The mastermind of the Easter Sunday bombings may still be alive, according to local media reports in Sri Lanka, where police are widening their search for terrorist suspects amid growing public concerns about further attacks.
The fate of Zahran Hashmi, an extremist cleric also called Mohamed Kasim Mohamed Zahran, has been unknown since Sri Lankan intelligence accused him of orchestrating the multiple suicide bombings that killed 359 people.
Hashmi, the alleged leader of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group that the government believe carried out the atrocity, was thought to have been killed. But his death has not been confirmed, BBC Sinhala reported on Thursday.
The report was based on a statement by Ruwan Wijewardene, the deputy defense minister, who declined to comment specifically on the fate of Hashmi. He did say, however, that the ‘leader’ of the suicide bomber team that struck three churches and three luxury hotels had died.
Previously it had been reported that Hashmi had died after blowing himself up at the Shangri La hotel breakfast buffet, but the police have disputed these claims.
Close to 60 people have been detained in sweeping arrests across the island as the government faces growing anger over its failure to act on crucial Indian intelligence earlier this month about possible attacks on churches.
The public’s nerves were frayed further by a small blast near a magistrates court on Thursday morning in Pugoda town, about 25 miles east of the capital, Colombo. No casualties were reported.
Traffic was also disrupted near the island’s main international airport as the police inspected a suspicious vehicle.
The Indian Ocean island remains under curfew and emergency security measures while the counter-terrorism operation, assisted by experts from the US, UK, Australia and UAE, is underway.
All Catholic churches have been instructed to stay closed and suspect services until security improves.
Christians in Jaffna, in the north of the country, issued a statement urging “patience and peace as the truth of these heinous crimes emerges,” adding: “our grief is never a call for retribution.”
Their appeal came as Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community spoke of their fears about retaliation and reported online abuse and stones being thrown at Muslim homes and businesses.
Sri Lanka’s government believes that the massacre was carried out with the NTJ, previously an obscure local Islamist group, with assistance from overseas terrorism networks due to its precise and coordinated nature and the use of military-grade explosives used.
The targeting of Christians and hotels popular with westerners bore the hallmarks of global jihadi terrorism.
The Islamic State terrorist group on Tuesday claimed credit for the bloodbath and released a video of the suicide bombers swearing allegiance to the militant group’s leader Abu Bakral-Baghdadi.
It did not provide further proof that it had engineered the attack. However, the Hindu newspaper reported on Wednesday that investigators had found that two of the suspects had recently returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The video released on the Isil’s Aamaq news agency showed Hashmi at the centre of a group of eight attackers in front of an Islamic State flag. He was the only person to keep his face uncovered.
India’s CNN News 18 channel first reported the possible involvement of Hashmi in the massacre, claiming that Indian intelligence sources had indicated to the Sri Lankans that he was planning to attack the Indian High Commission in Colombo in early April.
Over the last few years, Hashmi has gained thousands of followers for his incendiary sermons denouncing non-Muslims on pro-IS social media accounts.
Hilmy Ahamed, the vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told The Telegraph he had been trying to warn officials about Hashmi’s extremism for three years after it emerged that he was radicalising young pupils in his Koran classes.
Hashmi’s group began as an offshoot of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath, which has denied any involvement in the bombings.
Hashmi was reported in the local press as a divisive figure within his own community who incited violence against other Muslims.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Hashmi was operating out of southern India, or had links there, in the months before Sunday’s bombings.
“All his YouTube videos of hate speech were uploaded in India,” claimed Mr Hilmy. “He has a base in either Chennai or Bangalore.”
Hashmi’s Indian ties are expected to come under closer investigation. India’s National Investigation Agency had specific intelligence ahead of the serial blasts, which it passed on to Colombo, but no action was taken by the Sri Lankans.
The Hindu reported that Indian investigators unearthed the plot during an interrogation of an IS sympathiser in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu six months ago.