Leader of Islamic Terrorist Group Said to be Behind Easter Bombings Featured in ISIS Video

By Zachary Stieber

The leader of the Islamic terrorist group authorities said was behind the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka was featured in a new video that the ISIS terror group released following the attacks claiming responsibility for the bombings.

National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) was named by Sri Lankan officials as behind the suicide bombings. The death toll on April 24 reached 329, with more than 500 others injured.

Moulvi Zahran Hashim, also known as Zahran Hashmi, and Hasim Mohammed Zahren, the leader of NTJ, appeared in the new footage that ISIS released on Tuesday.

The video shows seven men wearing masks pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Caliph, or leader, of ISIS, an Islamic group that seeks to impose Sharia law on territories they attempt to conquer by force.

An undated image posted by the ISIS “news agency” Amaq on April 23, 2019. It shows eight men, all with faces obscured except for Mouvli Zahran Hasim in the middle. (Amaq News Agency)
An undated image posted by the ISIS “news agency” Amaq on April 23, 2019, showing eight men pledging allegiance to ISIS. (Amaq News Agency)

It identified the suicide bombers by name.

“We pledge allegiance … and to obey him on everything either in easy or difficult conditions,” they said, before praising Allah, the word Muslims use for God.

Hashim has for years posted videos on YouTube outlining his extremist views, including calling for all non-Muslims to be eliminated and praising ISIS. He routinely threatened Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus.

In one of the clips posted to Facebook, Hashim threatens to attack civilians with explosive-laden vehicles, reported Reuters.

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)

“Before the strength of a mujahideen (holy warrior), your army, police, and intelligence are all doomed to fail,” Zahran said in the clip.

Sri Lankan authorities said on April 24 that nine suicide bombers, including one woman, carried out the attacks; Hashim was believed to be one of the suicide bombers but authorities weren’t sure if he actually was.

“Until we do DNA tests on everybody we can’t be sure,” a source close to the investigation told AFP. Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told the outlet that Hashim was around 40 years old and from the region of Batticaloa, where one of the churches was bombed on April 21.

“Zahran belonged to an average Muslim middle-class family,” Ahamed said. “This person was a loner and he had radicalized young people in the guise of conducting Koran classes.”

A view of St. Sebastian's Church
A view of St. Sebastian’s Church damaged in a blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, on April 21, 2019. (Chamila Karunarathne/AP Photo)

Analysis

According to Rita Katz, director of the SITE intelligence group, the video and a statement from ISIS shows that the group was involved in planning the attack, but its exact role isn’t clear.

“The Sri Lanka blasts were both sophisticated and well coordinated, making it very likely that the attackers received some sort of training and assistance from ISIS—possibly from one of the group’s bases in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region,” she told the Washington Post.

When local groups pledge loyalty to ISIS, the terror group then provides them with resources.

Katz said on Twitter that ISIS established a global network by recruiting from existing extremist groups and movements, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Boko Haram in west Africa.

People react during a mass burial of victims
People react during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 23, 2019. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

“Rather than building up membership from scratch, the group poaches members from existing hardliner groups—or oftentimes the entire groups themselves,” she added in a Daily Beast analysis.

“There is a mutual benefit between ISIS and the entities it absorbs: not only does ISIS grow a new tentacle in its global network, but its newly pledged members also gain access to a wealth of financing, training, contacts, publicity, and other resources. To that point, prior to this past Sunday, National Thowheeth Jama’ath’s most noteworthy activity was vandalism of churches—never a suicide operation, let alone any deadly attack. Now, its members performed a sophisticated and well-coordinated series of bombings across Sri Lanka.”

Juan Zarate, the chairman of Financial Integrity Network, a consulting firm, and a former deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in the George W. Bush administration, told the Post that it was too early to tell how involved ISIS was in the attack.

“That said, we should not be too dismissive of ISIS claims or capabilities,” he added. “I do think it is possible that ISIS has communicated directly or embedded with these local groups and found a way of helping plot, amplify and supercharge their capabilities and operational effectiveness on the ground. The ISIS diaspora and expertise is real, and ISIS has global designs—in South Asia and elsewhere.”