‘Mawanella was the start’: Sri Lankan town reels from bombing links

Faith leaders say local youths were radicalised by extremist preacher Mohammed Zahran Hashim

It was crude stuff: young men armed with hammers, arriving on motorbikes in the middle of the night. At four sites in Mawanella, a central Sri Lankan town, they hacked at Buddhist statues, lopping off parts of their faces and hands.

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In the aftermath of the desecration on 26 December 2018, police and local politicians were more concerned with defusing the anger of the Buddhist community and preventing religious riots of the kind that had rocked the nearby city of Digana eight months before.

Now residents of Mawanella are asking if the vandalism of the statues was linked to the same extremist preacher who, four months later, has been identified as a leader of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever claimed by Islamic State.

For all this trouble, says the Buddhist cleric B Piyarathena, referring to the string of suicide bombings that killed 253 people on Sunday, Mawanella was the start.

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One of the statues damaged in Mawanella in December 2018. Photograph: Supplied

Chanaka Jayaree, a caretaker at one of the Buddhist shrines, was urgently woken by a neighbour at about 3.30am on the night of the vandalism spree. He had noticed unusual activity around the statue in the previous days, and was on high alert. We had the idea that they might come, he says.

He ran to the site to see two men on a motorbike speeding away and shards from the neon-ringed statue scattered on the floor.

Jayaree, 28, managed to catch one of the men he shows off a picture of the youth, hands bound and tied to a power pole, as a trophy but the other fought his way out. We had a struggle, he says, pointing to a shoulder injury.

Analysts say the defacement of the statues was the first attack on another religious community by a network associated with Mohammed Zahran Hashim, an itinerant, extremist preacher who appeared in a video released by Isiss media arm this week claiming responsibility for Sundays attacks.

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A young man captured in Mawanella after the Buddhist statues were defaced. Photograph: Supplied

This may have been a tryout, Sri Lankas prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, told the Guardian in an interview on Friday. We know that before the Buddhist images there were attacks on Sufi mosques. So they appeared to be going step by step. First their own Muslims, then the Buddhists, and there was something in a small church near Kandy, information that they wanted to damage the church.

Police in Mawanella say they arrested 13 people for damaging four statues that December night. Hashim went into hiding after the incident, which was national news, and did not publicly resurface again, according to a briefing note circulated to some members of the Sri Lankan government, warning the preacher was preparing suicide attacks.

Mawanella, about three hours drive from Colombo along windy roads hemmed in by dense vegetation, is a mixed community of mainly Buddhists and Muslims. Neither has been immune from the chauvinist ideas that have infused major religions in the past decades. Buddhists rioted in the town in 2001 and police had to seek a court order to prevent extremist monks holding a rally there in 2014.

The old generation of Muslims was very friendly, says Piyarathena, at the towns main Buddhist temple. They came to school and studied with Hindus, Buddhists and others. The new generation is the problem, trying to take over the citys mosques.

Hashim, thought to be about 40, was exiled from his hometown in the east of the country for his extremist views. A few years ago, he surfaced in Mawanella, one of several towns where he was known to preach his radical ideology and gathered a band of about 100 followers, according to Hilmy Ahmed, the vice-president of Sri Lankas Muslim Council, an umbrella group of community organisations.

Buddhist
Buddhist monks outside St Anthonys Shrine in Colombo, a day after the church was hit in a series of bomb blasts. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Hashim is the main problem for these radicalised youth in Mawanella, who carried this out, he says.

He conducted Quran classes and in that process he slowly radicalised these youths. Parents, nobody knew anything about this. They gladly sent their children because they were going to learn something good.

Followers of Hashim were given keys to a centre in Delgahagoda, a village near Mawanella, where classes and religious services would be held at night and outside the view of mainstream Muslim leaders, he says.

But the police were suspicious and went to inform the local mosque, Do you know what is happening to these children? Ahmed says.

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Mosque leaders in the village say Hashim surfaced in Delgahagoda about a decade ago. He was initially welcomed into the community, but soon annoyed its leaders, said the secretary of the board of trustees, Muhammad Imam.

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A man walks past a pro-peace poster in Kattankudy, Sri Lanka on 26 April. Photograph: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

He had visited Mawanella and the mosque, but we havent seen him in this mosque for the past eight or 10 years, says Imam, 50.

He says Hashim had insisted on leading prayers without covering his head, as is traditional in their mosque. He refused to cover his head, he didnt want to respect the traditions, so we asked him not to come back, Imam says.

The preacher is thought to have rented a property in Mawanella for about three months last year, disappearing just before the statue incident. He had done his job, Ahmed says. Indoctrinated, and then he was gone.

The two suspected ringleaders in the statue defacement also fled, according to the government minister Rauff Hakeem. Investigators who were hunting them in January followed the trail to a hut on a remote coconut estate about 100km north of Negombo, where they made a shock discovery: 100kgs of high-powered explosives and a stock of detonators.

The two men, who were brothers, had recently been expelled from a local Muslim organisation for their extremist views. Their whereabouts are unknown, Hakeem says. [The discovery] is the last thing we knew about them, Hakeem says. There is no evidence they were involved in Sundays attack.

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Samage at St Sebastians Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP

The terrorist attacks, and the waves of arrests that have followed, have left Muslims in Mawanella and surrounding areas tense and suspicious.

I am deeply sorry what has happened, and [the perpetrators] should be thoroughly punished, says Zarook SHM, a trustee board member at the An-Noor mosque in Mawanella. Not in Mawanella, all over Sri Lanka, Muslims are scared. We want peace.

As he talks, he receives a phone call that appears to warn him to be careful talking to journalists. Im very careful, he says into the receiver. I will not come to that topic. I will avoid answering those questions.

This is a nightmare for us, says Safri Muhammad, a trustee of the Delgahagoda mosque. They are not Muslims, he says of the men and women accused of detonating suicide bombs. They carry Muslim names but they are not Muslims, they are terrorists.

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

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