Sri Lanka’s Muslims fear retaliation and alienation in wake of Easter bombings

Muslims make up less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population and have historically faced persecution by right-wing Buddhist groups.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka remains on high alert one week after more than 250 people were killed in a string of coordinated bombings that tore through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.

The attacks were led by a little-known local Islamist group called National Thowheed Jamaath, whose leader had allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS. Suspected attackers are still believed to be at large, and officials have warned more attacks may be imminent.


The government has responded to the looming threat by launching a country-wide search for suspected attackers and allowing the military to detain suspects without court orders. And on Monday, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena announced a ban on face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, in public, saying the decisions was made "to strengthen national security."

For Sri Lanka's Muslims, who make up less than 10 percent of the country's population and have historically faced persecution by right-wing Buddhist groups, they fear such measures could soon open the door to greater reprisal.

Hilmy Ahmed, who leads Sri Lanka’s Muslim Council, says he warned the government about threats the leader of National Thowheed Jamaat made in 2015. He says the intelligence officials followed up then but were unable to find or arrest the leader, who was confirmed as one of the suicide bombers in the recent attacks.

Ahmed isn’t alone in highlighting the government's failure to heed warnings ahead of last Sunday's attack. Ten days before the bombings, authorities received intelligence of possible terrorist attacks on churches, but they failed to act on it.

Now, Ahmed worries that regular Muslims will pay the price — and last week, he called for his community to abstain from going to Friday prayers at their mosques for the time being. “The alienation of Muslims is going to take place. So, we need to first look inwards at our community to see how we can adapt to dispel the suspicions they have about us,” Ahmed told VICE News. “On the other hand, we need to go back to them and say ‘Look, every Muslim is not a terrorist.’”

But not everyone in the community felt staying home for Friday prayers was the best way forward. At one mosque in the nation's capital, a small group of Muslims gathered to worship, despite their fears.

“We believe a lot in prayer, and we did this in solidarity toward everyone who has got affected,” Inthikab Zufer, a local mosque-goer, told VICE News. “When you come here, you have 50 percent of calmness in your mind but also a mixed emotion of another 50 percent that… we hope and pray that nothing crazy happens here.”

This segment originally aired on April 26, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.