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. Sri Lankan officials have identified him as the suspected 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 descrion 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.