Maldives, a tourists’ paradise, may turn into a haven for terrorists as local youth, inspired by clerics, are heading for Syria and Iraq to join radical groups there. Maldivians and western tourists could soon become their soft targets. India has reason to be concerned because of its proximity to Maldives and the two countries are working on setting up a bilateral counter-terrorism mechanism. But Delhi must tread carefully as Maldives government could misuse the counter-terrorism operations to crush its democratic opponents
Amid growing concern over radicalization of Maldivian youth, India and the Maldives are working on setting up a bilateral counter-terrorism mechanism to deal with the problem. The co-operation would go beyond “intelligence sharing” and the two sides are working on making the joint mechanism operational, Maldivian Foreign Secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed, who was in Delhi recently, said.
According to reports in the media, some 200 Maldivian youth have gone to Iraq and Syria – some with their wives and children – to join radical groups like the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. The Maldivian government has put the number around 50. Even this conservative estimate is worrying given the fact that Maldives’ total population is just around 350,000.
The Maldives is a Sunni Muslim country; under the Maldivian constitution, only Sunni Muslims are eligible for citizenship. Although religion plays an important part in the daily life of Maldivians, they are not an overly religious people. Neither is the Islam practised there rigid. This has changed in recent decades with Maldivian clerics and others returning from madrassas in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. They have brought back a puritanical version of Wahhabi Islam and Salafism.
Religious conservatism, intolerance and radicalism are making inroads into Maldivian society and demands for Sharia law are growing.
In 2007, a bomb explosion that was believed to be the work of Islamists rocked the capital, Male. In the search operations that followed, police found the Salafist preacher Ibrahim Fareed running a “shari’a-governed mini-state” from the Dar-ul-Khair mosque on the Himandhoo Atoll. Dozens of radicals defending the mosque fought the police for hours.
While terrorist attacks by religious radicals on Maldivian soil are few and far between, the problem is not a minor one. The number of Maldivians joining South Asian and West Asian armed groups has grown remarkably over the past decade. A Maldivian cleric served time at Guantanamo Bay. Maldivians have participated in major terrorist attacks in Pakistan and were caught trying to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan’s restive Waziristan region. At least two Maldivian nationals are known to have died fighting in Kashmir in early 2007, and former Maldivian President Mohamad Nasheed pointed in November 2009 to “a Maldivian connection” to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And now, Maldivians are heading to fight in Syria and Iraq.
The threat from Maldivian radicalization is multiple. On the domestic front, there is the possibility of terrorist attacks on Maldivian soil. Jihadis returning home could carry out attacks in the coming months and years. A large number of western tourists visit the Maldives. They could be targeted.
Political unrest and instability in this Indian Ocean archipelago and the government’s use of force to deal with opposition and dissent is an ideal breeding ground for militancy.
The Maldives’ geography also makes it a haven for radicals. It is an archipelago of around 1,200 islands strewn across the Indian Ocean and just 200 of these are populated of which only five have a population of more than 3,000 people. Thus terrorists could easily take sanctuary and set up training camps in any of its hundreds of remote islands.
This has implications for India’s security as the Maldives is located just 340 km from India’s west coast.
The possible emergence of the Maldives as a terrorist haven has global implications. The archipelago is located along major Indian Ocean sea lanes, including the East-West shipping route through which much of West Asian oil headed for China, Japan and South Korea is transported.
Terrorist attacks on passing cargo ships are a possibility.
Stepping up policing of the Maldivian islands is not easy as the islands are strewn over an area of 90,000 sq km.
India-Maldives co-operation on terrorism and security issues is not new. India has set up radars across the Maldives’ 26 atolls, which are linked to the Indian coastal command. Joint exercises have been held too to improve interoperability in the event of joint counter-terrorism operations in future.
The proposed joint counter-terrorism mechanism enhances India’s already substantial role in the Maldives. Delhi must tread carefully. It should avoid getting mired in the Maldives’ counter-terrorism operations beyond a point.
The possibility of the Maldivian government using – or rather misusing – the anti-terrorism legislation and counter-terrorism operations to crush its democratic opponents cannot be ruled out. India must not get entangled in that fight.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.