KATTANKUDY, Sri Lanka, (Reuters) – Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran was 12 years old when he began his studies at the Jamiathul Falah Arabic College. He was a nobody, with no claim to scholarship other than ambition.
Zahran and his four brothers and sisters squeezed into a two-room house with their parents in a small seaside town in eastern Sri Lanka; their father was a poor man who sold packets of food on the street and had a reputation for being a petty thief.
“His father didn’t do much,” recalled the school’s vice principal, S.M. Aliyar, laughing out loud.
The boy surprised the school with his sharp mind. For three years, Zahran practiced memorizing the Koran. Next came his studies in Islamic law. But the more he learned, the more Zahran argued that his teachers were too liberal in their reading of the holy book.
“He was against our teaching and the way we interpreted the Koran – he wanted his radical Islam,” said Aliyar. “So we kicked him out.”
Aliyar, now 73 with a long white beard, remembers the day Zahran left in 2005. “His father came and asked, ‘Where can he go?’.”
The school would hear again of Mohamed Zahran. And the world now knows his name. The Sri Lankan government has identified him as the ringleader of a group that carried out a series of Easter Sunday suicide bombings in the country on April 21.
The blasts killed more than 250 people in churches and luxury hotels, one of the deadliest-ever such attacks in South Asia. There were nine suicide bombers who blew apart men, women and children as they sat to pray or ate breakfast.
Most of the attackers were well-educated and from wealthy families, with some having been abroad to study, according to Sri Lankan officials.
That description does not, however, fit their alleged leader, a man said to be in his early 30s, who authorities say died in the slaughter. Zahran was different.
Sri Lanka’s national leadership has come under heavy criticism for failing to heed warnings from Indian intelligence services – at least three in April alone – that an attack was pending. But Zahran’s path from provincial troublemaker to alleged jihadist mastermind was marked by years of missed or ignored signals that the man with a thick beard and paunch was dangerous.
His increasingly militant brand of Islam was allowed to grow inside a marginalized minority community – barely 10 percent of the country’s roughly 20 million people are Muslim – against a backdrop of a dysfunctional developing nation.
The top official at the nation’s defence ministry resigned on Thursday, saying that some institutions under his charge had failed.
For much of his adult life, Zahran, 33, courted controversy inside the Muslim community itself.
In the internet age, that problem did not stay local. Zahran released online videos calling for jihad and threatening bloodshed.
After the blasts, Islamic State claimed credit and posted a video of Zahran, clutching an assault rifle, standing before the group’s black flag and pledging allegiance to its leader.
The precise relationship between Zahran and Islamic State is not yet known. An official with India’s security services, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that during a raid on a suspected Islamic State cell by the National Investigation Agency earlier this year officers found copies of Zahran’s videos. The operation was in the state of Tamil Nadu, just across a thin strait of ocean from Sri Lanka.