Zahran Hashim: radical Islamist linked to Lanka blasts

A video released by the Islamic State group after it claimed responsibility for bombs that killed 359 people, appears to prominently feature Hashim. AFP Photo

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.

The other seven all wear the same black tunics but their faces are obscured by black-and-white chequered scarves.

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 identified, albeit with his name misspelled as Hashmi, by police as heading NTJ.

The IS video was the first concrete evidence of the apparently central role played by Hashim in the Easter 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.

In one, the cleric with an unkempt black beard, delivers an extremist diatribe against non-Muslims, with a crudely photoshopped backdrop of flags in flames.

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 Koran 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.

"Zahran belonged to an average Muslim middle-class family. He was a drop-out," said Ahamed, adding that the cleric had studied at an Islamic college in Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority city in eastern Sri Lanka.

He was considered a menace by the local Muslim community and caused trouble at Kattankudy's Thowheeth mosque.

"The mosque saw continuous conflict with the traditional mosque goers. Once Zahran took a sword out to kill people belonging to the traditional Muslim mosque," Ahamed said.

Local media said Hashim formed the NTJ in Kattankudy in 2014.

There was still confusion Wednesday about whether that group, or a splinter organisation, carried out the Easter attack.

"There has been a group that has split from the main body," of the NTJ, Deputy Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said.

"We believe that the leader of this group has also committed suicide in one of the attacks," he added, refusing to confirm if he was referring to Hashim or someone else.

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.

"The biggest concern is Zahran," said an officer close to the investigation.

"Anyone who can help us trace him will be doing everyone a huge favour," the official added. "We have not been able to account for him yet."

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