Muslim majority Maldives is becoming a prime recruiting ground for the Islamic State. Over 200 Maldivians have joined the Islamic State. Political instability at home has allowed the Islamists to push their anti-democracy and pro-Islamist agenda. And the official response remains weak and insufficient. The growth of Islamic State’s influence in Maldives has serious repercussions for South Asia in general and India in particular.
By Surya Valliappan Krishna*
Maldives is becoming a prime recruiting ground for the Islamic State. Media estimates of the number of Maldivian nationals who have joined the Islamic State are over 200. For a Muslim-majority nation of approximately 350,000 people, predominantly dependent on tourism for survival, this is indeed a dangerous trend. For South Asia, the development underlines the fact that the challenge is inching closer.
Maldives has been in political turmoil since 2008. As seen in other parts of the world especially the Middle East, vacuum created by such turmoil is often filled up by radical Islamists. The transformation from the Maumoon Abdul Gayoom-led dictatorial era in 2008 to the Mohamed Nasheed-led Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government was short lived. Nasheed was convicted and jailed in March 2015 on terrorism offences, although credibility of the charges against him is unclear. Nevertheless, the incident resulted in Abdullah Yameen, step-brother of Mohammed Gayoom, rising to power in the island nation. Yameen returned the dictatorial policies once associated with his elder brother. Violent crackdown on dissent has resulted in widespread public dissatisfaction and unrest.
Maldives bears striking similarities to Tunisia. Since 2011, political rivalry between the Islamists and its secular opponents has contributed to instability in this north-African country creating ample space for the Islamic State to gain entry into the country. Political and economic progress has eluded the nation since the Arab spring of which Tunisia was a major theatre. Over 3000 Tunisians are currently fighting in the war in Iraq and Syria. In addition, a further 12490 people have been prevented from joining the conflict, according to the country’s interior ministry. In a terrorist attack on 26 June 2015, masked gunmen killed over 40 people at the popular beach resort of Port El-Kantaoui, north of Sousse. A previous shooting rampage at its national museum in Tunis on 18 March had killed 22 people. The appeal of the Islamic State among some sections of Tunisian society, especially in the country’s economically deprived hinterland, had its most gruesome manifestation in both these attacks.
Both Tunisia and Maldives are tourism dependent and are frequented by citizens of western countries, making them attractive targets for the radical Islamists. Like Tunisia, a significantly large number of individuals in Maldives appear to be getting drawn into the propaganda of the Islamic State. Such transformation was evident in September 2014 when hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Male waving Islamic State flags, denouncing democracy and calling for implementation of Shariah.
Islamist terror is not alien to Maldivian society, where the al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) are known to be present. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion, carried out by suspected AQ and the LeT elements, ripped through the capital city of Male injuring 12 people on 29 September 2007. The LeT and preachers from Pakistan and the Middle East are using charitable organizations as a front to recruit Maldivian nationals to join the band of radicals. This trend was strongly seen post the tsunami that affected the region in December 2004 which destroyed livelihood and communities. This catastrophic event was exploited by the radicals to underline the need for implementing religious laws, a rhetoric that converted members of Maldivian criminal gangs such as Kuda Henveiru and Buru into Islamic State affiliates. This was not a typical phenomenon with reference to Maldives but is an integral part of the growth of radical Islamism even in Southeast Asian countries.
Faced with this enormous challenge, the Maldivian state response, unfortunately, has remained mired in politics and is grossly insufficient to deal with the enveloping threat, underlining the fact that the government has failed to acknowledge the dangers the Islamic State poses to its security and stability.
In mid-March 2015, a new anti-terror law bill was proposed by the Maldivian government. The proposed law sets a 17 to 20 year jail term for Maldivian nationals who join a foreign war and 10 to 15 year jail term for those who attempt to do so. However, the bill clearly targeting the Islamic State related radicalisation is unlikely to have a desirable impact on the country. The bill isn’t specific to terrorism offences and covers a range of criminal activities including kidnapping and vandalism. The bill criminalizes any form of protest that seeks a change in government policy. The bill also proposes a certain amount of snooping and securitization as investigative tools to monitor and address radicalisation. Such regulations would merely add to the sense of grievance the Islamists propagate without slowing down the growth and influence of Islamic State in Maldives.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed in February 2015 had pointed at the growing dangers posed by the Islamic State to Maldives and the repercussions this development can have for India. Nasheed claimed that the Maldivian government and the military were facilitating these radical Islamists. Although his contentions were perceived as political point-scoring against his opponents, the on ground situation now certainly comes close his descriptions.
Maldives does not play an influential role in the South Asian region. However, as the Islamic State looks east and aims to implement its South Asian strategy, the country could end up providing a strong support base for the outfit. With a sizeable section of Maldivian population playing sympathisers to the Islamic State, terror could indeed come closer to India. Only 430 kilometres separate both countries.
*Surya Valliappan Krishna is a postgraduate student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. This brief has been published under Mantraya.org’s “Islamic State in South Asia” project. Surya is a lead researcher with the project.