Maldives: Islamist Threat – Analysis
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On January 9, 2022, Maldives Police Service (MPS) and Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) launched a joint operation under the name ‘Gulhigen’ to ensure the safety of the public and the security and peace of Male’ City. The reason for the operation was rumored to be linked to terrorism, though no further details are available.
On January 7, 2022, in an operation MPS, arrested an individual, suspected to be linked to terrorism, in Vilimale under North Male Atoll.
In the meantime, for the fourth year in a row, Maldives did not record any terrorism-linked fatality in 2021. The last terrorism-linked fatality was reported on April 23, 2017, when a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda killed blogger Yameen Rasheed.
However, a major Islamic State (IS) ‘inspired’-terrorist attack took place on May 6, 2021, when former President and preset Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed was grievously injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast outside his home in the national capital, Male. Three of his bodyguards and two bystanders – a local and a British national – also received minor injuries in the explosion. On December 14, 2021, the Criminal Court sentenced one of the accused, Adhuham Ahmed Rasheed, to 23 years, six months and nine days in jail for the assassination attempt on Nasheed.
The last recorded terrorist attack took place on April 15, 2020, when five speedboats, including a sea ambulance, a Police vessel, and the atoll council’s speed boat, were damaged in an arson attack at Mahibadhoo Harbour on the Alifu Dhaalu Atoll. Two other speed boats and two dinghies were also affected by the fire. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of four terrorist attacks were reported in 2020
The last such terrorist attack which resulted in casualties was reported on September 29, 2007, when 12 foreign tourists, including eight Chinese, two Britishers, and two Japanese, were seriously injured in a bombing in Sultan Park, Male.
On May 15, 2021, moreover, one IS cell was neutralized when the Maldives Police Service and Maldives National Defence Force, in a special operation, arrested seven men with suspected links to IS, from Addu City. No further details are available in this case.
According to the SATP database, Security Forces arrested 24 terrorism suspects in 2021, as against 19 in 2020, and three in 2019.
Further, relentless propaganda by IS’s monthly magazine Voice of Hind continued to instigate Maldivians against the State. An article published in the 22nd issue of the magazine released in November 2021 demonized the Maldivian Government’s efforts to counter extremism, giving an account of a poor family whose daughter was forcibly detained as she was wearing a Niqab (veil worn by women to cover themselves) and was not going to school. At the end, the author exhorts every capable Muslim to ‘sacrifice,’ so that their compatriots can live and earn happily. India’s anti-terrorism agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), also suspects ‘content creators’ from the Maldives of sending content for the Voice of Hind.
The threat perception in the Maldives is, consequently, high as a result of significant manifestations of radical extremism. To counter this threat, the Government adopted several measures in 2021, including:
December 15: President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ratified the third amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act. Earlier, on November 29, the Majlis (Parliament) had passed the Bill. The amendment to the Act gives greater powers to police, who can now complete investigations in terrorism-related cases in 90 days, as against 45-days under the previous statute. Further, Police will now be able to detain persons suspected of terrorism-related offenses for 48-hours without a court order. Before this, persons suspected of terrorism-related offenses were only allowed to be detained without a court order for 24-hours.
December 7, 2021: President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih inaugurated the Joint Interagency Operations Center, a new center established to counter terrorist attacks.
November 28, 2021: President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ratified the Fifth Amendment to the Penal Code related to hate crimes. The Hate Crime Bill was passed by Parliament at its 39th sitting on November 16, 2021. The Amendment Bill includes the addition of article 124, following article 123 to the Penal Code. The new article criminalizes portraying people as non-believers or as anti-Islamic based on views expressed on religious matters in which religious scholars have conflicts or opposing views. It also dissuades the labeling of a Muslim as anti-Islamic unless the person publicly proclaims himself to be a non-believer, comes out as a non-believer or deliberately commits an act of kufr.
Even though the Maldives is completely Muslim in its religious composition, the extremists often label their opponents as non-believers, leading to incidents of intimidation.
This was highlighted by Speaker Nasheed after the May 6 attack on his life. On July 17, 2021, Nasheed wrote an open letter and shared it on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. The letter reads, inter alia,
After the most recent assassination attempt in the Maldives, this time directed at me, the government duly recognized the root of the issue as the labeling of people by radical Islamists as un-Islamic, which then leads to death sentences in the form of a fatwa. The hot-headed Jihadi indoctrinated groups then execute the fatwa, as was the case with all the other extremism-motivated murders, including Dr. Afraasheem, Rilwan, and Yameen. As recent history clearly shows, people who are targeted by this labeling and the hate crimes that follow are politicians, journalists, and everyday people who exercise free speech.
Earlier, the UN Maldives Common Country Analysis 2020 too had observed,
While the government continues to express its commitment in building a culture of tolerance as a response to extreme ideologies, social media shows an increase in hate speech…
Indeed, Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services data for the year 2020 shows 38 reported cases related to extremist religious ideology. 188 such cases were reported between 2014 to 2019. The data for 2021 has not yet been released.
However, prosecution failures are endemic, as case after case collapses due to lack of acceptable evidence. Such failures are thought to further strengthen the resolve of terrorist and extremist formations, individuals, and their supporters. Terrorism suspects later delegitimize state action as a kind of vendetta of a ‘secular’ government against the ‘faithful’. On September 16, 2021, the High Court ruled in favor of Mohamed Ameen, who is believed to be the leader of Maldivian faction of the Islamic State, dismissing the charges against him and ordered his release. He, however, remains behind bar, as he was re-arrested on October 11, after the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s September 16, 2021, ruling on October 3, 2021.
Through 2021, the government-appointed Commission on Disappearances and Deaths (DDCom) did not make any headways in two crucial cases: journalist Ahmed Rilwan, who disappeared in 2014, and the blogger Yamin Rasheed who was killed in 2017. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had announced in one of Maldivian Democratic Party (MPD)’s ‘Rahvehi Fathis‘ campaign events (between February and April 2021) that a final report on the investigation on Rilwan would be made by the end of 2021. However, no updates are available. Significantly, the post of the President of DDCom was filled on February 3, 2021, when member Fareesha Abdulla was elevated as the commission’s President. The post had been vacant since December 8, 2019, when her predecessor Husnu Al Suood was appointed to the Supreme Court.
The 2022 report of Human Rights Watch under ‘Lack of Accountability’ further notes,
A government-appointed commission investigating deaths and enforced disappearances failed to make significant progress in investigating violent attacks on activists and politicians, including journalist Ahmed Rilwan who disappeared in 2014, and blogger Yamin Rasheed who was killed in 2017. The commission recommended that the police file charges against former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb for interfering in the investigation and protecting alleged perpetrators. However, as of November, the police had not charged Adeeb. The authorities appeared to stall prosecutions in other cases investigated by the commission.
On September 1, 2019, DDCom revealed that, of the 27 cases being investigated, only four or five were ‘currently pending’. No official update regarding the cases is available since then. To date, there have been no convictions in any one of the cases.
Unless investigative and intelligence agencies are strengthened, and the recommendations made by the parliamentary committee on National Security are implemented, it will remain impossible to effectively tackle extremist and terrorist threats in the island nation.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management