Politics Society & Culture Terrorism

Maldives: Extremist Spectre – Analysis

The Global Terrorism Index 2017 report states, “Over the last 15 years, Bhutan and the Maldives have experienced the lowest levels of terrorist impact in the region.” There were, nevertheless, several developments indicative of growing Islamist radicalization in the Maldives in the recent past, adversely impacting its national security. Former President Mohamed Nasheed in an interview published on February 25, 2018, thus warned:

“The Maldives is threatened by a religious extremist take over. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is now a parallel state in the Maldives. A state within the state. A network of religious radicals that have infiltrated strategic institutions, the government, and the street gangs. They are ready to overrun the country and impose a radical version of religion upon the Maldivians and tourists alike. President Yameen [Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom] works with this ‘deep state’, but he cannot control it.”

Worryingly, several Maldivians have gone to the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq to participate in jihad. On January 15, 2018, Maldives’ Defence Minister Adam Shareef had disclosed that 61 Maldivians had travelled to Syria to fight along with jihadi groups [Islamic State or Daesh and al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra – currently also known as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham]. However, the Soufan Group’s report on foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq published in December 2015 claimed that around 200 Maldivians were fighting in Syria and Iraq, making the Maldives the world’s second-largest number of foreign fighters ‘per capita’ (500 fighters per million population), after Tunisia (at 545.5 fighters per million).

Defence Minister Shareef had also disclosed that around 68 persons, including nine children, had been stopped from going to Syria to join jihadist groups. Reports indicate that the first traces of such emigration were noticed when two youth were detained at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) at Male in October 2013. Some of the other recent arrests include:

October 21, 2017: Two Maldivians en-route to Syria were arrested in Turkey and brought back to their country.

September 23, 2017: Three Maldivians en route to Syria were arrested in Turkey and brought back. The three men were arrested in a joint operation with the Turkish law enforcement authorities while they were trying to cross the border into Syria.

August 7-9, 2017: Two Maldivians were among 19 suspected terrorists arrested for their alleged links with Islamic State in Malaysia. The duo was using Malaysia and Singapore as their transit points before heading to Syria to join Daesh.

February 2017: A Maldivian man was arrested in Turkey and deported to the Maldives while attempting to cross-over to Syria.

February 2016: Three Maldivians, identified as Ahmed Latheef, Ahmed Suhail Moosa and Munawwar Abdulla was arrested on the Turkey-Syria border and extradited to the Maldives in March.

Further, according to a classified report prepared by the Indian Intelligence Bureau in July 2016, the Islamic State reportedly had as many as 500 sympathisers in the Maldives in addition to those who had already travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict.

Significantly, Yameen Rasheed, a popular liberal blogger and a strong voice against radical Islamist elements, was stabbed to death in his apartment in Male on the North Male Atoll on April 23, 2017. Weeks before his assassination, Rasheed had received several death threats from various sources, including Islamic State-inspired extremist groups and gangs.

Surprisingly, according to an April 17, 2018 report, one Maldivian (identity not revealed), who in 2017 went to Syria to fight alongside terrorist groups (along with his wife and child) returned to the Maldives in March 2018 and lives in the capital, Male. Reports indicate that he had participated in terrorist activities while in Syria; however, no action has been initiated against him.

According to various releases from Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, at least 12 to 20 Maldivians have already been killed in different conflict zones of the Middle East. In one such incident, on December 24, 2017, a 25-year-old Maldivian fighter, a native of Naivaidhoo on the Haa Dhaal Atoll, who left the country in early 2017, (name not specified) was killed while fighting in Syria.

Confirming the continuing presence of Maldivians in West Asian conflict zones on January 20, 2018, Jabhat al-Nusra’s media wing, Bilad al-Sham Media (BASM, the media outlet for Maldivians fighting in Syria) released a video of Maldivian fighters undertaking jihadi training at an unspecified location in Syria. The video shows men in camouflage performing drills, handling of weapons and raiding buildings.

In the meantime, with Daesh losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the foreign fighters have started returning home, to their country of origin, including the Maldives. This is likely to further endanger the security situation within the country. Referring to the challenges to countries from Daesh returnees the Global Terrorism Index 2017 report warned,

“In Asia, two countries that have little history of violent Islamist attacks are grappling with these challenges; Malaysia and the Maldives. Both have seen a startling number of their citizens travel to Iraq and Syria relative to their population.”

It is indeed a sign of danger as there have already been attempts in the past by the cadres of Islamic State to create trouble in the country. The incidents include:

November 16, 2017: Two men were arrested for making an improvised explosive device (IED) and Police recovered bomb making equipment at the home of one of them in Male. Though the Police did not reveal any further information about the incident, sources indicate that “one [of the arrested persons] is a senior member of a gang and both are suspected to have had connections with foreign jihadi groups”.

November 15, 2017: Maldivian officials confirmed that two Maldivians, Ishag Ali and Hussein Afeef, who were arrested on an unspecified date in September 2017 for their connection with Islamic State, were planning to carry out a suicide attack in the capital Male. The prosecutor general’s spokesman Adam Thaufeeq disclosed that one was charged for planning a suicide attack, while the other was charged for attempting to carry it out, adding, “The police investigation found out that these men are affiliated with IS and they were planning to carry out an attack in Male.”

May 2017: A Maldivian man was arrested for hoisting the flag of Islamic State near the skating ground of the artificial beach in Male.

The initial sign of Daesh’s presence in the country was exposed with the emergence of an online group, called Islamic State of Maldives (ISM), which claimed to be a local affiliate, in the last week of July 2014. Later on September 5, 2014, there was a protest conducted by about 200 people, including women and children, some carrying Islamic State flags, calling for the full implementation of Sharia law and an end to secular rule in the Maldives.

There have, in addition, been several acts of violence indicative of the prevalent radicalization. These prominently include:

August 8, 2014: Well-known blogger and journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, was abducted by unidentified people from at his apartment in the island of Hulhumale in North Male Atoll. Rilwan, a one-time Islamist who became a critic of the religious right-wing, played a major role in exposing the activities of Islamist extremist groups in the country. Though the Maldives Police is investigating his case, they are yet to locate him.

October 1, 2012: Religious scholar and Member of Parliament for Ungoofaaru Constituency, Afrasheem Ali, was stabbed to death by Islamist extremists after he expressed his reformist views about religion, especially related to gender equality and music, in a television broadcast.

June 4, 2012: Blogger and human rights activist, Ismail Hilath Rasheed narrowly survived a murder attempt after he was stabbed in the neck by three Islamist extremists. It was the third physical assault on him after he started getting regular death threats subsequent to his writing in 2009, that some extremists were keeping under-age girls as concubines.

The September 29, 2007, Sultan Park bombing in Male is considered as the first-ever Islamist terror attack in the Maldives. A crude bomb, consisting of a gas cylinder, a mobile phone, and a washing machine motor, exploded in Sultan Park (now renamed as Rasrani Bageechaa) located near the Islamic Centre in the capital Male. 12 foreign tourists, including eight Chinese, two British, and two Japanese, were seriously injured.

The threat of terror persists. In September 2017, the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom updated its terror guidelines on the Maldives, warning that an attack was “very likely”, and adding, “Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers including tourists.”

With the growing influence of radicalization and jihadi networks in the country, the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) was established through Presidential Decree (2016/3) on February 25, 2016. The NCTC, which works under the direct supervision of the Minister of Defence and National Security, and is currently staffed by the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), constituted two executive committees: the Counter-Terrorism Steering Committee and the Deradicalization Committee, to focus on the issues of Maldivian citizens joining as fighters in conflict zones such as Syria. According to NCTC’s March 2018 Newsletter, “as a result of collaborative efforts between NCTC, Maldives Police Service, Maldives Immigration and with enormous support from international partners, the number of Maldivian Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) travelling to Syria has declined to a single case in the first three months of 2018.”

In spite of this brave posturing the State responses to these emerging threats remain uncertain. Even the anti-terrorism laws in the country define the idea of terrorism and affiliation to terrorist organizations in a vague manner, and could be used more against the political opposition rather than against its declared targets.

Amidst all this, the smallest country in South Asia, comprising 1,192 small islands, grouped in 26 atolls and situated in the Indian Ocean, is going through another cycle of political crises. President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day ‘state of emergency’ in the country on February 5, 2018, soon after the Supreme Court ordered the release of a group of opposition political leaders, including the exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had been convicted in widely criticised trials. The state of emergency was extended by another 30 days on February 20, 2018, but eventually ended on March 22, 2018, when the President decided to withdraw the draconian law after filing terrorism charges against his political opponents, including his half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his son-in-law Mohamed Nadheem, Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed, four opposition lawmakers and an ex-Police commissioner. Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2016 and leads the main opposition party from exile, alleged that the President’s moves were aimed at winning the Presidential elections scheduled for September 2018.

The Maldivian state has sought to use Islamist mobilization to contain Islamist radicalization, creating contradictory impulses within the system, and creating spaces for extremism and terrorism. It is only through of strategy of consistently and narrowly targeting extremists, even as the state distances itself from its own brand of religious radicalization, that current trends can be neutralized and reversed, and the threat of terrorism in and from the Maldives contained.

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