The Making of Wahhabi Zealots in Sri Lanka, 1980s-2019

Michael Roberts

All those addressing the fervour that promoted the killing work of the Zahran Hashim jihadist network in Sri Lanka in April 2019 must come to grips with the modern currents of Wahhabi political thinking that go back to the outpourings of the Egyptian intellectuals Sayyid Qutb[1] and Al-Zawahiri[2] in the latter half of the 20th century. This step will then take investigators to the Al-Qaida movement[3] and thence to the more recent brand of Wahhabism embodied within ISIS.

Sayyid Qutb  al-Zawahiri

Zahran and associates

Though I deploy the metaphor of a “current,” these forces were not one singular stream. There were internal debates and dissensions promoting sharp enmities among these radicals. Indeed. most extremist currents of political fervour in the past centuries, whether Fascist, Communist, or ‘Emancipationist,’ have thrived on internal dissension and splits. The research work of Ameer Ali and Amarnath Amarasingam has revealed the fervour and animosities among the ardent Muslims of the Kattankudy-Samanturai area in the Eastern Province which spawned the Zahran Hashim cell.[4] Ameer Ali has also marked the importance of the earlier political work associated with the lawyer politician MAM Ashraff in the 1980s (before he died tragically in a helicopter crash).

This history within the staunch Islamic streams of thinking in the Eastern Province reminds one of a similar process among youthful Tamil personnel in the north and east in the 1970s-to-1990s. Tamil militancy was fostered in part by internal debate and fratricidal killings during this period – with the LTTE ultimately displaying a ruthless efficiency in eliminating or weakening the other militant outfits to the degree that they could not survive within the northern and eastern reaches under Tiger rule.

Several Muslims in the north and east were part of the Tiger cadre in the 1980s, but for reasons that I am not familiar with, a sharp split emerged within the two peoples in Eastern Province. The Tamil Tiger forces under Karuna Amman directed their murderous practices at Muslims at worship in the Kattankudy mosque on 3rd August 1990 and massacred 140; [then] “nine days later they killed another 122 Muslims at a mosque in Eravur” (Amarasingham 2019). This led Pirapāharan and the Tiger leaders in the north to force all Muslims living in the Jaffna Peninsula to leave their longstanding homes with lock, stock and barrel and to move to government territory in the south. This sudden, scarring and economically awesome cruelty was imposed in October 1990.[5]

Mark these moments. Note that almost as many Muslims were killed at Kattankudy and Eravur as the toll of 359 dead exacted on innocent people on Easter Sunday in 2019.[6] We must, therefore, ponder this question: in what ways did this suffering and its memories promote extremist thinking among Muslims in the East and inspire the emergence of deadly zealots of the Zahran Hashim type?

This line of inquiry does not negate the fact that more recent currents of Wahhabi ideology identified with ISIS were probably the predominant inspirations for Zahran Hashim and his colleagues. When Baghdadi and other ISIS stalwarts sprang up in 2013/14 and proclaimed themselves a Caliphate in June 2014, they secured a propaganda coup.

The concept of a Caliphate is attractive to Muslim intellectuals and the Muslim faithful. It is a totem of past greatness and political power. For many Muslims in today’s context, it immediately evokes a fighting pinnacle in opposition to Western power and eminence.[7]

Western Symbols of Eminence

The attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 21st April 2019 called for careful planning and synchronization. But why was Easter Sunday chosen? Why choose three Catholic churches (with the Zion church in the Batticaloa area becoming a last-minute substitute for a Catholic target)? There had been no recent history of Muslim conflict with Christians of any denomination in the island. So, …. why?

The answer is clear, albeit via speculative logic. Guided now by the ISIS leaders to whom they had reached out, the Zahran Hashim became Wahhabi extremists striking at what they considered to be the symbols of Christian and Western domination in the world today. These symbols were the Papacy and the landmarks of Western affluence and power: Catholic churches on the one hand and, on the other, several grand hotels hosting Western tourists and marking the wealthy degeneracy of the infidels.

To comprehend the Zahran Hashim network one must decipher their mentality. The Easter Sunday targets are the major signifiers. But so too is their sacrificial devotion to cause: each one of them became walking bombs of substantial destruction.

Their zealotry is now being clarified by the research work of Ameer Ali, Amarasingam and several local reporters who have ferreted out details of the splits that occurred in recent years among the Islamic faithful in several towns in the east.

Perhaps the sharpest indication of their zealotry is Zahran Hashim’s visage in the course of his speechmaking and the content of a video message disseminated by him after the Digana riots of March 2013 which saw local Muslims subject to assault from Sinhalese mobs in the Kandy locality. Amarasingam has indicated that Muslims were stunned by Zahran’s diatribe and passed the video on to police. While I have not had access to this evidence, there is little doubt that Zahran’s facial expressions will confirm the zealotry that is etched in the snapshots we already have access to.

To this body of evidence add one more tit-bit generated by Amarasingam’s detective work: “Sometime before they died during the raid, Zahran’s father and his two brothers, Rilwan and Zainee, recorded a shaky cell phone video, which later made the rounds on Telegram channels run by Islamic State supporters. In it, Rilwan, one eye damaged and missing several fingers, declares that they are currently “surrounded by dogs,” signaling that their hideout had been discovered, and says that they will teach the country a lesson for “oppressing the Muslims.”

In my reading the critical clue here is the phrase “Surrounded by dogs.” In colloquial Sinhala speech (and presumably in Tamil too) the term “para ballā” is a penetrating act of condemnation when directed at any person. Stray dogs are curs and dirty, fornicating animals on the loose.

For Muslims, they are doubly vile. Bodily cleanliness is a vital requisite for dutiful Muslims when they pray. Ideally this act of prayer should be five times a day. This precondition of cleanliness demands a good wash before the act. Such demands mean that few Muslims have pet dogs in their house. In brief, to most Sri Lankan Muslims the cur is the epitome of filthy disgust. The sacrificial commitment of Rilwan Hashim is thereby inscribed indelibly in the vocabulary he wielded to condemn those who were about to arrest him.

     ****  ****


Amarasingham, Amarnath 2019 “Jihad on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. The Killers and Their Pathways,” 30 May 2019,

Ameer Ali, ACL  2009a “The Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s,” 5 May 2009,

Ameer Ali, ACL 2019b “How Extremisms have fed off Each Other in Sri Lanka, 1950s-to-2019 … and still proceeding,”  6 May 2019,

Bergen, Peter I. 2001 Holy War Inc. Inside the World of Osama bin Laden, New York, The Free Press.

Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Cook, David 2015 ‘Jihad’, ‘Martyrdom Operations’, and Mohammed Atta’s Injunction in the “Last Night’, before 9/11,12 May 2015,

Fernando, Asiri 2019 “The Thinking and Operational Capacity of the 21/4 Jihadists,” 14 May 2019,

Jeyaraj, DBS 2019 “The Skirmish at Sainthamaruthu and the Suicidal Deaths of Some Wahhabi Jihadists -Jeyaraj as Investigative Journalist,”  2 May 2019, ……………………… ………….  …………

Peiris, Gerald H. 2017 “A Study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka,” 14 September 2017,

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol 30: 857-88.

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War, and Assassination: Tantric Principles in Tamil Tiger Instrumentalities,” Social Analysis, Vol. 58/1, pp. 88–106.

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Where Infighting generates  fervour ….”

Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE yesterday

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,”  3 May 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2019 “The Demons within Sri Lanka. Long-Term Methods of Abatement,” 5 May 2019.

Yalman, Nur 2017 “Wahhabi Ideology is the Root of Islamic Extremism,” 8 October 2017,



[1] See httpsen.wikipedia.orgwikiSayyid_Qutb; OR AND such authors as Cook, Euben and Bergen.


[3] See especially David Cook 2006; but also Roxanne Euben 1999 and Peter Bergen 2001.

[4] See Amarasingam 2019 and Ameer Ali 2019a & 2019b in Bibliography.

[5] See

[6]According to the data in Wikipedia, “the bombings killed 269 people and injured at least 500. Initially, 359 fatalities were reported; the Ministry of Health later reduced the number by 106 after cross-referencing DNA samples to body parts. The majority of the dead are Sri Lankans, with at least 45 foreigners among those killed” (,45%20foreigners%20among%20those%20killed). Note one contrast: The TLTTE’s Strike does not seem to have left anyone wounded; whereas over 500 were wounded in the 21/4 attacks of 2019.

[7] I stress, here, that my summary argument is based on a long and exacting ‘journey’ in studying suicide missions in the Arab world, the Japanese world and elsewhere (for e. g, Vietnam, Jan Palach in Prague) as part of my research into the suicide cult promoted by the LTTE. Roberts 2007 and 2011 will provide a glimpse of this background.

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One response to “The Making of Wahhabi Zealots in Sri Lanka, 1980s-2019

  1. Cassim Rahuman

    From the Fool – a la Shakespeare’: Not so at all. Zahran and his fellows are simply marionettes. The dogs they refer to are the muslims who in the main rejected them and were for that reason landed in the shit bucket to face the ire of the Sinhala/Buddhist knee jerk reaction against them as a result of the Zahran gang’s dastardly and cowardly act. Some hidden hand is trying to destabilize Sri Lanka by inculcating Wahabism which took root as far as it had common ground with the prevailing versions of Islam that it tried to subvert. Having taken root and finding its extreme parts were rejected as evidenced by the complaints to the police by the resisting muslims [who claimed they were ignored as the Wahabi’s had bribed the police] They avenged themselves on the innocent muslims whom they regarded [as per the George Bush Jr principle] that ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’. Please contact me at the mental hospital if further elaboration is required.

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