Leader of Islamic Group Blamed for Sri Lankan Easter Attacks Called for Non-Muslims to be Eliminated

By Zachary Stieber

The leader of a radical Islamic group who Sri Lankan authorities said was behind the Easter Sunday suicide bombings began posting videos online three years ago calling for all non-Muslims to be eliminated, according to Muslim leaders.

National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) was named by Sri Lankan officials as behind the bombings, which left 321 people dead and 500-plus others injured.

The Islamic group was headed by Zahran Hashim, who was also known as Mohammed Zahran. According to Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka, he became known to them about three years ago.

“It was basically a hate campaign against all non-Muslims,” said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “Basically, he was saying non-Muslims have to be eliminated.”

Relatives carry a coffin for burial
Relatives carry a coffin for burial during the funerals of three members of the same family, all died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22, 2019. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo)

Ahamed and N.M. Ameen, president of the council, claimed to have alerted authorities to Hasmhi but said they took no action.

Intelligence officials in the country said they received intel about a planned attack on churches by NTJ but took little action, apologizing after the bombings took place.

Anne Speckhard, the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said that she was at a conference in February when a Sri Lankan intelligence official approached her and described a violent, homegrown jihadi group that “would just disappear” when the government tried to crack down on them.

“The intel person kind of came up to me and said, ‘You know, we’re kind of worried about this new group and there’s some activity going. What do you think?'” Speckhard said. “It just kind of blows my mind that’s who it was.”

Security personnel observe three minutes of silence
Security personnel observe three minutes of silence as a tribute to victims near St. Anthony Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 23, 2019. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

While NTJ was blamed for the attack, Sri Lankan officials said it was a “small organization” that had “an international network” for support. Investigators said the bombings were apparently in retaliation for the March 15 shootings of 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand.

ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the Sri Lankan bombings on April 23 through its Amaq propaganda agency.

Some 40 people were being questioned about the attacks, including a Syrian, officials said on Tuesday.

While video footage of one bomber entering a church outside Colombo was released by security officials, staff at a hotel in the capital said another bomber stood in the buffet line before setting off a blast.

A police officer inspects the damage from a suicide bomber’s explosion at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

One bomber was identified as Isan Setiawan, named by some outlets as Insan Seelawan, owner of a copper factory.

According to local outlet Leaders Online, Zahran Hashim was the second bomber at the Shangri-la Hotel. Despite the slightly different spelling of his last name, the outlet said he and other colleagues started the NTJ group due to their extreme views, breaking away from established groups such as Sri Lanka Tawhid Jamath and Indian Tawhid Jamath.

According to a police report from 2016, Hasim and his followers held a meeting outside another mosque, bringing swords and clubs that they used in a clash with people in the area. Police wanted to apprehend him but he fled the area and was believed to have left the country, possibly relocating to the Maldives.

No one knew where he was until he showed back up to set off one of the bombs, according to the outlet.

suicide bomber seen entering church
A suicide bomber enters St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a CCTV handout footage of Easter Sunday attacks released on April 23, 2019. (CCTV/Siyatha News via Reuters)

Intelligence sources told AFP that two Muslim brothers carried out two of the hotel blasts, with one targeting the Shangri-La and the other going to the Cinnamon Grand Colombo. Both were members of NTJ, one official said. Their names have not been publicly revealed.

“What we have seen from the CCTV footage is that all the suicide bombers were carrying very heavy backpacks. These appear to be crude devices made locally,” a source said.

From the information that appeared in the report, it appeared that the brother who bombed the Shangri-La was Setiawan, as other information stated by police in court said that his wife set off a bomb when police arrived at their home following the bombings.

The couple’s two children were killed in the blast.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.