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Zahran Hashim: Sri Lanka bombers' mentor is dead, but his memory still stokes fear



Zahran blew himself up, Sri Lankan officials say. Zahran was the leading figure in a band of suicide bombers who

The bombings shattered a hard-won peace which was a decade after a 25-year civil war. For many Sri Lankans, not the least, this country's minority Christian community, which has scorned worshipers of the attacks, the horror came from nowhere.

There were many warning signs. Zahran had been practicing and practicing violence against other faiths for years. On YouTube, increasingly radical sermons could be viewed by young Sri Lankans.

In the weeks leading up to the attacks, Sri Lankan authorities about him. An Indian intelligence source that ISIS suspect, who claimed to have radicalized the preacher himself, provided material during interrogations that formed the basis of the warnings.

It was not as if the message failed to get through. Zahran's name appears on a memo, dated April 1

1, and signed by Sri Lanka's Deputy Inspector General of Police, which was circulated among a range of security agencies. It refers to Zahran, and specifically warns of attacks on churches.

In the ensuing carnage, more than 250 people were killed.

Increasing violence

In Kattankudy, a predominantly Muslim town in eastern Sri Lanka where Zahran built his following, his name still inspires terror, even in death. No locals would go on camera to talk about him, for fear of reprisals.

Those fears appear to be well founded. In a local mosque, next to a shrine draped in gold fabric and topped with flowers, CNN spoke to worshipers who said they had been harassed and terrorized by Hashim and other radical Muslims for years.

They are Sufis, traditionally the majority in Sri Lanka. Sufism transcends sectarian parts in the religion, and is loathed by Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom have attacked Sufi shrines and killed imams and worshipers.
 A man prays at a Sufi shrine at Kathankudi, Sri Lanka on April 24, 2019.

Extremists consider Sufis to be kafir, or unbelievers, and in one video on YouTube, Zahran said that if someone "is a kafir he is to be killed according to Sharia law." In Kattankudy, local Sufis ticked off a litany of harassment and violence in recent years, including bullet fired at the mosque offices and a 2017 attack by Zahran and a mob of followers wielding swords.

After that attack, Zahran apparently went into hiding, but continued to make his increasingly radical YouTube sermons. Those videos are greatly alarmed leaders of Sri Lanka's Muslim community back in Colombo. Said Reyyaz Salley, chairman of Colombo's Dewatagaha mosque, the oldest in the city.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said that he took Zahran's videos to the authorities and urged them to arrest him. He did so again after some alleged followers of Zahran vandalized Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka in 2018, a move which sparked a letter angry backlash by locals and to investigate which seems to come close to uncovering plans for greater violence.

"In 2018, when Buddhist statues were defaced, (Zahran) was the mentor of this youth who did the defacing," Ahamed said. "He preached to them that Islam prohibits idol worship so statues should be destroyed." But Zahran was not arrested, and tragedy was not prevented.

CNN has. So far, there's been no response.

Dangerous preaching

Sri Lankan Sufis said the hostility against them has increased in recent years and reinforced by money which has jumped up in the country.

"The Muslim community has been divided," Ahamed said. "Middle Eastern countries kept funding mosques, sometimes you could even see two mosquitoes side by side."

He blamed funding from Saudi Arabia and other countries, along with the movement of workers around the Muslim world. "Traditionally Sri Lankan's follow and Indian brand of Islam," Ahamed added. Sri Lankan Labor Moving into the Middle East They are quite a lot of the Saudi (style) Islam. "

 A mosque said to have been founded by Zahran Hashim, who allegedly blew himself up in the Easter Sunday suicide attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Zahran's mosque is located in a residential part of Kattankudy. A modern-looking building, it's still under construction. It had more of an air of a youth club or gym than a house of worship. Piles of Korans could be seen in one of the windows. Locals said youngsters gravitate toward it because they can not speak the Arabic of the Qur'an and even if it is an extreme one.

Final moments

Zahran did not wait to see his mosquito finished. Sri Lankan officials at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo's upscale Galle Face area, setting up their device as guests ate breakfast.

Bombers, but Zahran was linked to the Shangri-La by the media team of President Maithripala Sirisena. Officials have said that privately that the Shangri-La was targeted by a second bomber – Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim, one of two prominent Colombo spice traders to have taken part in the attacks.

Separately, a high-level intelligence CNN that Zahran's identify as a Shangri-La bomber what "about 75% confirmed" but that officials had only conducted a photographic comparison.

Of all the attackers, Zahran's appears to be the most familiar to the Sri Lankan authorities. His final moments were caught on camera as he entered the hotel.

Sam Kiley reported from Kattankudy, James Griffiths reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. CNN's Jo Shelley and journalists King Ratnam, Ajith Champika and Iqbal Athas contributed reporting from Colombo.


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