By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On May 6, 2021, Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives Speaker of Parliament and former President, was grievously injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast outside his home in national capital Male. Three of his body guards and two bystanders – a local and a British national – also received minor injuries in the explosion.
Nasheed came out of his home at around 8:25 pm [MST] and was about to enter his car when an IED attached to a motorcycle parked near his car exploded at around 8:27pm. “Over the course of the past 16 hours he had life-saving surgery on injuries to his head, chest, abdomen and limbs,” the hospital said in a statement on May 7. At the time of writing, Nasheed’s condition was stated to be stable.
On May 7, Commissioner of Police Mohamed Hameed asserted that though “the investigation is still at an early stage” the incident was, indeed “a terrorist attack.” He also disclosed that four persons present at the site of the explosion had been identified and flagged for “suspicious behaviour.”
The Chief of the Defence Force Major General Abdulla Shamaal further disclosed that the explosion was triggered using a remote control. He also stated that “to make the explosion lethal, they (attackers) used powdered razors, which is a tool often used in homemade explosives.”
Three arrests have been made in the case so far.
The last ‘terrorist’ attack targeting a politician in the Maldives was reported on September 28, 2015, when the then President Abdulla Yameen escaped unharmed in an IED explosion on his speedboat ‘Finifenma,’ while returning home from the Airport. Though the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the several agencies asked by the Government to help with the investigation, found that no bomb exploded, on June 9, 2016, Ahmed Adeeb, who was Maldives’ Vice President at the time of the attack, was convicted over a plot to assassinate Yameen and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The Vice President came under suspicion because, under the Maldivian Constitution, the Vice President succeeds the President if the incumbent dies, is incapacitated, or resigns. Later on, May 20, 2019, the High Court overturned Adeeb’s jail sentence and ordered the Criminal Court to hold a retrial. Further details of the retrial are not known. Adeeb, meanwhile, is currently serving 20 years imprisonment on corruption charges.
It was on September 29, 2007, that Maldives recorded its deadliest IED explosion, in which 12 foreign tourists, including eight Chinese, two Britishers, and two Japanese, were seriously injured. Three Maldivian nationals, Mohamed Sobah (19), Moosa Inas (21), and Ahmed Naseer (20), were sentenced for the crime. The trio confessed their role in the incident and stated that their intent was to “target, attack and injure non-Muslims to fulfill jihad.” The Police believe that 10 men who masterminded the attack, left for Pakistan in the days prior to the incident.
Maldives witnessed its last terrorism-linked fatality on April 23, 2017, when a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda killed blogger Yameen Rasheed. Since then, however, the country has registered five terrorist attacks, including the May 6, 2021, incident. The role of Islamist terrorists is suspected in all these cases.
Moreover, the Security Forces (SFs) have thwarted at least three attacks by Islamist forces between April 23, 2017, and May 9, 2021. Most recently, on November 11 and 27, SFs arrested eight terrorist suspects, who had planned to detonate an IED in the laboratory of the Thaa Atoll Education Center located in Thimarafushi, while students sat for their ‘O’ Level exams. The arrestees were working under the direction of the Islamic State.
During this period (April 23, 2017, and May 9, 2021), SFs have arrested a total of 25 terrorists/extremists. The most prominent arrest was made by the Police on October 23, 2019, when they detained Islamic State recruiter Mohamed Ameen. Ameen was also on the US Department of the Treasuries Office of Foreign Affairs Control (OFAC)’s published list of terrorists.
Islamist extremism remains a significant security risk in the Maldives. Though no group has claimed responsibility for the May 6, 2021, attack, it is widely believed that it was engineered by one of the Islamist terrorist groups active in the country. In particular, the role of Pakistan-backed groupings is believed to be most likely.
These suspicions are strengthened by the fact that Nasheed had been critical of Islamist forces within the country, of Pakistan’s role in promoting Islamist extremism and terrorism in the Maldives, as well as of Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’ China for its ‘debt trap’ policy towards the Maldives.
Addressing the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC), on September 4, 2019, Nasheed, identified radical Islam as the ‘biggest threat’ and warned,
Al Qaeda and ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] are developing a deep state within the Maldives. They are capturing strategic positions in security forces, in the police, in the military, in immigration, in education ministry, and therefore the deep state…
During an interview, published on February 19, 2019, when asked about the Maldives Government’s tackling of the Chinese debt problem, Nasheed asserted,
We are auditing to see just how much actually came in [from China]. And where that money went. We are unable to find equivalent assets for some of the money and we will explain to the nation how [former President] Yameen had sold the country to China. In a sense, we now need to buy back our sovereignty from China. I hope it is understood that we can’t pay what didn’t come our way. We will give the pound of flesh, but not a single drop of blood.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, meanwhile, has disclosed that he has asked for foreign assistance to investigate the attack on Nasheed. While the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and technical experts from the UK, based in the Maldives, have joined the investigation, experts from the Australian Federal Police reached the Maldives on May 8. A speedy and impartial investigation and trial will help the Maldives thwart future attack of this nature.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management