The man who might have stopped Sri Lanka’s Easter bomb­ings

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS -

When bombs planted in churches and ho­tels killed more than 200 peo­ple in Sri Lanka on Easter Sun­day, few had re­alised that the na­tion had a prob­lem with Is­lamist mil­i­tancy. One man who did, re­ports the BBC’S Se­cun­der Ker­mani, was Mo­ham­mad Razak Taslim.

Ly­ing on a hospi­tal bed, Mo­ham­mad Razak Taslim’s face con­torts with pain. The left side of his body is com­pletely paral­ysed, but he reaches out with his right hand, try­ing to clutch at his wife and brother-in-law who stand anx­iously over him.

His wife, Fatima, presses a hand­ker­chief to his head. One side of his skull has caved in. It’s where he was shot in the head in March. Ever since, he’s been un­able to speak, un­able to walk.

Po­lice be­lieve Taslim was one of the first vic­tims of the Sri Lankan ex­trem­ist net­work, linked to the Is­lamic State group, that would go on to kill more than 250 peo­ple in a se­ries of sui­cide bomb­ings on churches and ho­tels on Easter Sun­day in April.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials he was shot on the or­ders of the ring­leader of the at­tacks, Zahran Hashim.

Months be­fore the bomb­ings, Taslim, an earnest 37-year-old lo­cal politi­cian from a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity town in cen­tral Sri Lanka, had been at the fore­front of ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate the ex­trem­ists.

Taslim’s story en­cap­su­lates both how the coun­try’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity ac­tively tried to stop the emer­gence of rad­i­cal el­e­ments in their midst, and how the au­thor­i­ties failed to recog­nise re­peated warn­ing signs ahead of the Easter at­tacks.

The town of Mawanella is just a few hours’ drive east of the cap­i­tal, Colombo. It’s sur­rounded by a lush green land­scape, and the area is dom­i­nated by Bud­dhist and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties.

In De­cem­ber last year, a num­ber of Bud­dhist stat­ues around the town were van­dalised - an at­tempt, of­fi­cials now be­lieve, to in­flame ten­sions and pro­voke com­mu­nal ri­ot­ing.

Taslim was a mem­ber of Mawanella’s town coun­cil, and also worked as the co-or­di­nat­ing sec­re­tary for a na­tional cabinet min­is­ter.

I met his wife, three young chil­dren and ex­tended fam­ily at their mod­est home in a vil­lage out­side Mawanella. Co­conuts crashed nois­ily onto the roof from the trees above as Fatima told me about her hus­band.

Taslim of­ten vol­un­teered to help oth­ers in the com­mu­nity, she said. He had played a prom­i­nent role in or­gan­is­ing sup­port for res­i­dents af­fected by floods and land­slides in pre­vi­ous years. So, when the Bud­dhist stat­ues were des­e­crated, it was nat­u­ral that he stepped up to help in­ves­ti­gate.

“He al­ways used to say peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races and re­li­gions should live to­gether in unity.

“He said, ‘What they did is wrong, our re­li­gion does not con­done such acts…. We need to catch those re­spon­si­ble.” Po­lice made a num­ber of ar­rests, but the chief sus­pects, broth­ers Sadiq and Sha­heed Ab­dul­haq, dis­ap­peared.

The pair would be placed on a “Most Wanted” list af­ter the Easter Sun­day bomb­ings and ar­rested. Their al­leged role in the at­tacks isn’t clear and they are yet to go on trial, but in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve Sadiq Ab­dul­haq may have trav­elled to Syria in 2014 and met fig­ures linked to the Is­lamic State group.

I met one young man in a vil­lage close to Mawanella who had been

Months be­fore the bomb­ings, Taslim, an earnest 37-year-old lo­cal politi­cian from a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity town in cen­tral Sri Lanka, had been at the fore­front of ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate the ex­trem­ists

part of the broth­ers’ in­ner cir­cle. He wanted to re­main anony­mous, but claimed they would preach that Sri Lanka “is the land of Al­lah, and no-one else can be wor­shipped... Non-mus­lims have to con­vert or pay jizya (an Is­lamic tax).”

The broth­ers came from a deeply re­li­gious fam­ily, and their friend said they reg­u­larly talked about the obli­ga­tions of ji­had, both in a spir­i­tual and a mil­i­tary sense.

A rel­a­tive of the broth­ers, who was a lead­ing fig­ure in an Mus­lim stu­dent or­gan­i­sa­tion they were all part of, told me he had reg­u­larly ar­gued with them, telling them that “vi­o­lent and ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour is not ac­cepted in Is­lam”. In 2015 the or­gan­i­sa­tion ex­pelled both broth­ers.

Their rel­a­tive said the men had been deeply af­fected by com­mu­nal ri­ots around the nearby city of Kandy in 2018, when Bud­dhist mobs tar­geted Mus­lim-owned busi­nesses and res­i­dents. Sadiq Ab­dul Haq al­legedly said: “They are tak­ing away our lives, our prop­er­ties... We have to do some­thing,” the rel­a­tive claimed.

Af­ter the Ab­dul-haq broth­ers went on the run, Taslim was in­volved in ef­forts to track them down, and kept in touch with po­lice in­ves­ti­gat­ing the case. At one point he walked with them deep into the jun­gle where it was thought the broth­ers were hid­ing.

In Jan­uary de­tec­tives told him they had re­ceived new and star­tling in­for­ma­tion dur­ing the in­ter­ro­ga­tion of some of those sus­pected of van­dal­is­ing the Bud­dhist stat­ues - a stash of ex­plo­sives had been hid­den in a re­mote piece of farm­land about 100 miles away.

Taslim went with de­tec­tives to the site, a co­conut grove in the north-west of the coun­try. There po­lice dis­cov­ered nearly 100kg of ex­plo­sives, det­o­na­tors, tents and a cam­era.

Taslim’s wife says when he re­turned home, he was wor­ried. “There must be more ex­plo­sives out there,” he told her. “We must get to­gether as a com­mu­nity, find those re­spon­si­ble and deal with them.”

The vol­ume of ex­plo­sives found should have alerted the au­thor­i­ties to the dan­ger of a ji­hadist at­tack. But while four peo­ple were ar­rested, in a coun­try where the se­cu­rity forces had long fo­cused on the dan­gers posed by eth­nic Tamil sep­a­ratists, it seems the pos­si­bil­ity of Is­lamist vi­o­lence wasn’t re­garded as a high pri­or­ity.

It has now been re­vealed that the ex­plo­sives found on the farm­land are linked to some of those di­rectly in­volved in the sui­cide bomb­ings, in­clud­ing the ring­leader, Zahran Hashim.

Hashim was a preacher from the east of Sri Lanka. He too had been flagged as an ex­trem­ist long be­fore the at­tacks.

Over the years, he had re­peat­edly fallen out with main­stream Mus­lim groups, both in his home town, and in other places he vis­ited, in­clud­ing a vil­lage close to Mawanella.

He be­came well-known for up­load­ing fiery videos on so­cial me­dia. In one, the back­ground is an im­age from the 9/11 at­tacks.a se­nior Sri Lankan po­lice source told me that one of Hashim’s close as­so­ciates con­fessed that Hashim or­dered Taslim be killed for act­ing as an “in­for­mant”.

In March, just over a month be­fore the Easter at­tacks, a gun­man qui­etly en­tered Taslim’s house in the early hours of the morn­ing. He was ly­ing in bed, next to his wife, and his youngest son. The gun­man shot him once in the head.

“At first I thought the phone charger had ex­ploded, but I looked and it was fine,” Taslim’s wife told me. “Then I tried to wake him up, and I could smell gun­pow­der… I reached out to him and I re­alised he wasn’t con­scious. I thought he was dead.”

Taslim was rushed to hospi­tal. He sur­vived the at­tack, but it’s not clear if he will ever fully re­cover. Taslim’s fam­ily say, de­spite his in­juries, he is able to un­der­stand what they say to him, and oc­ca­sion­ally, to scrib­ble re­sponses. When he learned of the Easter at­tacks, his wife says he wrote her a mes­sage and be­gan to cry, “I told you some­thing like this could hap­pen.”

In the af­ter­math of the bomb­ings there have been episodes of an­timus­lim ri­ot­ing in Sri Lanka, with shops at­tacked and at least one per­son killed. Claims that the com­mu­nity is har­bour­ing ter­ror­ists have an­gered many Mus­lims, es­pe­cially in light of the re­peated at­tempts to help po­lice or raise con­cerns with the au­thor­i­ties.

Taslim’s wife is proud of his sac­ri­fice. “He would say to us, ‘I’ve given you ev­ery­thing you need, so we should work on reach­ing par­adise in the af­ter­life… We have to help those around us, that’s what our re­li­gion teaches.”

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