Suicide Attacks Expedited After NTJ’s Cover Blown
By Buddhika Samaraweera
Several witnesses testified before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the bombings on 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, that the group led by National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) leader Mohamed Qasim Mohamed Zaharan alias Zaharan Hashim, had initially planned to carry out suicide bombings targeting a large number of locations in 2020.
However, Zaharan told his team members that they should carry out suicide attacks as soon as possible, after learning that the Security Forces were following him in connection with the arrest of the group that had damaged Buddha statues in Mawanella and the discovery of a stock of explosives in Wanathavilluwa in Puttalam. This article focuses on the relevant events and how they prepared to launch the attack based on the findings of the PCoI’s final report.
On 25 March 2019, Alawdeen Ahmed Muaath (suicide bomber of St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade) met Sameer, who is currently in custody, and informed of a dispute between Zaharan and Mohamed Ibrahim Naufer alias Naufer Moulavi and the need to have a discussion in that regard. Two days later, on 27 March, Sameer and two others who are currently in custody met Muaath and Abdul Latheef Mohamed Jameel (Tropical Inn Lodge suicide bomber) and travelled to the safe house at Paratta Road, Panadura. When they arrived there, Zaharan and Atchchi Muhammadu Muhammadu Hasthun (suicide bomber of St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya) were there.
At one of the meetings, Hayathu Mohamed Ahmed Milhan had pointed out nineteen wrongdoings of Zaharan and wanted Naufer to be the group leader. During the meeting it had been proposed to divide equally between the two splinter groups weapons in their custody and not to reveal anything about the groups to the Security Forces.
However, Mohamed Ibrahim Ilham Ahmed (Shangri-La Hotel suicide bomber) had objected and said that he provided funding for the group due to his respect and loyalty to Zaharan and that if needed, a house, vehicle and a weapon could be given to Naufer.
Zaharan had informed the participants that a suicide attack must be launched as revenge for the killing of Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the attacks on the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
Zaharan had explained that Mohamed Qasim Mohamed Rilwan alias Rilwan Hashim would manufacture bombs and that the explosives would expire in 15 days. Therefore, he had informed that the attack would have to be carried out within 15 days and Hasthun, Rilwan and Ilham had learnt to manufacture bombs from the Internet.
Zaharan further suggested that targets must be hotels mostly visited by foreigners, Catholic churches and casinos and referred in particular to Negombo. At this point, Muaath had said he could blow himself up at St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, as it is situated close to his house. It had been proposed to use around twenty bombers.
The PCoI states in its final report that there is some speculation as to why two bombers went to Shangri-La Hotel, when only one suicide bomber was used at other places. There are two reasons. One is possibly due to Zaharan not being able to gather the number of suicide bombers as planned, although many recruits had signed up.
Secondly, Zaharan had proposed that the attacks should be conducted in three stages. After the first blast, persons fleeing the site should be targeted by a second attack. This is what was witnessed at Shangri-La Hotel, where after the first blast by Zaharan, Ilham targeted the fleeing, including little children, whose screams could be heard on the CCTV footage, probably when they realised that Ilham was another suicide bomber.
Probably the van parked near St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, which appears to have not been detonated at the set time, possibly due to a malfunction of the timer attached to the gas cylinders, is another example of this strategy. The third stage was to carry out another series of blasts when the injured were being transported to the hospital.
Zaharan did not discuss a date for the attack at the meeting and participants were told that they would be informed three days prior to the attack. There is also evidence that later reconnaissance was conducted in Nuwara Eliya, to identify places patronised by foreigners, to launch an attack.
There has been much speculation on whether Zaharan was the actual leader of the group, since he also died in the attack. According to evidence, Zaharan informed the participants that he would also take part in the suicide attack, similar to the attack carried out by the IS group leader in Bangladesh.
Zaharan appears to have been referring to Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, known by his alias Kunya Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, and the emir of Islamic State in Bangladesh. He was the mastermind behind the July 2016, Dhaka attack at the Gulshan Café, which resulted in 29 deaths. Zaharan mistakenly believed that Tamim had died in the attack, when in fact he did not.
The meeting ended with a warning from Zaharan to the participants that contents of the meeting should not be divulged to anyone. Recalling the incidents where two Police Officers were killed in Vavunativu and Mohamed Thasleen, a former Coordinating Secretary to former Minister Kabir Hashim was shot for alleged complicity with the CID in the discovery of the Wanathavilluwa arms cache, Zaharan said the same thing would happen to anyone who fails to heed the warning.
Whether there was in fact a dispute between Naufer and Zaharan which led to the splinter of the group or whether it was a version created to mislead the investigators is a matter that must be fully investigated by the investigators and the PCoI makes no findings on it.
After fleeing Kattankudy in the aftermath of the Aliyar Junction incident, Zaharan kept his wife and children mainly at Kekunagolla and in Kattankudy with his parents while he was in hiding. He was hiding in areas like Palavi, Oluvil, Puttalam, Mawanella, Ampara and Malwana with friends and supporters. From time to time, he visited the family in Kattankudy and Kekunagolla in the night and stayed for about two days at a time. Hasthun’s wife, Pulasthini Mahendran alias Sarah Jasmine also stayed with them.
In early 2018, a TID Officer came to Kekunagolla and made inquiries about Zaharan. Nothing further appears to have happened thereafter. However, on 19 February 2019, around six CID Officers came to Kekunagolla, after which Zaharan’s wife Abdul Cader Fatima Hadiya’s brother, Ansar was arrested in connection with the recovery of explosives in Wanathavilluwa. They also questioned Hadiya and recorded a statement.
After this, Zaharan made arrangements to remove his family and Sarah from Kekunagolla. Hasthun, Ilham, Riskhan and several others took part in this operation. On the way, the mobile phone used by Hadiya was destroyed and thrown away, after removing its IMEI number. The group was picked up half way by Ilham in his car.
Again, on 28 February 2019, seven TID Officers went to Kekunagolla in search of Zaharan. By 9 July 2018, the TID had obtained an open warrant against Zaharan in M.C. Colombo Case No B 92358/8/18. There they came across a brother-in-law of Zaharan and began making inquiries when they received a call from Sergeant Dias of the CID requesting them to withdraw, as the CID was already conducting an investigation into him. After speaking to the ASP and Acting Director of TID, the team had withdrawn.
Around early March 2019, the SIS had information that Rilwan was motivating youth in Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee Districts to launch an IS style attack in Sri Lanka. During March 2019, Rilwan purchased eight barrels of Nitric Acid, each weighing 35 kilogrammes, from Kattankudy.
On 6 March 2019, Zaharan released a video on his Facebook page titled ‘The Blood of Kafirs and the Economy’ and informed his supporters to kill non-Muslims as soon as the Islamic holy months are over. He goes on to explain that according to Sura 9:5 in the Quran, one must do meritorious acts in the 1st, 7th, 11th and 12th months of Islam and in other months non-Muslims must be killed on sight and non-Muslims who embrace Islam must be allowed to proceed on their journey.
On 7 March 2019, SIS operatives showed the hiding places of Army Mohideen and Rilwan to CID Officers as well as the place where Mohamed Qasim Mohamed Shaini alias Shaini Moulavi was living. The CID Officers established contacts with Army Mohideen, but did not arrest him, although they were aware that there was a warrant issued for his arrest. Instead, they sought to keep him as an informant, to obtain information on Zaharan. Army Mohideen was even given the telephone number of one of the investigators. It is possible that Army Mohideen may have passed on this information to Zaharan.
There were developments on the international front as well, which in the view of the PCoI contributed to the bombings on Easter Sunday. Around 16 March 2019, after nearly six months of silence, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, the spokesman for the IS had emerged with an audio recording, calling for retaliatory attacks against the mosque attacks in New Zealand.
The shooting by a white nationalist on 15 March 2019 resulted in the killing of 49 Muslims attending prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The audio said, “The scenes of the massacres in the two mosques should wake up those who were fooled, and should incite the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion.” Al-Qaeda linked groups also used recorded footage of the attack on social media, to incite Muslims to kill non-believers. One of the messages encouraged Muslims to target Australian tourists, by stabbing and cutting the crusaders in revenge for the Muslim blood they spilled. Zaharan made specific reference to this incident, as one of the reasons to launch the attack in the video recorded on 20 April 2019.
Around 25 or 26 March 2019, urea fertiliser was purchased by Hasthun, Mubarak and Riskhan from Oddamavadi, Valaichchenai, after failing to purchase it from Polonnaruwa. Over 25 kilogrammes of urea had been purchased, which was on the same day transported to a Panadura safe house. In March 2019, Rilwan purchased eight barrels of Nitric Acid, each weighing 35 kilogrammes, from Kattankudy.
On 11 April 2019, ten backpacks were purchased from Decathlon, Battaramulla. They were purchased by Mubarak using his customer loyalty number. These backpacks were used in the suicide attacks.
Also, on 18 April 2019, eight items of Ruman Amjad, explained by the investigator to be some shawls used by Muslim men, were bought from New Look Al Harmain at Grandpass Road, Colombo 14. The purchase was made by Hasthun and Mubarak. On 19 April 2019, a further purchase was made from Decathlon, Battaramulla, amounting to Rs 76,650. The items consisted of caps, trousers, shorts, sunglasses, socks, tennis shoes, t-shirts and watches.
On 20 April 2019, the eight suicide bombers recorded around 17 videos between 1:17 p.m. and 3:32 p.m. at Span Tower, Templers Road, Mount Lavinia. One of the video recordings contained a speech by Zaharan, where he gives four reasons for the attack and 10 reasons for it being carried out in Sri Lanka.
The four reasons given for the attack were:
1. Loving for the sake of Allah and hating for the sake of Allah (al-wala’ wa-l-bara’).
2. Revenge for the killing of Muslims in Baghouz in the IS given by God to Muslims by a coalition of 80 countries using bombs made of white phosphorus.
3. Revenge for the killing of innocent Muslims praying in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand by a Christian. Catholic countries such as France, USA, Russia, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Israel and Europe are killing Muslims as entertainment, training groups to commit such acts, and providing financial support for it. They are also destroying Mosul in Iraq, Rakkha in Syria, and Siripti in Libya. He states that churches are attacked for this reason.
4. People from countries who are killing Muslims in Iraq and Syria, raping women, destroying churches and tearing the Quran, coming to Sri Lanka as tourists and touring as recreation. That is the reason given to target hotels.
Zaharan gave 10 reasons for carrying out the attack in Sri Lanka. They are:
1. Defaming and scolding Allah.
2. A picture of a pig on which Allah was written was carried during a protest in Kuliyapitiya. The pig is a prohibited animal (haram) in Islam.
3. Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera claiming that Allah has a rebirth.
4. Scolding and defaming Prophet Muhammad, who is loved more than one self and one’s family.
5. Tearing and burning of Quran, which is loved more than one’s life.
6. Destruction of mosques.
7. Destruction of the economy and houses of Muslims and forcible takeover of their lands on false charges.
8. Rape of a Muslim lady by Intelligence officials on the pretext of an investigation and its cover-up.
9. Sri Lanka becoming a partner in the international crusade in Western Africa.
10. Allah has ordered the killing of non-believers on sight.
Zaharan said the seeds of an IS would be planted through the flesh, blood, and bones of the suicide bombers, and that the attack should be used to win India and that Muslims in India should also launch a similar attack against their enemies. In one of the videos, the group gives a bayyath, where they pledge allegiance to the IS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Zaharan refers to al-Baghdadi as “Al Qureshi,” implying that he is from the same tribe as Prophet Muhammad and is a suitable leader for the Islamic State.