Jihadist activity and Islamic radicalism have been visibly growing in the past decade in the Maldives, traditionally a religiously-relaxed Muslim country. The Maldives experienced a terrorist attack in 2007, which wounded 12 foreigners, just prior to the inauguration of President Mohamed Nasheed. During Nasheed’s time in office there was a huge increase in violent extremism and a spread of radical ideology among the population. The present administration of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom is now grappling with an increasing number of Maldivians participating in transnational terrorist activity and an actively radicalised community.
The exact number of Maldivians fighting for terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq today is not known, but various reports estimate it at over 100. It is known that at least seven Maldivians have died in Syria and Iraq to date. Fighters have included students, those convicted or accused of terrorism-related or other crimes in the Maldives, religious figures and former military personnel. In 2015, departures to Syria have mostly been young men who belong to criminal gangs in Male, the Maldives capital. Maldivian jihadists travel via Sri Lanka, India or Thailand (popular holiday destinations), before heading to Pakistan for training or to Turkey to cross into Syria.
Most Maldivian fighters have joined the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) terrorist group, although others also fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other groups. The Islamic State of Maldives (ISM) group, which claims to be a local affiliate of ISIS, emerged in July 2014.
While the youth, who make up 60 per cent of the population, are more socially liberal, there is a growing radicalised community in the Maldives. On 5 September 2014, there was a protest conducted by about 200 people, some carrying ISIS flags, calling for the full implementation of Sharia law and an end to secular rule in the Maldives.
Radicalisation and recruitment of Maldivians to fight in Syria occurs both online and offline, and is conducted in conjunction with fundraising for radical groups. On the ground, there is a Maldivian network of recruiters that works with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan and operatives in India, as well as other terrorist groups. Radicalisation also occurs as a result of jihadist preaching carried out in certain mosques in the Maldives.
The high level of internet penetration in the Maldives (about 43 per cent of the population), makes its population of active social media users susceptible to the radical jihadist ideologies propagated online. Extremist Maldivian NGOs and radical Maldivian preachers have thousands — some, tens of thousands — of supporters on Facebook, their primary online medium of communication. Both groups have a presence across the social media platform on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr and other sites.
There are also dedicated websites such as Haqqu, launched in August 2014, which promote ISIS. The website of Bilad Al-Sham Media (BASM), which started in August 2013, supports al Qaeda-affiliated JN. BASM calls itself the official media representative of Maldivians fighting in Syria and has produced detailed accounts of Maldivians who have died while conducting suicide attacks for JN. BASM and Haqqu also have active Facebook pages.
The Maldives is a fertile ground for jihadist recruitment despite its geographical remoteness and small population. Maldivians have also been recruited for other transnational suicide terrorist attacks. Notably, the 27 May 2009 attack on Pakistan’s intelligence service in Lahore was carried-out by the Maldivian jihadist Ali Jaleel. Two Maldivians were also reportedly recruited as suicide bombers for the foiled plot to attack the US and Israeli consulates in southern India in April 2014.
As such, the growth of jihadism in the Maldives is a serious security concern, particularly for India and other South Asian countries. But organised terrorist networks operating inside the Maldives and grassroots radicalisation are both relatively recent phenomena, emerging only in the past decade. Thus these phenomena can potentially be fully reversed. A further reason for optimism lies in the fact the Islam practised in the Maldives has historically been moderate and holistic, introduced as it was in the 12th century by a Persian Sheikh and a Sufi saint.
The Maldivian government has recently taken some decisive counter-terrorism measures, but more comprehensive action is needed. Counter-extremism measures must be increased substantially in islands with radicalised communities. There must be an immediate crack-down on criminal gangs, particularly radicalised gangs, many of which are connected to transnational drug cartels.
A national counter-ideology program conducted online and on the ground with community support is urgently needed to re-popularise moderate and true Islam. Comprehensive terrorist and extremist rehabilitation programs are needed, especially for radicalised gang members and returning fighters.
But the Maldives, a 1200-island archipelago scattered across about 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean, with its limited resources, cannot achieve all this alone. A joint effort is required to dismantle regional jihadist and drug-trafficking networks. Regional and international aid and cooperation are required to address the country’s counter-extremism needs and socio-economic issues.
There is an on-going international call to boycott the tourism industry of the Maldives, due to the present government’s alleged violations of international law and domestic political complications. But a boycott of its tourist industry would inflict great suffering, since tourism is the main source of income and employs approximately 50 per cent of the labour force. A substantial decrease in tourism would further increase the already-high youth unemployment rate and in turn increase their level of radicalisation.
It is clear that as a young democracy and a developing country, the Maldives needs help, not isolation, to stem the proliferation of radicalism and jihadism.
Iromi Dharmawardhane is a Senior Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.