New Zealand attacker radicalized by neighbors, mother says

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Light traffic moves down a street in Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority town in the eastern province of Sri Lanka, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. Kattankudy is the home town of Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, an Islamic State-inspired extremist who attacked shoppers in a New Zealand supermarket on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Kanagarasa Saravanan)

COLOMBO – The mother of an Islamic State-inspired extremist who stabbed shoppers in a New Zealand supermarket said her son was radicalized by neighbors from Syria and Iraq who helped him recover from an injury.

The attacker, Ahamed Samsudeen, was a 32-year-old Tamil Muslim from Sri Lanka. He arrived in New Zealand 10 years ago on a student visa, and applied for refugee status on the basis of being persecuted back home in the island nation off the southern coast of India.

Samsudeen was shot and killed by police, who said five people were stabbed and two others injured in the chaos of last week’s attack in Auckland.

His mother, Mohamedismail Fareetha, said his descent into extremism began after he fell several stories in 2016 while attending university.

“Because he did not have anyone there, it was people from Syria and Iraq who helped him. It looks like they brainwashed him. Then he started posting on Facebook," Fareetha said in a phone interview Saturday with a local TV station from her home in eastern Sri Lanka.

“He changed only after going abroad,” she added.

Police first noticed Samsudeen’s online support for terrorism in 2016, and the following year he was arrested at Auckland Airport. He was headed for Syria, authorities say, presumably to join the Islamic State insurgency. He was later released on bail.

“After being arrested in 2017, he talked less with us, it was about once every three months,” Fareetha said, adding that two of her other sons “were angry with him and scolded him."

In a statement Saturday, Fareetha’s son Aroos said his brother “would hang up the phone on us when we told him to forget about all the issues he was obsessed with. Then he would call us back again himself when he realized he was wrong. Aathil was wrong again yesterday. Of course we feel very sad he could not be saved."

In 2018, Samsudeen was jailed for three years after he was found with Islamic State videos and knives, and the following year, his refugee status was canceled after authorities found evidence of fraud. Immigration authorities tried to argue he should remain behind bars, but in July, Samsudeen was set free.

Police trailed him around the clock, fearing he would launch an attack, but unable to do more. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said her government will change the laws this month to enhance penalties for terrorist plots.

Samsudeen's family is from Kattankudy, a coastal city 220 kilometers (135 miles) northeast of the capital, Colombo, which police view as a hotbed for extremism.

Since Sri Lanka's decades-long conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils ended in 2009, a religious divide has taken hold.

The alleged mastermind of Sri Lanka's 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, Mohammed Zahran, preached an increasingly extremist version of Islam in Kattankudy glorifying the killing of nonbelievers. Two local Muslim groups that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group were blamed for the six near-simultaneous suicide bomb attacks on three churches and three hotels.

However, it was not immediately clear whether Samsudeen had any links to extremist groups in his home town.

Rishvin Ismath, the spokesman for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka, said the government should focus on broad-based rehabilitation, such as making changes to what is preached in mosques and reforming school textbooks, which he said still contain extremist material.

“If they focus only on identified terrorists, they are not going to finish this problem,” he said.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the former head of Sri Lanka's Institute of National Security Studies, said extremist militants across South Asia could become emboldened after seeing Taliban fighters quickly capture most of Afghanistan last month and the departure of U.S. forces.

“I don’t see China or Russia taking that place to balance the regional security architecture. The vacuum that is being created will have ripple effects to many nations," he said.

He also cautioned lawmakers in New Zealand against taking overly drastic steps when reforming their anti-terror laws, which he said could spark further radicalization.

By locking up hundreds of people, jails themselves could turn into breeding grounds for extremism, he said.