The arrest of 14 people in an Islamic State terror plot in the Maldives bares the pitfalls of waning international attention on terrorism
The Associated Press reported on 15 November that the police in the Maldives had arrested 14 people who were allegedly working with foreign Islamic extremists to carry out a bombing in the archipelago State. The counter-terrorism head of the Maldives, Uswath Ahmed, told reporters on the night of 14 November that the arrested individuals had been working with the Islamic State (IS) group and were planning an attack with the intent of causing mass casualties. They had been apprehended on 11 November after raids were carried out in 13 homes in three locations in the country. The arrests highlight not only the significant increase in religious extremism in the Maldives in recent years, but also the dangers that the apparent fading of focus on international terrorism presents on the global stage.
As the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) pointed out, a major Islamic State (IS) inspired terrorist attack took place in the Maldives when on 6 May 2021 former President and present Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed was grievously injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast outside his home in the national capital, Male. Three of his bodyguards and two bystanders – a local and a British national – also received minor injuries in the explosion. On 15 May 2021 an IS cell was neutralized when the Maldives Police Service and Maldives National Defence Force, in a special operation in Addu City arrested seven men with links to the IS. Prior to that on 15 April 2020 five speedboats, including a sea ambulance, a police vessel, and the atoll council's speed boat, were damaged in an arson attack at Mahibadhoo Harbour on the Alifu Dhaalu Atoll. Two other speed boats and two dinghies were also affected by the fire. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. This followed knife attacks against three foreigners (two resident employees and one tourist) in Hulhumalé in February 2020, which were claimed by IS supporters. The Maldives police made a number of arrests in relation to the knife attacks. According to data compiled by the SATP, four terrorist attacks were reported in the Maldives in 2020. Further, Maldivian security forces arrested 24 terrorism suspects in 2021, an increase from the 19 in 2020, and 3 in 2019.
In its travel advisory, the United Kingdom noted that the Maldivian authorities had disrupted a number of terrorist attack plans since 2017, and made several arrests relating to attack planning, recruitment of terrorist fighters and spreading extremist ideology. Also, there have been anti-Western protests by extremists on some islands, including expressions of support for the IS.
Meanwhile, relentless propaganda by the IS’ monthly magazine Voice of Hind continued to instigate Maldivians against the State. An article published in the 22nd issue of the magazine released in November 2021 demonized the Maldivian Government's efforts to counter extremism. Such significant manifestations of radical extremism has meant that the threat perception in the Maldives remains high.
To counter this threat, the government of the Maldives adopted several measures in 2021, including the 15 December ratification of the third amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih that had been passed by the Majlis (Parliament) on 29 November. The amendment gives greater powers to police to investigate terrorism-related cases and to detain persons suspected of terrorism-related offenses. Also in December, President Solih inaugurated the Joint Interagency Operations Centre (JIOC) to better counter terrorist attacks. In November 2021 President Solih ratified the Fifth Amendment to the Penal Code related to hate crimes which criminalized portraying people as non-believers or as anti-Islamic based on views expressed on religious matters in which religious scholars have conflicting or opposing views. It also dissuades the labelling of a Muslim as anti-Islamic unless the person publicly proclaims himself to be a non-believer.
Even though the Maldives is completely Muslim in its religious composition, the extremists often label their opponents as non-believers, leading to incidents of intimidation and violence. This was highlighted by Speaker Nasheed after the attack on him when he wrote, “After the most recent assassination attempt in the Maldives, this time directed at me, the government duly recognized the root of the issue as the labelling of people by radical Islamists as un-Islamic, which then leads to death sentences in the form of a fatwa. The hot-headed Jihadi indoctrinated groups then execute the fatwa, as was the case with all the other extremism-motivated murders, including Dr. Afraasheem, Rilwan, and Yameen. As recent history clearly shows, people who are targeted by this labeling and the hate crimes that follow are politicians, journalists, and everyday people who exercise free speech”. The UN Maldives Common Country Analysis 2020 too had observed that “While the government continues to express its commitment in building a culture of tolerance as a response to extreme ideologies, social media shows an increase in hate speech”.
The Counter Extremism Project (CEP), which has widely quoted EFSAS in its report titled ‘Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism’ , observed that it was not until the 1970s that the Maldives was introduced to stricter interpretations of Islam. Many Maldivian students were given free education abroad at Wahhabi Madrassas in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, later exporting the hardline ideology back to the island. During that period, the Maldives’ then president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, steadily shifted the country’s ethos towards a more Islamic-aligned identity. Gayoom, who held the presidency from 1978 until 2008, grew up in Egypt and studied at Al Azhar University—an institution that featured radical Islamic teachings. Gayoom’s legacy was steeped in autocracy, corruption, and the repression of political opposition. In 1994, Gayoom’s government enacted the Protection of Religious Unity Act, which imposed Sunni Islam on Maldivians by restricting their freedom to practice other religions. In 1997, Gayoom amended the country’s Constitution to reinforce Islam as the only religion that could be practiced publicly, whereas individuals observing other religions were prohibited from exercising their faith in public spaces. Despite advancing the image of Islam in the country, Gayoom’s authoritarian administration did not provide Islamists with opportunities for political representation.
The CEP also noted the Jamestown Foundation’s observation that Pakistan-based organizations have had an impact on the importation of Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives. Following the disastrous tsunami in the Maldives in 2004, a number of Pakistani Islamist organizations set up rehabilitation and relief programs throughout the country. Organizations such as the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, which is affiliated to the terrorist outfit the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), went to the Maldives to not only assist in redevelopment, but to also recruit Maldivians to study at Madrassas in Pakistan. Madrassas in Pakistan primarily follow the fundamental edicts of Salafi Islam and have been known to groom students towards eventually participating in violent jihad.
After the Maldives held its first democratic presidential election, the country underwent a period of democratization and political liberalization from 2008 under Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected President. He allowed unrestricted freedom of speech. Following Nasheed’s presidency, Abdullah Yameen — former President Gayoom’s half-brother — was elected into office from 2013 and held the position until 2018. Yameen followed Gayoom’s legacy, and sought to transition the Maldives back into an authoritarian regime that was guided by hardline Islamist principles. In particular, Yameen developed closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi community to boost his political support. Yameen’s closer affinity with fundamentalist groups further institutionalized the practices of a conservative Islam, which resulted in repressive policies towards liberal dissidents as well as those who endorsed basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and religious practice. In 2018, Yameen was surprisingly replaced with Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who has pledged to remedy the corruption rampant throughout the government, combat the growing rise of extremist sentiment throughout the masses, and deal with the threat of returning Maldivians who fought abroad in Syria and Iraq.
According to information revealed by senior Maldivian police officials, there are around 1,400 radicalized individuals in the Maldives who subscribe to violent extremist ideology and, “who would not hesitate to kill in the name of Islam”. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, one out of every 500 Maldivians has joined an extremist group in the Middle East. As of 2020, the Maldives has the world’s second highest per capita of people fighting for ISIS. According to CNBC, 48 percent of the Maldivians who traveled to Syria had criminal records and 39 percent were members of Male’s criminal gangs.
The foregoing would suggest that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism continue to remain rampant even in a tiny country like the Maldives. Despite this, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of international counter-terrorism coordination is going to be less cooperative, with counter-terrorism systems becoming much less effective. As Suhasini Haidar pointed out in The Hindu, the growing global polarization over the Russia-Ukraine war is not only diverting attention from terrorism, but also blurring the lines of what constitutes terrorism. Polarization has also paralysed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the body tasked with global peace, as it is unable to pass any meaningful resolution that is not vetoed by China or Russia.
Haidar also pointed out that the next challenge is likely to come from emerging technologies and the use of hi-tech armaments for terrorism purposes. Drones are already being used to transport funds, drugs, weapons, ammunition, and even improvised explosive devices. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns have arisen about the use of biowarfare, and gain-of-function (GoF) research to mutate viruses and vectors that could be released into target populations. She added that “In a future that is already here, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) systems and robotic soldiers makes it even easier to conduct large-scale attacks while maintaining anonymity. Terror financing uses bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, and terrorist communications use social media, the dark web, and even gaming centres”.
In this frightening milieu, it is imperative that international focus is returned urgently to global terrorism before the world is taken unawares by another incident of the scale and scope of 9/11, which before it actually occurred would have seemed unimaginable.