By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On April 14, 2021, the Maldives Police arrested three suspects, all Maldivian nationals, in connection with vandalism at the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) headquarters in the Sosun Magu area of Malé city. Unidentified persons had vandalised the MDP headquarters on April 13, 2021. The incidents occurred during the recount of ballots for some seats in Local Council Elections held on April 10, 2021.
Meanwhile, unofficial result indicated that MDP was losing seats in its traditional urban strongholds of Malé and Addu. In capital Malé, even the crucial Mayor’s post went to Mohamed Muizzu of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). PPM contested the elections in alliance with the People’s National Congress (PNC).
The result does indicate dissatisfaction with the ruling party, possibly due to the differences between MDP president Mohamed Nasheed and President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. This is the first setback to the party after its twin successes in the 2018 Presidential Elections and 2019 Parliamentary Elections.
This result and the growing differences within the ruling party may create a situation which the opposition will try to exploit. Worryingly, there is apprehension that this political instability will be exploited by the radical elements within the country, who are making concentrated efforts to consolidate their position. That in turn, may result in terrorism.
Meanwhile, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), four terrorism-related incidents were recorded in 2020:
February 4, 2020: Three assailants, reportedly inspired by the Islamic State, stabbed and injured three foreign nationals – two Chinese and one Australian – near Hulhumalé Red Bull Park Futsal Ground in Hulhumalé, Kaffu Atoll.
March 22, 2020: Extremists set ablaze a Police surveillance speedboat docked in the harbour of Thundi District of Gan in Laamu Atoll.
March 21, 2020: An arson incident occurred at Villa number 47 in Cheval Blanc Randheli, a luxury hotel located in Noonu Atoll. Islamic State adherents were suspected to be behind the attack.
April 15, 2020: 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 subsequently claimed the April 15 and March 22 attacks.
Meanwhile, Security Forces (SFs) had arrested a total of 22 terrorists/extremists since January 2018 (data till April 18), three in 2019, and 19 in 2020. The most prominent arrest was made by the Police on October 23, 2019, when they detained IS recruiter Mohamed Ameen. Ameen was also on the US Department of the Treasuries Office of Foreign Affairs Control (OFAC)’s published list of terrorists.
SFs, meanwhile, successfully averted two possible terrorist acts in 2020.
On May 11, 2020, Home Minister Imran Abdulla, stated in a press conference, that the Maldivian Police had put a stop to the activities of a group of people, adhering to an extremist religious ideology, in the preceding week, who were working towards ‘a very dangerous goal.’ The Minister refrained from disclosing any further details regarding the case, adding that such information could impede investigation.
On November 11 and 27, SFs arrested eight terrorist suspects, who had planned to detonate an Improvised Explosive Device (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.
There were three terrorism related incidents in 2019 as well.
However, the last terrorism-linked fatality was recorded on April 23, 2017, when a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda killed blogger Yameen Rasheed.
In the meantime, the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC’s) 26th Report by the monitoring team for the ‘ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee’, confirmed that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) operates along with the Khorasan Province of ISIL (ISIL-K), with a ‘network of supporters’ in the Maldives.
Indeed, SFs arrested a total of 19 persons (including the eight on November 11 and 17) on terrorism-related charges, including 14 linked with Islamic State through 2020.
However, prosecution failures in cases relating to terrorism are quite startling. The Islamic State affiliated terrorist Moosa Inas and two of his associates, Abdul Latheef Ibrahim and Ali Rasheed, arrested on May 5, 2020, for their alleged role in the April 15, 2020, arson attack, were let off by a Maldives court on June 18, 2020, as the Court conceded that the evidence submitted against them by the Police was not legally valid or sufficient for prosecution. Later, on July 29, 2020, the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Moosa Inaas and Abdul Latheef Ibrahim for “possession of material implying support for a terrorist organization” under Article 6 (b) of the Counter-Terrorism Act. Again, on August 2, 2020, the Office of the Prosecutor General filed an additional terrorism charge against Moosa Inaas, for setting ablaze a Police surveillance speedboat on March 22, 2020.
Most recently, on January 17, 2021, two terrorist suspects, who were arrested in September 2017, were released by a Criminal Court for lack of evidence.
Significantly, the Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances (also Disappearances and Death Commission, DDCom) has not come up with any fresh findings since the departure of DDCom’s firs President, Uz Husnu Al Suood, on December 8, 2019. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had announced the establishment of the DDCom on November 18, 2018. The Commission commenced its work officially on November 21, 2018, with a two-year deadline to investigate 27 cases of Disappearances and Death. On September 1, 2019, DDCom disclosed that, of the 27 cases being investigated, only 4 or 5 were ‘currently pending’. No update on findings in any of the cases were made public in 2020.
The Government’s apathy towards the commission is evident from the fact that, after more than year of vacancy, the post of the President of DDCom was filled when member Fareesha Abdulla was elevated as the commission’s President on February 3, 2021. Uz. Husnu Al Suood resigned from the Commission after his nomination to the Supreme Court as a Judge.
This Government’s failure on this count has emboldened the spirit of the terrorist outfits, and has also given leeway to radical elements to spread their tentacles, more so in the present crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lethal combination of economic meltdown and poverty-led marginalisation has the potential to lead to heightened radicalisation, greatly destabilising the island nation. Lieutenant Colonel Amanulla A. Rasheed in his article ‘Global Trends of Crime and Terror Nexus during COVID-19 Pandemic: Building Community Resilience to Prevent Violent Extremism’ published by the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) Newsletter in April 2020 observed,
…crime and terror would transform, changing its ways and means to exploit the situation and target the vulnerable communities in order to create chaos and misconceptions amongst the public and hate towards the State Governments. Extremist sympathizers are covertly playing their role in spreading the Jihadist beliefs in the vulnerable communities, which is part of terror tactics, and yet the spread of violent extremism has been managed…
The internal churn within Maldivian society on the question of the ‘true Muslim’ as a result of the ingress of Salafism has resulted in the promotion of ultraconservative attitudes creating new vulnerabilities.
There is need to keep constant vigil on the activities of terrorist groupings and sympathisers that are active in Maldives. Greater efforts are needed to ensure that the vocal proponents of a particular hard-line religious identity do not overwhelm the voices of those who believe in moderate Islam or in secular civil rights, in turn curbing the country’s vibrant democracy and creating further spaces for extremist forces. The government needs to strengthen its investigative and enforcement institutions, as well as civil society groups, so that the larger challenge of radicalisation is effectively countered.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management