Zaharan Hashim “impressed with the fluency of his Quranic recitation and easily made friends, Mr. Zaharan confronted his teachers and accused them of failing to adhere to true Islam.”
Behind every Islamic terror attack, is the imprimatur of a Muslim cleric or imam. And yet no one in government or media or academia will set about to perform the thorny task of asking what is being done to expunge Islam of its violent mandates and teachings.
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“Growing up in Kattankudy, an oasis of Islam on a majority Buddhist island with significant Hindu and Christian minorities, Mr. Zaharan’s religiosity was unremarkable.”
“An oasis of Islam.” Would the NY Times ever use such language when referring to other religions? n oasis of Judaism? An oasis of Christianity? Surely not.
Mr. Zaharan preached that the Sri Lankan national flag was a worthless piece of cloth, and that the country should be ruled by Shariah law
rejects the notion that Mr. Zaharan’s sermons were anything more than a guide to the Quran and Islamic law. “They preach that Islam is good,” he said. “What is wrong with that?”
And therein lies the rub.
Mr. Zaharan and his brothers were sent by their father to a madrasa, where teachings adhered to a strict interpretation of Islam. But even as he impressed with the fluency of his Quranic recitation and easily made friends, Mr. Zaharan confronted his teachers and accused them of failing to adhere to true Islam.
Sri Lankan Accused of Leading Attacks Preached Slaughter. Many Dismissed Him.
Zaharan Hashim raged about how Western infidel traditions were poisoning
By Hannah Beech, NY Times April 25, 2019
KATTANKUDY, Sri Lanka — Zaharan Hashim, a radical Muslim preacher accused of masterminding the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, never hid his hatred.
He railed against a local performance in which Muslim girls dared to dance. When a Muslim politician held a 50th birthday party, he raged about how Western infidel traditions were poisoning his hometown, Kattankudy.
There were, Mr. Zaharan said in one of his online sermons, three types of people: Muslims, those who had reached an accord with Muslims, and “people who need to be killed.”
Idolaters, he added, “need to be slaughtered wherever you see them.”
Mr. Zaharan has been described by Sri Lankan officials as having founded an obscure group with inchoate aims: a defacement of a Buddha statue, a diatribe against Sufi mystics.
But in his hometown, and later in the online world of radical Islam where his sermons were popular with a segment of Sri Lankan youth, it was clear for years that Mr. Zaharan’s hateful cadences were designed to lure a new generation of militants.
“He was influential, very attractive, very smart in his speeches, even though what he was saying about jihad was crazy,” said Marzook Ahamed Lebbe, a former Kattankudy politician and member of a local Islamic federation. “We all underestimated him. We never thought he would do what he said.”
The Easter Sunday attacks, which included suicide bombings of three churches and three luxury hotels, took at least 250 lives. Through its news agency, the Islamic State claimed the attackers as its fighters and released a video with Mr. Zaharan appearing to be front and center.
[ISIS reminded the world that it does not need to control territory to be a major threat.]
Standing among seven masked men in black, Mr. Zaharan is the only one with his face exposed. Sri Lankan investigators believe that eight suicide bombers carried out the attacks on the hotels and churches on April 21, one of the bloodiest assaults ever claimed by the Islamic State.
Investigators said on Thursday that they believed Mr. Zaharan was one of the two suicide bombers who targeted the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. (The police have also identified him as Mohammed Zaharan.)
Muslims in Kattankudy said they had repeatedly contacted the police to warn that Mr. Zaharan was dangerous, but that the authorities played down the threat. Adding to questions about the government’s competence, the Sri Lankan authorities on Thursday vastly revised their earlier count of fatalities, saying that about 250 people had been killed as a result of the bombings, not 359.
One of the targeted churches — where more than 20 people were killed, many of them children — was in Batticaloa, a religiously mixed city just to the north of Kattankudy.
“I cannot digest this, even if it was done by my own brother,” said Madaniya, Mr. Zaharan’s sister, who lives in Kattankudy and who goes by one name. “I strongly condemn this.”
Growing up in Kattankudy, an oasis of Islam on a majority Buddhist island with significant Hindu and Christian minorities, Mr. Zaharan’s religiosity was unremarkable. Most houses here have a picture of Mecca on their wall, and road intersections are decorated with golden monuments in Arabic.
Mr. Zaharan and his brothers were sent by their father, a small-time seed and spice seller, to a madrasa, where teachings adhered to a strict interpretation of Islam. But even as he impressed with the fluency of his Quranic recitation and easily made friends, Mr. Zaharan confronted his teachers and accused them of failing to adhere to true Islam.
Like other Kattankudy youth lured by new overseas fashions, he had come under the spell of foreign preachers whose sermons were being passed around town by DVD, said M.B.M. Fahim, one of his classmates and now a lecturer at the same madrasa.
“He spread misinformation about us,” Mr. Fahim said. “He said the school should close because it was teaching the wrong way. He was just a student and he was saying like this.”
Mr. Zaharan was kicked out of school. He enrolled at another Islamic college but never graduated, his acquaintances said. Still, by listening to the sermons of charismatic but extremist preachers based in India and Malaysia, Mr. Zaharan was honing his oratory.
“He was a very good talker and a good researcher of how Islam was developing worldwide,” said M.L.M. Nassar, an administrator of a Kattankudy mosque federation.
Mr. Zaharan was unafraid of taking on the powerful, a rarity in a society bound by respect for those richer or older.
“He would criticize big shots, he would criticize anybody,” said Mr. Marzook, the former politician. “People were attracted to his lack of fear.”
A mosque in Kattankudy where Zaharan Hashim used to preach.CreditAdam Dean for The New York
After getting ejected from serving as imam of one mosque for his extremist views, Mr. Zaharan started a group in 2014 called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, which drew from the austere Wahhabi tradition that claims to follow the faith as practiced in the age of its founder, the Prophet Muhammad.
Mr. Zaharan preached that the Sri Lankan national flag was a worthless piece of cloth, and that the country should be ruled by Shariah law — an unlikely outcome in a country where only about 10 percent of the population is Muslim.
“My impression was that it was preoccupied with outflanking other Wahhabi groups to attract Middle Eastern funding,” said Gehan Gunatilleke, a researcher who wrote about National Thowheeth Jama’ath last year. “It was focused on symbolism and rhetoric.”
Mr. Zaharan founded his own mosque with funding from India, according to members of a Kattankudy mosque association, even though Mr. Zaharan’s mosque never received official religious certification.
Still, an Islamic school dropout with an unlicensed mosque was gaining followers in Sri Lanka and beyond. Last year, Indian security officials investigating what they said was an Islamic State cell in southern India reported that one of the suspects they had arrested said he had been inspired to join the group after watching Mr. Zaharan’s videos.
But another of the ISIS suspects in southern India, Ashiq, 25, is out on bail and rejects the notion that Mr. Zaharan’s sermons were anything more than a guide to the Quran and Islamic law. “They preach that Islam is good,” he said. “What is wrong with that?”
Shortly after the Islamic State began fighting to create a global caliphate, Mr. Zaharan praised the group’s murderous campaign.
Whether Mr. Zaharan found the Islamic State or the Islamic State found him, they seemed inextricably drawn to each other. In other places, like Indonesia and the Philippines, the Islamic State has been adept at taking Islamic radicals with local grievances and enlisting them in the global slipstream of terror.
By 2017, Mr. Zaharan and his followers were targeting a Sufi sect in Kattankudy, accusing its members of being infidels, even though Sufis are fellow Muslims who practice a mystical form of the faith. After the Sufis in Kattankudy handed out packets of rice to the poor, an action that Mr. Zaharan regarded as trying to buy hungry converts, he grabbed a sword and charged the crowd.
The police said they tried to arrest Mr. Zaharan and one of his brothers, but they escaped.
About 10 of his followers were detained, however, including his father and other relatives. Surprisingly for a small group from a distant part of Sri Lanka, the detained members of National Thowheeth Jama’ath managed to get a high-profile lawyer from Colombo to represent them.
H.M. Ameer, a member of the Sufi community, said that he and other Sufis had repeatedly contacted the police to warn about Mr. Zaharan’s extremism. They sent a thick file to Colombo. But there was little result, Mr. Ameer said. His assessment echoed complaints from recent days that Sri Lankan authorities failed to act on repeated warnings from overseas intelligence agencies about Mr. Zaharan planning a catastrophic attack.
On Thursday, Sufis in Kattankudy received a warning from the Sri Lankan criminal investigation department that their holy places might be targeted on Friday by militants associated with Mr. Zaharan who are still on the run.
Looking out on soldiers guarding the Badhriyyah Jumah Mosque where he and other Sufis worship, Mr. Ameer shook his head.
“We warned them that this man was vehemently spreading Wahhabism and that he was calling for jihad,” he said. “It was out in the open, clear as day. Nothing was done.”
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