India’s Research and Analysis Wing had issued precision intelligence warnings ten days before the weekend’s murderous serial bombings in Sri Lanka, warning that Islamist ideologue Zahran Hashmi was planning to stage suicide attacks against “popular Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission.”
The warnings, documents available with Firstpost show, were circulated by deputy inspector-general of police Priyalal Disanayake on 11 April, with copies marked to his immediate superior, as well as the Ministry of Defence, and officials in-charge of the security of government ministers, the judiciary, and diplomats.
“High alert is advised for the security provided by your divisions for dignitaries and important places in your respective areas,” the letter states.
The weekend’s carnage has fuelled long-standing fears among intelligence services in India that rising jihadist movements in friendly countries along the Indian Ocean rim, like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives, could provide staging-posts for the next wave of major terrorist strikes on India.
“Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups with links to the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate are still the main threat,” one officer told Firstpost, “but there are new actors emerging who hate Pakistan, and are determined to show they can do jihad better than its proxies.”
The Disanayake letter records that Sri Lanka’s intelligence service has been given “information about a suicide attack planned by Mohammad Hashim Mohammad Zahran, also known as Zahran Hashim, leader of a group called National Tawhid Jama’at.”
Zahran Hashmi and an aide called Shahid, it goes on to say, are suspected to have been hiding in the Akkareipattu Oluvil area, after carrying out a 26 December, 2018 attack, in which Islamist activists destroyed several Buddhist statues.
Perhaps more important, the document notes that Rilwan Hashmi, Zahran Hashmi’s younger brother and the Tawhid’s recruitment in-charge, had been visiting a specifically identified home in Ariyampathi between 11 pm and 4.00 am each day, to visit his wife and child. The details of the home are being withheld by Firstpost.
The younger Hashmi, the intelligence note records, had been in hiding ever since a clash between the Tawhid and another religious group it does not identify.
In addition, the note identifies Badrudeen Mohammed Mohiudeen, a former Sri Lanka army soldier close to Zahran Hashmi, who Sri Lanka investigators say may have helped fabricate the improvised explosive devices used on Friday.
Even though Mohideen had been in hiding since the demolition of the Buddhist statues, the note states, he was known to be visiting his family at a specifically-identified home in the Walachchena area each Friday.
The fourth suspected jihad cell member Mohammad Milan, the note says, was also known to be linked to Zahran Hashmi, and, on social media, had voiced rage against all non-Muslims following the massacre of worshippers in New Zealand by a white nationalist terrorist.
Intelligence services in both Sri Lanka and India had focussed on the Tawhid Jama’at after the seizure of over 100 kilograms of military-grade explosives, as well as detonators and ammunition, at a remote farm compound in Wanathawilluwa early this year. The complex is believed to have been a training ground for jihadists who were plotting to blow up Buddhist monuments in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
Even though Sri Lankan authorities mounted some surveillance operations in the wake of the intelligence shared by RAW, a highly-placed Indian government source said, no arrests were made.
Perhaps more importantly, the sources said, there was no coordinated plan to limit access to churches and other vulnerable public institutions on Easter day. “The hotels that were targeted on Sunday did have some baggage and body-screening measures in place,” the official said, “but, like in India, the checking is pretty perfunctory.”
New Delhi believes the intelligence and police services in Sri Lanka paid too little attention to the threat from jihadist terrorism, despite at least 36, and perhaps over 100, of the country’s citizens having volunteered to fight with the Islamic State in Syria since 2015, as well as the arrest of several Maldivian jihadists transiting through the country.
Islamic education centres in Sri Lanka have, since the middle of the decade, emerged as important hubs for pro-jihad students and activists from across South Asia to meet and exchange information, helped by a relatively benign visa system that offers easy access to Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian nationals.
Abdul Rashid, an Islamist preacher who led a group of eighteen Kerala residents to live with the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar—three of them children, and two pregnant women—was expelled from the al-Quma seminary in Colombo because of his speeches advocating violent jihadist actions.
Sri Lanka’s authorities, though, were not monitoring the seminary, so no intelligence was passed on to India that would have enabled ongoing surveillance.
Founded as a franchise of the Tamil Nadu Tauhid Jama’at —an Islamist-leaning political group active in carrying out blood donation camps, anti-liquor protests and films alleged to be offensive to Islam—Sri Lanka’s Tawhid Jama’at also benefitted from the fact that that it operates legitimately in several countries, including India, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.
The firebrand head of the Tamil Nadu Tawhid Jama’at, Jainul Abideen, has been accused of making incendiary speeches in the past, but no allegation of criminal activity exists against him, or the organisation.
“In this case,” an Indian government official familiar with the case said, “we believe individuals inside the Tawhid Jama’at in Sri Lanka were radicalised because of their contact with Islamic State-linked veterans in Syria and Bangladesh.”
Islamic State Links
Investigators are now re-examining the Colombo linkages of Mohammad Muhsin Nilam, also known as ‘Abu Shurayh’, who was killed in an airstrike on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital, in the summer of 2015. Nilam was believed to have close contacts with the Tawhid Jama’at network, as are others among Sri Lanka’s Islamic State circles.
Educated in Shari’a law at the International Islamic University in Islamabad—an institution where Osama Bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, once taught—Nilam had encountered neo-fundamentalist Islam with a proseletysing group, the Tablighi Jama’at.
Nilam returned home to Warallagama, in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district, in 2011, first working as a part-time Urdu instructor at Colombo University, and then became principal of a school in Galewala. Locally, he was well-known as a martial-arts instructor, who taught at schools in Kandy, Kotahena and Maharagama.
Then, in 2014, he took leave, telling school administrators he was travelling with his six children, pregnant wife, and ageing parents, for a pilgrimage. Instead, police found, the family caught a flight to Turkey—and disappeared across the border into Syria.
In a post on his Facebook page, Nilam superimposed these words on the visage of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Ibrahim Awad al-Badri: “We will kill every man, woman, child, Shi’a, Sunni, Zoroastrians, Kurds, Christians.”