Who is the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday bombings?

Wednesday, 21 April 2021 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Today, the second anniversary of the brutal and devastating Easter attacks, a two minutes’ silence will be observed at 8:45 a.m. in all churches. This will be followed by the lighting of candles and oil lamps to pay tribute to those who had died in the attacks and sounding of the funeral bells. A special program will be conducted at St. Anthony’s Shrine Kochchikade where the first explosion happened – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Today, 21 April, is the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday bombings which rocked and shocked Sri Lanka and the world at large two years ago. 

On the morning of that fateful Easter Sunday, suicide bombers targeted three plush hotels and three churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa; over 260 were killed and over 500 injured in the well- coordinated near simultaneous attacks by a group allegedly subscribing to Islamic Jihadist ideology. 

Most of the innocents killed, maimed and injured were people engaged in morning worship at the churches or guests partaking of breakfast in the hotels. Several of the victims were foreign nationals. The three hotels targeted were the Shangri-La, The Kingsbury and the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo. Two other persons connected to the Jihadists were killed in two separate explosions in Dehiwala and Dematagoda.

Two of the three churches attacked were Catholic churches. One was St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo and the other St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo. The third church under attack was the Protestant evangelical Zion Church in Batticaloa. The attacks affected the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka directly as a substantial number of the victims were Catholics.


Cardinal’s call for justice

The Catholic Archbishop of the Colombo Diocese His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has been demanding justice for the victims and their families for a long time.

In March this year Cardinal Ranjith issued what was termed by the media as an ultimatum to the Government. A news item appearing in The Island on 23 March 2021 had this heading – ‘Cardinal throws ultimatum to Govt. to arraign perpetrators of Easter carnage’. 

The news story stated as follows: ‘Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith yesterday warned that countrywide protests would be held if the Government failed to produce before Courts, by 21 April, those behind the Easter Sunday attacks. “If we don’t see anything concrete happening before 21 April, we will organise protests across the country. We urge the Government to investigate the attacks impartially and transparently. At least take action against those named in the PCoI on Easter Sunday attacks before 21 April. Otherwise we will hold a continuous protest,” the Cardinal warned.’

Consequent to the ‘ultimatum’ declared by the Cardinal, there was much media hype about what the Catholic Church proposed to do if the Government did not prosecute any of the allegedly guilty persons by the 21 April deadline. As the days passed it became certain that no such legal action was possible before 21 April. 

This was further confirmed by Justice Minister Ali Sabry who told the Daily Mirror that the 21 April deadline could not be met. “It is unlikely that charges could be filed against whom the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has levelled the accusing finger for the alleged involvement of the Easter Sunday carnage before 21 April as demanded by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith,” Justice Minister Ali Sabry said.


PCoI report and Cardinal’s response

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry being referred to is the one appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena on 22 September 2019 to investigate and report on the series of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday and to recommend necessary action based on the findings.

The final report was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the Chairman of the Commission Supreme Court Judge Janak de Silva at the Presidential Secretariat on 1 February 2021. The first and second interim reports were handed over to President Rajapaksa on 20 December 2019 and on 2 March 2020 respectively.

After the report (or most parts of it) became available, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, held a press conference on 3 March in which he called on the Government to reveal the names of the “true masterminds” of the 21 April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. “Sri Lankan authorities must bring to justice without delay the ‘true masterminds’ as well as those who seriously neglected their duties while aware of the attacks,” said the Cardinal addressing the media at the Bishop’s residence. “If we do not see justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, through a transparent investigation, by 21 April 2021, we will not only wear black, but we will invite people across the country to raise a black flag that day to show our strong opposition,” the Catholic prelate further said. 

A ‘Black Sunday’ was held on 7 March where Catholics attended church dressed in black and engaged in special prayers. It appeared to be a dress rehearsal for 21 April. Thereafter the Cardinal has been consistently drawing attention to the 21 April deadline. The media hype that accompanied the Cardinal’s statements created an impression that the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka may embark on a controversial course of action on or from 21 April.


Two-year anniversary commemoration

A joint press conference was held by Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Bishop of Chilaw Most Rev. Valance Mendis and the Bishop of Galle Most Rev. Raymond Wickremesinghe on 19 April. It was announced that all Catholic schools would be closed on 21 April. 

The Church also stated what would be done on the second anniversary: “Two minutes’ silence will be observed at 8:45 a.m. in all churches. This will be followed by the lighting of candles and oil lamps to pay tribute to those who had died in the attacks and sounding of the funeral bells. A special program will be conducted at St. Anthony’s Shrine Kochchikade where the first explosion happened while a special song written by Professor Sunil Ariyaratne and composed by Rohana Weerasinghe will be sung by popular songstress Nanda Malini.”

“We urge all other places of worship including temples, mosques and kovils to observe a two-minute silence with us,” requested Cardinal Ranjith.


Cardinal says church willing to wait

According to a news report in the Economy Next website, the Cardinal was asked at the press conference whether he was satisfied with the progress of inquiries. The Cardinal had replied that political wheeler-dealing appeared to be obscuring efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith referred to the manner in which the Government secured the support of Muslim legislators to ensure a two-thirds majority for the 20th Amendment and warned that the Government should not take him for a fool.

According to the news report the Cardinal had gone on to say that ad hoc arrests and releases would not inspire confidence in the investigations into the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that killed 279 and wounded over 500 people. However, he had said the church was willing to give more time for the authorities to identify all those behind the attack and bring them to justice.

Asked about the 21 April deadline he had issued earlier for the Government to show results or risk Catholics being asked to take to the streets to protest, the Cardinal had said it was not a strict deadline, but an aim: “21 April was only terminus ad quem,” he said.

It can be seen from the above news report that the Catholic Church in general and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith in particular would not adopt any controversial measures on or immediately after 21 April. They would exercise restraint and wait patiently for the Gotabaya Government to initiate constructive legal action against those allegedly responsible for or were involved in the Easter Sunday terror.  Though not satisfied with the progress, the Church and Cardinal are mindful of efforts taken by the Government in this regard. The Cardinal is not likely to rest until the ‘true masterminds’ behind the carnage are identified and penalised.


The true masterminds?

This raises the important question of who the true masterminds are or were.

Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara stated at a press conference held on 6 April that the Intelligence Services had identified Naufer Moulavi as the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The Minister also said that Naufer Moulavi was currently in remand custody. 

On 10 April Rear Admiral (Retd) Sarath Weerasekara made a special statement in Parliament. The Public Security Minister announced that Mohamadu Ibrahim Mohamad Naufar alias Naufer Moulavi was the main person behind the Easter Sunday terror attacks in 2019. Following these disclosures the national and international media went to town with the revelation that the Sri Lankan Government Minister had identified Naufer Moulavi as the mastermind behind the


Easter attacks.

Even though Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara has stated that Naufer Moulavi is the mastermind behind the Easter attacks, there are many who take the announcement with a pinch of salt. 

Naufer Moulavi’s association with Zahran Hashim or his involvement with the group responsible for the carnage is acknowledged and not disputed. It is also accepted that he exercised a great deal of influence with Zahran and played a key role in shaping his politico-religious beliefs. Naufer Moulavi was also among those who hooked up Zahran with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) re-branded as the Islamic State (IS). It is also a fact that Naufer Moulavi adopted the nom de guerre Abu Shaid (Zahran was Abu Ubaidah). He was made the deputy chief of the group and was technically its head after the demise of Zahran Hashim. Nevertheless it does not seem possible that Naufer was indeed the mastermind behind the attacks.


Who is Naufer Moulavi?

Who then was Naufer Moulavi and what was his role in the Easter Sunday bombings? This two-part article will try to provide some details which may help to find answers to some if not all the questions surrounding Naufer Moulavi.

Mohammadu Ibrahim Mohamad Naufer is generally known as Naufer Moulavi. “Moulavi” is a title given to Islamic religious scholars who obtain the qualification after completing studies at a “Madrassa” (Islamic school) or “Darul Uloom” (Islamic Seminary). It is derived from the Arabic word Mawlawi. Naufer was addressed and known as Naufer Moulavi because he was an accredited Islamic scholar or Moulavi. 

Naufer Moulavi was arrested in Dambulla a few days after the Easter Sunday bombings. The circumstances surrounding his arrest were rather interesting. Naufer Moulavi who frequently travelled between the Gulf State of Qatar and Sri Lanka was staying at a safe house in Enderamulla when the Easter bombings took place. With the law enforcement authorities cracking down hard after the explosive attacks, Naufer Moulavi decided to relocate to his native Kattankudy. He proceeded to do so with a driver in a hired vehicle.

They reached Dambulla after nightfall and decided to stay at a hotel in the town. Naufer took a room at a hotel under another name. He had identity documents to that effect. However the false identity documents too had a Muslim name. The hotel employees at the reception desk were suspicious as the Easter explosions had upset the whole of Sri Lanka. After Naufer went up to his room, the Dambulla Police were quietly alerted.

The cops arrived quickly and whisked Naufer away to the Police Station. He and the driver were quizzed intensely. The Dambulla Police also communicated with the Police Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) in Colombo. The identity document details were sent. The ID documents were checked and a clean chit was given. The Dambulla Police then said Naufer could go and the Moulavi exited the Police Station as a free man. 

Meanwhile another TID officer asked the Dambulla Police to send pictorial images also. Since some photos had been taken, they were electronically transmitted immediately. When the TID checked out the pictures, it was discovered that the man bearing a false name was Naufer Moulavi. The TID had a file on him. The Dambulla cops were told to arrest the man immediately as he was a wanted man. Naufer had returned to the hotel. The Dambulla Police arrested him and later handed the prize catch over to the TID.



Mohammadu Ibrahim Mohamed Naufer alias Naufer Moulavi was born on 30 November 1978 in the Muslim coastal town of Kattankudy in Batticaloa. This was the birthplace and hometown of Zahran Hashim and many others who were involved in the Easter Sunday violence. If the Northern coastal town of Valvettithurai (VVT) in the Jaffna peninsula could be termed as the nursery of Tamil “terrorism,” the Eastern coastal town of Kattankudy could also be termed as the nursery of Muslim “terrorism”. I have written about Kattankudy in the past and will excerpt some paragraphs from a previous article here as it is important to know about the place.

Kattankudy pronounced in Tamil as ‘Kaathaankudi’ is situated 211 miles away from Colombo in the Eastern littoral known as ‘Ezhuvaankarai’ (shore of the rising sun). It is a very small place with a land area of 2.56 sq. km. and 1.33 sq. km. of inland waterways. Kattankudy is reportedly the most densely populated town in Sri Lanka with 6,726 residents per square kilometre. The 2012 Census estimated the population in the Kattankudy Urban Council area as at 47,603. Many in Kattankudy dispute these estimates saying thousands of permanent residents who were temporarily away overseas or in other parts of the island were not counted.

The thickly-populated Kattankudy is arguably the most prosperous Muslim town in the east. It is said that Kattankudy is the busiest commercial centre in the Batticaloa District. The first Muslim Central College in Sri Lanka was established in Kattankudy in 1930. Kattankudy has produced many teachers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, academics and diplomats over the years. In addition, the natives of Kattankudy are well-known for their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. 

A very large number of leading Muslim commercial establishments in the east as well as in several parts of the island belong to people from Kattankudy. So much so that there is a popular saying in Tamil about there being no place in Sri Lanka without a “Kaaham” (crow) or a “Kaathaankdyaan” (man from Kattankudi). 

There is also a blooming apparel industry. Kattankudy is reputed for its mats, carpets, sarees and sarongs. Kattankudy was also famous once for its delicious distinctive dishes like “aattukkaal” (mutton leg) soup, “moolaippirattal” curry (goat brain scrambled with egg) and fried “koali maangaai” (chicken gizzards).

Interestingly enough there is a widely-held belief among Kattankudy denizens that their ancestors hailed from the Qahtan region of South Arabia in what is present-day Yemen. It is said that Arabs who came from Qahtan known as Qahtanis married local Tamil women and got domiciled. The name Kattankudy is said to mean “Qahtan Settlement”. Kattan is derived from Qahtan while Kudi/y means settlement in Tamil. Some years ago there was even a proposal that Kattankudy’s name be changed to “Qahtankudy”. It was rejected. However in recent times Kattankudy has acquired the hallmarks of a small Arabian town. This is due to greater interaction between the people of Kattankudy and Middle-Eastern countries.

In recent times, many Kattankudy residents have sought employment in the Middle-East. This has resulted in increased Islamisation of the Wahabi variety. Wahabis are an orthodox Islamic sect originating in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative version of Islam that harks back to the past and rejects any religious innovation that came into being after the first three centuries of Islam. It seeks to purify Islam by practicing monotheistic worship and rejecting other deviant forms. 

Kattankudy today is a modern township bustling with women clad in black abayas and men sporting bristling beards. Date palms are grown within urban precincts and many signboards and street arches have Arabic lettering. Kattankudy has more than 60 registered and unregistered mosques. Except for a handful, most of them are in practice influenced by Wahabi ideology.

It must also be remembered that Kattankudy is the place where the LTTE in 1990 shot and killed people in four mosques while they were praying; 147 died in all. Kattankudy was affected badly in the 2004 tsunami too; 108 were killed and 93 reported missing. Some 2,000 dwellings were destroyed or damaged.


Family and education

Naufer Moulavi’s father is Mohammadu Musthapha Mohammadu Ibrahim. The mother is Nichmattu Nachchi Ibrahim. Naufer had his primary education at the Meeraniya Girls’ School in Kattankudy. His secondary education was at the Kattankudy Central College and the Jamiyah Falahi Nadrassah. 

After sitting for his GCE (OL) at Central College, Naufer got admission to the Jamiyyathul Al-Falah Madrasa in Ward 4 of Kattankudi. He excelled in studies at the Madrassah and obtained a scholarship to the Islahiya Arabic College in Madampe run by the Sri Lanka Jamaat-E-Islami (SLJI) organisation.

Naufer followed two courses of study at Islahiya. On the one hand he followed classes enabling him to sit for the GCE (AL) examination while studying to be formally ordained as a Moulavi on the other. He was successful in both and became a Moulavi. However it was at Madampe that the lad from Kattankudy got exposed to Islamic fundamentalism and became radicalised.

Next: Wahhabism, Qatar, Islamic State and Zahran Hashim.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])


Recent columns