By Nijeesh N.*
On March 18, 2019, Husnu Al Suood, President of the Commission on Investigation of Murder and Enforced Disappearances, announced that four high-profile cases assigned to the Commission for investigation were successfully completed. Husnu Al Suood disclosed,
|What did the four share in common? All spoke about social issues, human rights, and religion. And all were popular, with large followings, typically online. The attacks were masterminded by one group and were motivated by religious, militant elements, with gang involvement.|
Though Suood did not reveal the name of the group, he confirmed that information would be made public soon in the Commission’s investigation report. He also accused the previous Government of being aware of the group as early as 2011, but failing to go after them for political reasons.
Significantly, soon after taking office on November 17, 2018, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih formed the Commission to investigate murders and enforced disappearance that occurred between January 1, 2012, and November 17, 2018 in the country. The Commission, with the aid of foreign experts, is currently probing a total of 24 such cases, including the four high-profile cases of the murder of Ungoofaaru Parliamentarian and religious scholar, Dr Afrasheem Ali on October 1, 2012; the abduction of well-known blogger and journalist Ahmed Rilwan, on August 8, 2014; the murder of popular liberal blogger and a strong voice against radical Islamist elements, Yameen Rasheed, on April 23, 2017; and the murder attempt on the blogger and human rights activist, Ismail Hilath Rasheed, on June 4, 2012.
Further, on November 22, 2018, President Solih ratified the Bill to repeal the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act. Repealing the Anti-Defamation Act was one of President Solih’s major pledges, as the Maldivian Press saw the Act as a major blow to freedom of expression and freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution.
Indeed, the change of Government in the Maldives, the tiny archipelago in the Indian Ocean, has created optimism among the international community that it will no more remain a nation which will encourage Islamist extremist elements. Significantly, on February 26, 2019, President Solih, while urging its citizens not to advocate religious extremism, asserted that “ideologies that support radical Islam could upset the peace and security of the nation.”
Disturbingly, reports highlighting the ‘Islamisation’ of society, especially the radicalization of Maldivian youth which began to gather in the Maldives after the 2004 Tsunami, when several Islamic religious groups from Pakistan and the Middle East came to the Maldives in the guise of helping the affected people and began preaching radical Islam, were prevalent through 2018. The Pakistani footprint is glaring here. Large numbers of Maldivians have been provided free education in radicalized Pakistani madrassas, joined the jihad in Afghanistan and subsequently within Pakistan, and returned to propagate a hardline Islamism significantly at variance with indigenous practices.
On January 15, 2018, Maldives’ Defence Minister Adam Shareef had disclosed that 61 Maldivians had travelled to Syria to fight along with jihadi groups, including Islamic State or Daesh and al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – currently rebranded as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)]; and another 68 persons, including 59 adults and nine minors, were caught on their way to Syria. However, according to an ICSR report on Women and Minors of Islamic State published in July 2018, around 200 Maldivians, including 12 females and five minors, were fighting in Syria and Iraq, which make Maldives the world’s second largest number of foreign fighters ‘per capita’ (500 fighters per million population), after Tunisia (at 545.5 fighters per million).
There were also several reports of Maldivian nationals arrested before leaving the country to join global jihad. For instance, on June 6, 2018, Maldives Police arrested a group of Maldivians, who were attempting to go and fight in Syria, from Velana International Airport in Male. One of the arrested persons had been banned from travelling by a court order after an earlier attempt (on an unspecified date) to join the Syrian war. He had tried to leave again after the ban was lifted.
The National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) disclosed, on February 20, 2019, that families of some Maldivian insurgents killed in foreign conflicts are currently requesting permission to return to the country. Director General of NCTC Brigadier Zakariyya Mansoor disclosed, “We are talking about families that are struggling alone, without any other options due to their husbands dying in war. Out of these families, six are making contact with us.” According to various releases from Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated groups, around 24 Maldivians have already been killed in different conflict zones of the Middle East.
Indeed, as the Islamic State rapidly loses ground in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, the foreign fighters have started retuning home, to their countries of origin, including Maldives, which further threatens security within these countries. Worryingly, reports indicate that there is a dearth of measures to tackle this situation. According to an April 16, 2018, report, an unnamed Maldivian man who, along with wife and child went to Syria and participated jihadi activities alongside with Islamic State, returned to Maldives in March 2018. The Man who was from Kaafu Atoll Guraidhoo island, started living in the capital Male and was not even questioned by Police following his return.
Even the country’s judiciary system came under suspicion when terror suspects having links with the Islamic were freed by on trivial grounds. Prominent among such incidents were:
November 4, 2018: The Criminal Court in Male released two suspected terrorists, Ishag Ali and Hussein Afeef, who were arrested on an unspecified date in September 2017 for their connection with Islamic State. The Court granted a conditional release based upon their physical illness and its treatment during the detention and the government’s failure to ‘respond’ to it. The arrestees were planning to carry out a suicide attack in the capital, Male.
October 2018: The Criminal Court in Male released two suspects, who were charged with terrorism in connection with a separate bomb attack conspiracy, on medical grounds. The two men were among four Islamic State suspects arrested in April 2017 for allegedly planning bomb attacks in five areas of Male.
On July 23, 2018: Ali Shafeeq, who was charged for leaving the Maldives to join the Syrian civil war, was cleared of all charges and released by the Criminal Court on the grounds that the prosecutor could not prove that he had left the Maldives to join the Syrian civil war.
The political establishment’s direct role in such acts of support to radical elements was also highlighted. On September 21, 2018, the Maldives Government demolished an artwork created by famous British artist and environmentalist Jason de Caires Taylor at a semi-submerged art gallery, Coralarium, after a court ruled that the ‘human-like sculptures’ in the artwork were ‘anti-Islamic idols’. The court ruled the artwork was a threat to “Islamic unity and the peace and interests of the Maldivian state” and that its removal was necessary to “protect the five tenets of Islamic shariah”, as the depiction of human figures in art is discouraged under Islamic law. Though the Government had given prior permission to build the art gallery, then President Abdulla Yameen ordered its demolition in July 2018, arguing that “significant public sentiment” against the artwork had guided his decision to destroy it.
According to reports, the Class IX Islamic studies textbook carries lesson which tells students that “performing jihad against people that obstruct the religion” is an obligation and promises that “Islam ruling over the world is very near.” While promising a ‘caliphate’, the textbook also says, “This is something that the Jews and Christians do not want. It is why they collaborate against Islam even now.”
With so much open support, radical elements were thriving. On August 21, 2018, the Eid al-Adha celebration event at Maafaru Island in Noonu Atoll, depicted the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in US. The photos circulated on social media showed men armed with pretend rifles and a tower with a US flag on top of it; a plastic plane on a zip-line crashes into the tower, with smoke and fire billowing out.
Amidst all this, the Maldives went through a cycle of political crises during 2018. Then President Abdulla Yameen declared a ‘state of emergency’ in the country on February 5, 2018, which eventually ended after 45 days on March 22, 2018. He also jailed several political opponents and judges after filing terrorism charges against them during the emergency. However, amidst all this political uncertainty and upheavals, Presidential election went through without any major incidents of violence. In the elections held on September 23, 2018, sitting President Abdulla Yameen was defeated by the opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Subsequently, Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)-led Joint Opposition (JO) formed the Government and Solih took oath on November 17, 2018.
Since assuming power, Solih has tried to implement some corrective measures to bring a change in a country which has a history of using ‘Islamist mobilization’ to the political advantage of ruling regimes. The major challenge for the new President will be to sustain these measures.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management