Maldives Turning Into A Terrorist Haven
On May 21, the Chief of Maldivian Defence Force, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shiyam said there were threats of terrorism in the country, adding they had confirmed reports that some Maldivian youths had joined foreign terrorist groups and several of them were untraceable.
Maj. Gen. Shiyam, who was addressing a seminar on terrorism in Kurumba, Maldives, also said social media was being used to attract the youth to terrorism, both in the name of politics and protecting religion. (The Midahu, Maldives, May 22, 2013).
Addressing the same seminar on its closing day on May 23, Attorney General Aishath Bisham stated that the September 2007 Sultan Park bombing was the first indication of terrorism taking roots in the Maldives, and spreading. He endorsed what Maj. Gen. Shiyam had warned earlier. Bisham was candid enough to admit that for a country like the Maldives, it was difficult to fight terrorism and appealed for international assistance. The seminar was organised by the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security, aimed at training senior police officers in counter-terrorism. (Minivian News, Maldives, May 25, 2013).
The September 2007 Sultan Park terrorist bombing marks the inception and rise of Islamic extremism in the Maldives with political backing. Sultan Park is a resort frequented by foreigners. The explosion injured 12 foreigners, among them were the British, Japanese and Chinese tourists. Three Maldivian men arrested confessed to their involvement in the bombing and disclosed that their aim was to “target, attack and injure non-Muslims” to execute Jihad. (Minivian News, October 7, 2007). Some others indicted, fled to Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
One incident in connection with the Sultan Park bombing is remarkable. Maldivian security personnel tried to ferret out Islamist terrorists in the Darul Khair Mosque in Itimadoo Island to investigate the Sultan Park incident. They were met with force by the inhabitants of the mosque, till the Army was called in to establish control. This reflected an uncanny similarity to an incident (in 2007) when Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf sent the Army to evacuate Islamic terrorists from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, where terrorists had taken several foreigners, especially Chinese, as hostage to establish that anything anti-Islam would not be tolerated. The Chinese involved were engaged in running health clubs (read massage parlours) and restaurants. Since then, more than one attempt was made to assassinate Musharraf. Subsequently, it was found that extreme Islamic terrorists following the Wahabi and Salafi versions of Islam, had penetrated Pakistan’s police and security forces, including the Army.
The controversial Wikileaks run by Swede activist Julian Assange, which has revealed a lot of secrets of different governments and yet to be seriously challenged, posted an item on its website in December, 2010 on terrorism in the Maldives. It said that the Maldives police were investigating and monitoring the activities of three Maldivians– Yoosuf Isadhy, Esa Ali and Hasan Abdullah Hameedh, who were suspected to be Al Qaeda associates. The report went on to say that Hameedh and some others had undergone (militancy) training in Pakistan, including with Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a terrorist organisation run by Pakistan’s Military Intelligence arm, the Inter Serv-
ices Intelligence (ISI) (The Midahu, Maldives, December 8, 2010). The report indicated links of the Maldivian terrorists with militants in Kashmir and the UK.
Strands of extremism and terrorism in the Maldives has been visible for a long time. In 2002, Ibrahim Fauzee, a Maldivian, was arrested in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi for alleged links with the Al Qaeda. He was taken to Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) prison by the Americans, but was released several years later (Asian Times, Hong Kong, June 29, 2012). Eminent Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, Ms. Asma Jehangir, visiting the Maldives as United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion, stated religious freedom was being vigorously denied, and those who dared raise their voices were “denounced and threatened”, the Asian Times report said.
In his three decades of autocratic rule, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom worked to change Maldives from a tolerant Islamic country to a hardline Islamic state. He did this by enacting several measures like the 1994 Protection of Religious Unity Act. This Act restricted the freedom of any religion, except Islam. He also established the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in 1996, which was converted into a full-fledged Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2008. In quick succession, the Ministry proceeded to impose more religious restrictions prohibiting music, advertising, and any talk or writing other than on Islam.
The Adhaalath Party (Justice Party) was brought in by Gayoom to run the Islamic Affairs Ministry. This party still holds this Ministry and pushes incrementally for Sharia law. Gayoom was defeated in the 2008 elections by Mohamad Nasheed.
Moderate President Nasheed was toppled in a bizzare coup in 2011 and replaced by Dr. Mohammad Waheed.
Nasheed was ousted allegedly for taking action against a judge. This was an excuse only. Islamists had infiltrated into the police, army and other establishments.
Two Salafist NGOs—the Jamiyyathu Salaf (JS) and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives—are active with the political parties to promote hardline Islam in the Maldives. Ibrahim Fauzee, who formed the IFM in 2009, is a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner. He was arrested in Karachi from a suspected Al Qaeda safehouse, but eventually released and repatriated to Maldives in 2005 (Animesh Roul, Executive Director of Society for Study of
Peace and Conflict, New Delhi, March 27, 2013).
A spokesperson of President Waheed’s government recently announced that a coalition of Waheeds’ QIP, the Dhivehi Rayyait-henge Party (DRP) had formed a coalition. The coalition of Justice Party, DQP, DRP and the President’s QIP will be joined by more like-minded parties which will get together 45,000 and 70,000 members to make a formidable coalition (Minivan News, May 13, 2013).
According to Maldivian electoral law, only a party with more than 10,000 members can take part in elections. The Islamist parties do not individually have the numbers. As a wide coalition, however, they may be able to muster the requisite total. On the other hand, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) can participate on its own. Nasheed was the most popular leader in the country.
He needs external assistance to keep this strategic island nation out of the hands of Islamic extremism—Wahabism and Salafism. It is known that an increasing number of youths are going to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to study in madrassas, which impart extreme religious education and encourage jihad.
Finances are also coming in from Saudi, Kuwaiti and other NGOs. This happened in Bangladesh in the 1990s and early 2000, leading to a burst of Islamic terrorism, which continues to haunt the country. A new group called the Hifazat-e-Islam, Bangladesh (HIB) recently tried to hold the government hostage, demanding Sharia Law. The Hifazat had backing from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) and the main opposition party. But the government in Bangladesh was strong enough to put down the challenge. This is not over, however. What kind of chance do the moderates in the Maldives have when the Wahabis and Salafis launch their siege? In the Maldives, the women and girls are increasingly taking to burkha/hijab in fear of retribution. With bans on anything remotely seen as un-Islamic, there is no breathing space or food for the mind. The Maldives is a country of around 1,200 islands, reefs and atolls, with barely 400 of them inhabitated. Around 30 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange comes from tourism. The tourism industry is under attack with alcohol being prohibited in most places, extending gradually to tourist resorts. When dress codes are extended to tourist resorts, this industry will die.
The strength of religious extremist groups lies in keeping the people poor, uneducated and unenlightened. Men from such backgrounds easily become soldiers of religious jihad as is seen in Pakistan, for example. The Maldives, under the current disposition, has all the potential to become a sanctuary for jihadists. If Waheed wins the elections later this year, India will become one of the jihadi targets. People in the Maldives have links with the Al Qaeda and Pakistani organisations like the LeT. Islamic extremism today is no longer handled by individual organisations. It has become an industry with organisations supporting each other. Lone-wolf terrorism that was recently witnessed in the UK and France is a
It is high time India, with other countries like the US, worked urgently to stabilise the Maldives. People like Maldives Defence Chief Maj. Gen. Shiyam and Attorney General Bisham, are a diminishing group.
By Bhaskar Roy
(The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst.)