nexus between the Islamic State and the “ISIS in Sri Lanka”.

“Abu Ubaidah”

. Zahran Hashim alias ‘Abu Ubaida’ was one of the two suicide bombers who targeted 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 Muhammad. 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

Tragically the violence done has been perpetrated by a group of Sri Lankan Muslims for what is said to be a Pan-Islamic cause. 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) 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 have been suffering immensely in more ways than one.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” in the “Daily Mirror” of March 20th 2021. It can be accessed here:

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Zahran-Hashim-Kattankudy-and-the-Islamic-State-in-Sri-Lanka/172-208185