Ameen Izzadeen and Abdullah Shahnawaz from Kattankudy, in Sunday Times, 28 April 2019, where the title reads “Lightning, thunder and a blast: On the trail of terror leader”
April 18: A young Kattankudy woman visits her old parents living in a house in a nearby area to give them lunch. That was the last time she saw them. She assumes the father who was complaining of a leg pain, has gone, accompanied by the mother, to see a native physician in Kinniya. But he never goes anywhere without informing the daughter. This puzzles her, but on April 21, she pieces the puzzle together and realises her family’s involvement in the worst ever terror attack to shake this country.
April 21: Eight explosions take place in three churches, three hotels, a wayside inn and a house. Some 250 people are killed and hundreds wounded.
Hours after the blasts, a police intelligence document is circulated in the social media; it carried a warning about terrorist attacks to be carried out by Kattankudy-based National Thowheed Jamath’s Leader Zahran ‘Hashimi’. To uncover the Kattankudy links with the events since April 16, a Sunday Times team visited the area, the home town of terrorist leader Zahran, one of the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the Shangri-La hotel restaurant.
The story begins in 2001. A 15-year-old boy is enrolled in Jamiathul Falah Arabic College situated on the Village Road in Kattankudy, which gets its name from the Qahtan region in Yemen. The Qahtanis who came to Sri Lanka married Tamil women and settled down here. Hence the area gets its name Qahtan-kudi or Kattankudy; ‘Kudi’ in Tamil means a settlement.
The Arabic college, established in 1955, teaches traditional Islam as expounded by Imam Shafi, an eighth-century Gaza-born Islamic scholar hailed as Sheikh-ul-Islam. Students here memorise the Quran, the Muslim holy book. It contains 6,236 verses. Muslims believe the verses were revealed by Allah to His messenger Muhammad. Students here are taught the Arabic language, Islamic jurisprudence and Hadeeth science. Hadeeth are collections of the Prophet’s teachings. They were compiled by latter day scholars.
Zahran Cassim or Qasimi – not Hashimi, as reported in the Police intelligence report — came from a poverty-stricken background. His father did not have a proper job. The boy was given food and lodging at the Madrasa. Sometimes, school officials had bought him clothes.
We visited the school and spoke to Vice Principal As-Sheikh Mohammed Aliyar Falahi, a product of the same school. He is also the Batticaloa District’s president of the Colombo-based Jamiyathul Ulema, an umbrella organisation of Muslim scholars. Wearing a long grey beard and clad in a white Kurta and sarong, the Sheikh meets us in the school’s library and vehemently condemns the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks as an un-Islamic barbaric act.
He says Zahran and his younger brother Zain, who was also a student in the same school, had memorised the Quran. But in the fourth academic year, Zahran, who was by then 18, started having contrary views. “Our teaching is based on the Quran and Hadeeth, but Zahran had different views. We felt he was trying to bring a ‘Naveena Markam’ or a new religion. We wear the skull cap when we pray, but he opposed this practice. We pray 20 units of ‘Taraweeh’ prayers during Ramadan, but he argued that we should pray only eight units,” he said.
Zahran’s revolt in 2005 came at a time when the Thowheed Jamath was spreading its tentacles to Muslim-dominated areas. However, the Thowheed ideology first made its presence felt in Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s; some would say even decades before that. Prior to this, the Tabligh Jamath, the Jamath-e-Islami and a host of Sufi orders known as Tareeqas were popular in Sri Lanka. While the Tabligh Jamath and the Jamath-e-Islam originated in India during the British colonial period, Tareeqas, which are centuries old, had a Middle Eastern origin and are a mystical form of Islam. Of these groups, the Jamath-e-Islam concentrates on social reforms, while the other two put their emphasis more on matters spiritual. It was to this crowded space that the Thowheed Jamath moved in. The word Thowheed refers to the belief in the oneness of Allah. Jamath means ‘a congregation.’ The irony is that every Muslim believes in the oneness of God. So every Muslim is technically ‘thowheed’.
The Al-Falah school’s administrative officer Moulavi Mohamed Fahim says Zahran appeared to have made contacts with some outside elements during school holidays. “We did not have a Thowheed Jamath presence here then. We found he had violated the school’s code and he was expelled.” After the school sacked him, Zahran joined the Ibn Mas’ood Madrasa in Kurunegala – the hometown of his wife Haadiya, now 23 — to continue his religious education. “For a while, we did not hear anything about him. Then he came back around 2008 to openly preach his version of Islam. He criticised us in his speeches and a few years later he set up a mosque. But we remained silent as we believed silence is the best reply to a fool,” Sheikh Aliyar says.
Before we visited the Jamiathul Falah Arabic College, we went to the mosque that Zahran had set up. The two-storeyed tiled complex, with a glass façade and a parapet wall, is known among the Kattankudy people as the Zahran mosque. Situated on a bylane off Beach Road, it is also the headquarters of the National Thowheed Jamath – the organisation Zahran founded. Many still believe the group was behind the Easter Sunday massacres.
We thought there would be a heavy police and military guard around it. But there was no security presence. Neither were there any signs of an angry mob attack.
We opened the mosque’s gate and went inside. There was no one inside. Some residents showed signs of uneasiness about our presence. We greeted them with “Assalamu Alaikum” and introduced ourselves as journalists from Sri Lanka’s largest selling English newspaper, the Sunday Times. They gradually opened out and began to answer our questions. We learnt that the Police and the Army had conducted a search operation in the mosque the previous day, Tuesday April 23, and questioned the moulavi. Most people said Zahran was a born orator. With his speeches, he could captivate any crowd.
Our Arabic college sacked Zahran for his deviant views, say Vice Principal As-Sheikh Aliyar (right) and Moulavi Fahim
We were puzzled: If the NTJ is behind the attacks, why does it still operate and why are its members not taken in? A police source told us they have been keeping a close watch on every group in Kattankudy since religious rifts had gripped this township in the early 2000s. The rift was between the mainstream Muslims and a Sufi group known as Tareeqatul Mufliheen.
The NTJ has been under Police watch since it was set up in 2012, more so since the March 10, 2017 clash between NTJ followers and a Sufi group led by Moulavi Abdul Rauf. The Kattankudy people refer to this incident as the Aliyar junction clash.
Though the mainstream Muslims disagree with Moulavi Abdul Rauf’s Sufi interpretation that consider God and Prophet Muhammad as one, they decided to put up with him. But the NTJ vehemently opposed Abdul Rauf’s group. On March 10, 2017, Zahran organised a public meeting outside Abdul Rauf’s Baduriya Jumma mosque at the Aliyar junction. It ended up in a clash. This was Zahran’s first tryst with violence. According to a complaint made by Abdul Rauf’s group, Zahran and his followers had come armed with swords, clubs and petrol bombs. Police who arrived at the scene arrested two NTJ members and later seven more were arrested. Among them were Zahran’s father Cassim and brother Zain. They were on remand for seven months and released on bail. The case is still going on.
Zahran and his other brother Rilwan gave police the slip and went underground. And it was during this period, many in Kattankudy believe, that he converted to ISIS-ism and came to be known as Abu Ubaida. Some have heard that he and his family lived in Mawanella, where, in December last year, a group of youths damaged several Buddha statues.
Civil society members tell us that, from time to time, they provided information about Zahran’s activities to the police. The information included inflammatory speeches Zahran and his group had posted on YouTube. In one such video with pictures showing the Digana riots forming the backgroud, he urges Muslims to take up arms to kill non-Muslims, military and police personnel and Muslims who preach peace and co-existence. He warns that every attack on Muslims will be avenged.
We visited the Zahran mosque for a second time, this time after the afternoon ‘Zuhr’ prayers. There was much activity in the mosque. We saw a youth praying — and in the centre of the mosque, the NTJ’s new leader, Moulavi Mohamed Yousuf Mohamed Thowfeeq, was being interviewed by Der Spiegel journalists. When our turn came, we greeted him with Salaams and introduced ourselves. And what we heard, if true, was shocking.
Moulavi Thowfeek insists that the Criminal Investigations Department and Terrorist Investigations Division sleuths regularly visit the mosque to get statements from him. He says he has shared information he knew about Zharan. He says he even informed them about the dangerous material Zahran had posted on his Facebook page – about his view that parliament should be destroyed, that Muslims should disobey the country’s law and about violence. “The NTJ has nothing to do with Zahran, though he was the founder. In December 2017, our membership decided Zahran should be expelled from the movement,” says Moulavi Thowfeeq, showing us a copy of the letter of dismissal.
He also shows us a statement the NTJ has issued condemning the April 21 terror attacks. “Islam vehemently condemns terrorism,” he says, stressing that the suicide bombers responsible for Sunday’s slaughter were ‘naragavaadigal’ or dwellers of Hell. “We are a law-abiding group.”
We find out that, as State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said this week, the NTJ is split. The suicide squad responsible for Sunday’s attacks, the government said on Friday, consists of members who were removed from the NTJ and members of a splinter group of a little known organisation called Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) – or the Congregation of (Prophet) Abraham’s Faith.
As a man who once closely associated with the terrorist leader, what does Moulavi Thowfeeq know about him?
He tells us that Zahran visited Japan in 2008 on what he claimed to be a three-month lecture tour. According to Moulavi Thowfeeq, Zahran, upon his return, boasted about giving lectures in Urdu, though “we know he did not know Urdu.” As to who invited him, nobody knows. In 2008, ISIS was unheard of. It was the reign of Al-Qaeda terror. But in 2008, Zahran was not preaching poison. On the contrary, he was seen as a reformer. He was then a member of an organisation called Darul-Athar. It organised conferences on social issues such as drug abuse, corporal punishment and sexual harassment.
Though he was hailed as a good orator, his speeches had more sound than substance. “He would misquote Hadeeth. He would not admit to his mistakes. He was adamant,” said Moulavi Thowfeeq.
This led to his expulsion from Darul Athar. He then built a small shed where the mosque now stands and called it an Islamic centre. In 2012, he founded the National Thowheed Jamath.
A salient feature in many Thowheed movements is that members do not follow their leaders blindly. They obey the leader only as far as his conduct and preaching conform to the Quran and the ‘authentic’ Hadeeth.
Moulavi Thowfeeq says everything was going well until the March 2017 incident. He says he took over as acting NTJ leader after Zahran went underground.
Moulavi Thowfeeq says NTJ members noticed a change in Zahran’s views on many Islamic issues, while he was in hiding. So the NTJ decided to remove Zahran from the movement. Zahran’s brother Zain, who had just been released on bail, signed the dismissal letter. But Zain was playing a game, Moulavi Thowfeeq notes. Soon Zain began to show his true colours. Like his brother Zahran, he was pushing the group towards extremism. He was insisting on Niqab or the full face cover for women, but this was not the position of NTJ. In August last year, Zain was forced to resign from the NTJ.
With Zahran, Zain and their other brother Rilvan removed from the group, the NTJ started afresh, engaging in social works, the moulavi claims. But the split in the movement also caused a split in Zahran’s family. His sister Mathaniya’s husband, Mohammed Riyaz, a cricket fanatic, also opposed Zahran’s extremism.
We went to their house, a stone’s throw away from the NTJ mosque. The verandah is barely enough to accommodate six chairs. The house has only two small rooms. The couple have two children. Riyaz, who introduced himself as a small-time threewheel spare parts dealer and humanitarian worker, says as he was opposed to his brother-in-law’s extremism, they parted ways in 2017 and have had no connections since then.
Endorsing her husband’s views, Mathaniya enters the conversation. She says what her brother did was “Desha Drogam” (treason) and her family has nothing to do with it. “Till he went underground in 2017, he was good. He would buy household items for us. Whenever he came to our house, we saw him on the laptop visiting Arabic language Islamic websites,” she says insisting that whoever committed Sunday’s dastardly act should be punished according to the law of the country. She says her brother was probably influenced by someone or some group from outside, as there was none known to be espousing such extremism in Kattankudy.
Mathaniya reveals that on April 18 she met her parents when she visited them to give a packet of lunch. But in the evening, a person who had stood bail for her father visited her to find out where her parents had gone. She phoned her father several times, but his mobile phone had been switched off. She soon realises her younger sister Yaseera, 20, and her husband along with their one-year-old child had also left the village. Who took them away, she does not know.
Perhaps, it was her brother Zain, the suicide bomber at the Katuwapiritya church, or the other brother Rilwan, who blasted himself at the Zion church in Batticaloa. Zain was seen in the village weeks before the attacks.
Was Zain then involved in the dry run – the Scooty motorbike bomb at Palamunai? We went in search of this site. Passing the Naduoda Palli (mosque), we reached the Palamunai beach. From there, we proceeded along a concrete road and a gravel path. After a two kilometre ride, during which we did not see a single person on the road, we reached a desolate area. Enclosures made of corrugated iron sheets indicated that the land had been sold to people. The crime scene had been cordoned off with yellow-and-black tapes. We saw pieces of twisted corrugated iron sheets, uprooted and damaged concrete pillars and rubber remnants of motorcycle tyres and handle covers. They were strewn over an area big enough to accommodate an average church hall.
On April 16, dark clouds over Kattankudy’s skies, perhaps, foreshadowed the deluge of terror. People hurried into their homes. There was rain accompanied by lightning. Then there was thunder; no, it was a blast.
|City of many mosques mourns victims of Sunday’s slaughter
Kattankudy, which normally bustles with life, is a dead town on Wednesday. All shops are closed, and people are scarce on the streets. White pennants hang across small palm trees and date palms on the road’s median strip, while some shops carry banners with messages of condolence for the Easter bombing victims and their families. “This was done by the Muslim people of Kattankudy for three days to condemn the attacks, and as a show of solidarity with the Christian community,” says Eastern Province Governor M.LA.M. Hisbullah. The Hisbullah Cultural Centre, a large building designed in the style of an oriental mosque, also has condolence banners draped along its walls.
The area resembles an under-developed West Asian town more than a town in Sri Lanka, with palm trees and date palms planted all around and a dry and barren terrain. Mosques of all sizes and architectures are present in every corner. These mosques follow different strands of Islam from one another, and its followers maintain their distance from a mosque that isn’t theirs. Despite this, the townspeople co-exist and have done so for years, with an occasional inter-Islamic conflict, like the one in 2017.
“Zahran was not well-received by the people, following his extremist preaching,” says one resident who did not want to be named. The animosity towards the terrorist increased and culminated in the 2017 Aliyar junction conflict, which led him to flee his birthplace and seek refuge in an undisclosed location.
Civil society leaders claim they tipped off police about threats posed by Zahran
Kattankudy’s civil society members had written directly to the top ranks of Sri Lanka’s state intelligence service, informing them of the threat Zahran posed, a civil society member claims. Joining us in a dimly lit library belonging to Jamiathul-ul-Falah Arabic College, M.B.M. Firthous, a school teacher and president of a civil society group, recounts how he and other members of the society began tipping off intelligence officers known to them about Zahran’s cultish ideology and the perils it carried, as far back as two years ago.
This happened following a clash between Zahran’s followers and the followers of Moulawi Abdul Rauf, the leader of a Sufi sect, at the Aliyar Junction in 2017. A police crackdown saw nine suspects arrested, but Zahran had fled the scene and was not seen by most people in Kattankudy since.
Sometime later, when these civil society members enquired from the intelligence officers as to why no action was taken against Zahran and his group, they had expressed their helplessness saying all they could do was to inform their seniors, which they claimed they had done.
Firthous then makes a startling revelation. With ample evidence gathered about Zahran’s sympathy towards the ISIS’s cause, which was available for public display on his Facebook page for years, the civil society group members had drafted a letter and forwarded it to senior intelligence ranks in Colombo four months ago. But they haven’t heard of any follow up actions.
Knowledge of Zahran’s ISIS connections were made known to the local people after he had started distributing ISIS propaganda pamphlets translated into Tamil since 2015. He had also translated ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s sermons and ISIS war songs into Tamil, which were posted on his public Facebook page.
Zahran’s vision of the world or the Islamic State, Firthous said, divided people into three categories. The first are the believers (Muslims), then come the unbelievers who pay the Jizyah tax and are allowed to live, and finally the rest of the unbelievers (and this includes the Muslims that don’t conform to his interpretation of the religion) who have to be killed. This is the same ideology followed by ISIS.
“This is a gross misinterpretation of Islam,” Firthouse says. “There is no such thing in the Quran or Hadeeth.”
Firthous then proceeds to explain the term ‘Thowheed’ as nothing more than the ‘belief in the oneness of God’, which is a principle all Muslims believe. He lamented that Zahran and his group’s actions had now turned the concept into a vile profanity in the minds of Sri Lankans.
“We never resorted to violence. But the recent series of bombings in the churches in Kochchikade, Negombo and Batticaloa and the hotels in Colombo have brought disgrace on us. We feel ashamed. A feeling of guilt is frustrating us when we hear that this act of terrorism has been reportedly committed by a very few radical elements suspected to be from Kattankudy [sic] also.
“The mistake every one of us made is that we did not precisely understand the magnitude of his planning and affiliations.”
Reclining slightly, Firthous utters with a sense of regret and shame that Kattankudy will forever be etched in the minds of other Sri Lankans as a terrorist hub.
“We were recovering from what happened during the war, and I was one of the first to meet Navi Pillay and the UN Human Rights delegation when they came here. Now, no one will be willing to help us,” he laments.