Colombo Telegraph

Understanding Zahran: Sri Lanka’s Ultra Terrorist

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

On April 21, 2019, three Catholic churches and three high-end hotels in Colombo were blown up leading to the death of hundreds of people including several foreign nationals. As of today, more than 250 people have been killed. The explosions also maimed hundreds more. It was later revealed that all of the attackers were suicide bombers and they were from the Sri Lankan Muslim community, the second largest minority group in the country. 

The attacks inherently conveyed a number of messages. First, the terrorists wanted to kill as many people as possible. It was Easter Sunday. They knew that a large number of people attend mass on that day. The churches targeted were relatively small structures. For example, Saint Anthony’s Church was small in size compared to Saint Lucia’s Cathedral located in the same area. Presumably, they were looking for small structures with a large number of people to have a high impact.  

Second, the targets were “Western” in nature. According to even local perspectives, the Church and Christianity are Western inductions. They are not “local.” The high-end hotels targeted, especially the Shangri-La Hotel and Kingsbury, are frequented mostly by Western visitors and tourists, although one can find Sri Lanka’s superrich in these spots. Hence, it was an attack on the “West” undertaken in Sri Lanka. It is this factor that justifies the argument that it was an act of revenge for the Christchurch massacre of March 2019. Perhaps, Sri Lanka was considered a soft target. 

Third, the local terrorists could not have done it without the assistance of international forces. The resources and manpower needed for an attack of this magnitude could be tremendous. Local organizations were not capable of independently mounting an attack like this. It was against this backdrop an ISIS connection was suggested. Within a couple of days, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and celebrated the “achievement.” In Sammanthurai, where many suicide bombers were located and killed, ISIS flags and other symbols were discovered. On April 29, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself acclaimed the Sri Lanka operation. Al-Baghdadi’s intervention put to rest any doubts about the ISIS connection to the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday massacre.    

Zahran Hashim 

Despite these apparent facts, many, who were directly and indirectly affected by the attack and its effects could not understand the nature of the targets and the brutality involved. Even some expert commentators claimed that they could not understand the whole tragedy. I cannot claim that I understood either. While discussing the “Muslim issue” in my recent book entitled Post-war Dilemmas of Sri Lanka: Democracy and Reconciliation, I pointed out that,

“A parallel process of radicalization has been taking place within the Muslim community, along with the process of separate ethnic identity formation. New Muslim sects and groups which preach and, at times, force the adoption of a pure form of Islam have gained prominence. Consequently, public displays of faith, including dress code, haircut, and beard, have come to symbolize Muslim existence and power in the regions where they predominantly live. The process of radicalization has also led to internal violence within the Muslim community. Some of them have joined hands with transnational terrorist organizations, for example, ISIS, to wage jihad” (p.133).  

The analysis indicated that tension and violence would escalate. I did not expect an attack of this magnitude. I wanted to understand more. I thought the best way to understand the barbarism demonstrated by attacking purely civilian targets was to understand the psyche and philosophy of Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind of the Easter Sunday massacre. I know he spoke Tamil, which he most likely treated as his “home-language.” Since he was often described as a “Youtuber,” I searched online for his videos. To my surprise, I could not find much. Either, social media companies have removed his videos or I was doing a wrong search.

Nevertheless, I located one video, which runs for 5.58 minutes. I was shaken by what I heard. First, I was puzzled by the question, how did we miss this? Then I was forced into a dilemma of whether to share the translation. I started to translate and transcribed intending to share with the readers. His “sermon” was extraordinarily provocative and had the potential to invite violence. Hence, I decided not to publish the entire transcript. Only relevant excerpts are used for this analysis. The reason for sharing the excerpts is that the sermon contains enough warnings. Perhaps, it will help prevent future violence.                                         

My Takeaway 

I have a number of main takeaways from Zahran Hasim’s pronouncements. 

1. He was right. In his speech, Zahran promised that we would be busy picking up blown up bodies. He claimed, “You will only have time to pick up your blown-up bodies. We will continue to send you to hell in large numbers.” That came true on Easter Sunday. He was not bluffing. Therefore, we should take his other assertions seriously and treat them as early warnings. This could prevent further attacks and bloodshed. We should research his other sermons and publications, if any, to develop our understanding of the philosophy and plan.

 2. Civilian targets are fair game. Some of my friends were at a loss to understand the reason why civilians were targeted. According to Zahran’s interpretation of Islam and Quran, there is no difference between civilian and military targets. He said, “my brothers, do not distinguish between army, police or general kafir (infidel). They all are the same. In Islam, there are no separate laws for those who wear police uniform or military uniform. The only difference in Islam is between Muslims and kafir. You must know that the markkam (Islam) does not distinguish between military and civilians.” Therefore, from the perspective of the terrorists, non-Muslim civilian targets are entirely legitimate. If Zahran’s followers are still active, we should expect more attacks on non-Muslim civilian targets. 

3. It was against the Buddhists. Originally, Zaran’s fight was not against Christians. This is what he had to say about his jihad (holy war) against the Buddhists, 

“Meanwhile, we wish to say a few things to Allah’s enemies and infidels. Infidels and enemies of Allah, your destruction has started. We have counted every mosque you have destroyed, and we remember every shop you scorched. Blood of Muslims you have killed will not be wasted. Inshallah, we will avenge this. You will feel the pain of jihad, the scale of jihad, and the weight of jihad. You will see the agonizing cry of every Buddhist…We will certainly destroy those who destroyed our mosques. Even then, our knives will not be satisfied. Buddhist extremists, we will certainly come for you. We tell the Buddhist kafir who destroyed our temples and who torched our properties that we will come for you. Your police, your military and your intelligence (services) will be useless in front of Imani strength of the mujahideen.” 

Perhaps, this video was made before he became a member of ISIS. Becoming a member of ISIS forced him to turn his guns against Christians and Westerners. However, there is no reason to believe that Buddhism in Sri Lanka is not a target any more. Some of the media reports connected to discoveries from terrorist hideout could also confirm this possibility. Buddhist locations, especially Buddhist places of worship should be monitored and protected, in addition to Christian churches and Hindu temples.

4. The promise of jihad. Zahran promised to wage war in Sri Lanka. He thundered, “Inshallah, soon, we will open the market of jihad in this country. You will not only hear but see the sights of thousands of our suicide bombers destroying you with a smile on their faces. Because it is the path our liberator promised….” Perhaps, it is already here, and thousands of suicide bombers are waiting with a smile on their faces. We do not know. I do not see why this cannot be the case. His promise of suicide massacre came true. 

5. Anti-Muslim violence. It is clear that the anti-Muslim riots unleashed after the end of the civil war have contributed immensely to Zahran’s anger and mobilization. He said, “if they damage your mosques, destroy their vihara. If you are killed in this journey, you will definitely be a shaheed (martyr). Based on the evidence provided by the markkam, I am telling you that this is your duty. According to (Muslim) legal scholars, there is no bigger vagib (duty) than stopping the kafir…” The recent anti-Muslim violence could have also helped radicalize and mobilize other Muslims as well. Therefore, concerned parties have a responsibility to bring under control the anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence.

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