The societal change brought about by the dissemination and institutionalisation of fundamental Islam, poor socio-economic factors fomented by political instability, combined with the proselytisation of extremist ideology has fermented the Maldives as a recruitment ground for terror organisations, a European think-tank has said.
In its commentary published on Monday, the European Foundation For South Asian Studies (EFSAS) said, “Jihadi recruitment networks have extended their reach to the Maldives and as such, the South Asian nation faces a security threat that continues to evolve with the regional context.”
The commentary stressed that ISIS’ advancement in Afghanistan could accelerate the flow of Maldivian fighters to the conflict zone, and those that left to fight in Syria and Iraq could potentially regroup in the self-declared Islamic State Khorasan Province.
“The arrest of Muhammad Ameen, a Maldivian national arrested in late 2019 for spreading extremist ideology and allegedly mobilising individuals to fight for ISIS in Syria, then Afghanistan, shows that this menace is very much underway,” it said.
The think-tank underlined that the Maldivian government must take “measures to effectively curb the flow of foreign fighters to avoid fuelling the flames of conflict in volatile areas in South Asia.”
“It is imperative to impose stricter monitoring of imams and religious preachers, as to prevent those with sympathies to jihadist ideology from spreading destructive and nefarious discourses. Additionally, the creation of effective counter-narrative campaigns that respect Islamic religious practices and beliefs without promoting extremism must be implemented as to shift vulnerable populations away from radical ideology,” the commentary read.
“Finally, the Maldivian government must earn the trust of its young citizens and provide them with concrete prospects that would diminish the vulnerability that ISIS has so easily exploited,” it said.
The commentary pointed out that in February 2020, the Indonesian government decided not to repatriate its 689 citizens that had joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“This decision was welcomed by citizens of the world’s most populous Muslim nation, including by former militants of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a notorious Indonesian ISIS-affiliate terror organisation. The Indonesian government recognised its lack of resources and infrastructure to rehabilitate these individuals, but also that their return could contaminate, so to speak, thousands of other Indonesians vulnerable to extremist Islamist ideology,” the think-tank said.
It highlighted that the Maldives is placed in a similar predicament. “The Republic of Maldives is debating whether or not to repatriate its citizens from Iraq and Syria. Similar to its Indonesian counterpart, the government fears that the return of these fighters will only add fuel to the fire of extremist Islamist ideology on its territory.”
The Maldives has become the country with the highest rate of foreign fighters per capita in the world, and it faces internal menaces that push the country’s youth towards joining foreign terror organisations, the commentary stated.
“In December 2019, the Commissioner of Police, Mohamed Hameed, disclosed that there could be up to 1,400 Islamist extremists in the Maldives who adhere to ISIS ideology. Moreover, he revealed that 423 citizens had attempted to travel to war-zones in Iraq and Syria and 173 had succeeded. Further underlying conditions, such as poverty, unemployment and crime, may also have contributed to the vulnerability of Maldivian youth, exploited by the narratives of recruiters,” the think-tank said.
Referring to a terror attack on Maldivian territory that took place in early February, when three tourists were stabbed in Hulhumale by Islamist extremists, the commentary said, “This attack highlights the daunting threat of ISIS’ reach in the Maldives. Since the organisation lost its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East, it has operated underground networks with the aim to inspire other terror organisation to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and establish self-declared provinces, notably the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) covering Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
EFSAS also noted about the Maldives’ ‘tumultuous’ recent political history and claimed that the consequences of this political turmoil proved to be drastic for the local population.
“Poor socio-economic factors can contribute to an individual’s decision to become a foreign fighter. For example, 6.6 per cent of the Maldivian population lives below the international poverty line (less than USD 5 a day) but 90 per cent of them live on isolated atolls, where extremist preachers have access to vulnerable populations and can, therefore, expose them to radical ideology,” the think-tank emphasised.
“Following the devastating 2004 tsunami which hit all but nine of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands, killed scores of citizens, and rendered hundreds homeless, Wahhabi religious figures exploited this disaster and framed a narrative in which the tsunami was God’s retribution for sinful and irreligious behaviour,” it said.
The commentary said that funding from Saudi and Pakistani sources, including “Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) charitable front, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, provided relief to hard-hit communities, but also took the opportunity to undertake ‘religious reformation’ to further embed Wahhabist and Salafist beliefs”.
“This also created an opportunity for LeT to recruit Maldivian fighters,” EFSAS added.
The grievances caused by the socio-economic factors are further accelerated by religious non-governmental organisation with dubious agendas, the think-tank said.
“An increasing number of Islamic NGOs have voiced concerns over the existing social norms and endeavour to morally police communities, calling out practices such as dancing, art and music as ‘haram’, criticising supposedly ‘anti-Islamic’ aspects of the national education curriculum and organising ‘religious retreat camps’ as to spread their fundamentalist ideology,” it asserted.
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