An empowered Presidential Commission in the Maldives has concluded that local Al-Qaeda affiliates were behind the disappearance of ‘liberal’ journalist Ahmed Rilwan five years ago and that he was decapitated before his body was dumped in the sea. It may be of added concern to the larger Indian neighbour as it was in 2014 that reports emerged about three Maldivian nationals seeking to target the US Consulate-General’s office in southern Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai and the Israeli counterpart in Bengaluru.
Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, 28, was working for the web-journal Maldives Independent, and had called for ‘religious freedom’ in the country and also led a protest march on his demand. He also joined issues with fundamentalist groups on social media, provoking strong reactions.
The Presidential Commission has since established that Rilwan was ‘abducted at knife-point and forced into a car outside his apartment-building was put on a dinghy and transferred to another vessel’, the summary of the commission report put out on Parliament website said.
Rilwan’s disappearance is the first in a series of cases entrusted to the Presidential Commission for investigation. In the light of new evidence in his case, including some ‘secret witnesses’ and inclusive ones, the commission has asked the Prosecutor-General’s office to appeal the acquittal of two suspects charged over the abduction, Suood had told newsmen a couple of days earlier, before submitting the findings to Parliament.
“The roots of Rilwan’s abduction – as well as the attempted murder of blogger Ismail Khilath Rasheed in June 2012, the assassination of parliamentarian Dr Afrasheem Ali in October 2012 and the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed in April 2017, were all “connected” and carried out by the same extremist group – could be traced to an ‘ideological dispute’ that started between Maldivian free-thinkers and extremists on social media in 2010,” the Maldives Independent quoted Suood as saying.
According to the commission report, Rilwan engaged with radical groups since December 2011. “Suood also referred to a Facebook interaction between Rilwan and ‘Bilad al-Sham’, a media group operated by Maldivians fighting in Syria with the al-Qaeda-affiliated ‘A-Nusra Front’. Weeks before the abduction, the group’s admin, Abu Dhujana – the alias of a Maldivian named Yameen Naeem who was killed in September 2014 – warned Rilwan that his “days were short”.
Naeem accused Rilwan of apostasy and providing information to police about Maldivian jihadis in Syria and their associates in the Maldives, Suood said. The group was upset with the articles Rilwan wrote about jihadi fighters in May 2014, the web journal quoted Suood as saying further. In this context, the commission chair also charged the group’s members for the Sultan Park bombing in Male, and a violent clash between security forces and a separatist prayer group on Himandhoo island, both in 2007.
During that period, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was in office, and early suspicions at the time were around pro-democracy movements in the country, with unsubstantiated doubts about their wanting to disrupt foreigner-centric resort tourism, the mainstay of Maldivian economy then and now.
Training in Pakistan
As the commission has recalled, “Ties (between Maldivian groups) with the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda were established around 2008, after which the Maldivians began operating under their instructions. In June 2014, the Maldivian organisation’s leadership split into rival groups that supported al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the Maldives Independent report said.
“Using the Furqan and Noor mosques in the capital as hubs, both groups recruit locals to send as jihadi fighters to Syria. Leaders have been identified and witness statements have been obtained against them,” the website has added, quoting Suood again. The report has named one Mohamed Ameen as the leader of the IS-affiliated group and Mohamed Mazeed as the leader of the al-Qaeda faction, adding that the former was “was behind recent robberies in the capital, including the theft of MVR2.3 million ($149,000) in March this year”.
In detailing past episodes with certain brevity and clarity, the commission has said that the al-Qaeda group had carried out the murders and that its leader was known to have travelled to Pakistan for training by al-Qaeda. In context, the report said that the organisation was divided into sub-groups tasked with proselytising, managing finances and other matters. Shops that sell clothes and vegetables, as well as cafés and fishing vessels, operate in the Maldives to raise funds, Suood said, adding that revenues from the two fishing vessels used for Rilwan’s murder were used for funding their operations.
Meeting with Rilwan’s family members after Suood’s news conference, President Solih promised action on the commission’s findings. “According to media reports, the passports of 14 suspects have been withheld at the request of the presidential commission”, the Maldives Independent reported further.
Members of the commission also met with the family before going to Press. In a statement later, Rilwan’s family members, who have been staging annual protests along with his friends and former colleagues on the day of his disappearance, expressed “grave sorrow and discontent” (over past investigations) and also requested the “authorities to provide security for our family, witnesses, and others receiving threats from violent groups”.
It remains to be seen whether the Government would initiate action against police officers who had investigated the case under the Yameen regime. This is because the commission’s draft report has also said that “police intelligence had followed Rilwan and listened to his phone calls from April-June 2014. According to the request made by the police to obtain a court order to intercept Rilwan’s communication, the journalist was accused of carrying out “activities against the State”. The commission has held that the “intelligence officers who spied on Rilwan were also aware of his abduction before it was reported to police, the commission revealed”.
‘Deep State’: Nasheed
Addressing the ‘Indian Ocean Conference’ (IOC) after the contents of the commission report were made known, former President Mohammed Nasheed, at present Parliament Speaker, said that the ISIS and al-Qaeda were “building a deep state” in the Maldives. Nasheed and his ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have held on to strong views on ‘radical Islam’ in the country, and more so against al-Qaeda from his days as President (2008-12). The IS was not around at the time.
The groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and IS were (also) “capturing strategic positions in the security institutions, the military, police and the Education Ministry”, India’s Business Standard and other newspapers said, quoting from an ANI report on the IOC proceedings. In this context, Nasheed also declared ‘radical Islam’ as the ‘biggest challenge for the Indian Ocean Region’ (IOR).
Incidentally, even as the commission report on Rilwan’s ‘disappearance’ was making it to the nation, the Maldivian Customs Service (MCS) ‘confiscated’ 109 books for alleged ‘irreligious content’ (purportedly containing information on Hinduism and Christianity) from an annual book fair. Successive Maldivian Constitutions, including the latest, pro-democracy edition of 2008, recognises only Sunni-Islam as the sole religion of the nation and laws punishes those that preach any other in the country.
Treaty with India
On the sidelines of the IOC meeting, in which India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishanker participated, the two nations signed a treaty on ‘mutual assistance in criminal matters’. Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid and India’s Ambassador Sunjay Sudhir signed the treaty in the presence of the visiting EAM.
“The treaty will facilitate the fight against criminal activity, especially crime related to terrorism. It will also aid in the investigation of such matters, obtaining evidence, and broaden the opportunity to interrogate those in question,” President Solih’s Office had explained when Parliament cleared the draft in July this year.
The two nations have been cooperating extensively in intelligence-sharing and other aspects of a joint fight on religious radicalisation and terrorism. India has also been alive and alert to regional cooperation in this regard, and the early alerts to neighbouring Sri Lanka ahead of the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ in that country, is a case in point.
As coincidence would have it, President Solih and visiting Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe too “have agreed to redouble efforts to protect people from the threat of terrorism in the region”, a joint statement issued at the end of their recent dialogue in Male, had said. It is another matter that India’s NIA team also visited Sri Lanka to help in the blasts-investigations and followed up on shared-intelligence to conduct raids on ‘terror-hideouts’, especially in southern Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore city, incidentally the site of ‘serial bomb-blasts, as far back as 14 February 1998.
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