Maldives: Persistent Threat – Analysis
By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
Maldives recorded no terrorism-linked fatality in 2022, as in 2021. The abduction and killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed by a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda on April 23, 2017, was the last fatal incident of terrorism recorded in the country. There have, however, been at least nine terrorist attacks in the country since the Rasheed killing, including three in 2019, four in 2020 and one each in 2021 and 2022.
On August 22, 2022, Ali Solih, Maldivian Minister of State for Environment, Climate Change and Technology, was attacked with a knife and injured, when he was traveling on his scooter in the Hulhumalé area of capital Malé. The attacker, Mohamed Jameel, first stood in front of the Minister’s scooter, chanted some verses from the Quran and then launched the attack, in which a portion of the Minister’s left arm was slashed. However, the attackers repeated attempts to slit the Minister’s throat failed, as could be seen on videos of the incident that were shared over social media. The attacker was wearing a shirt bearing the logo of the Islamic State.
Earlier, on May 6, 2021, former President and present Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Nasheed, had been grievously injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast outside his home in Malé. Three of his bodyguards and two bystanders – a local and a British national – also received minor injuries in the explosion.
Moreover, Security Forces have arrested at least 72 terrorist suspects and sympathizers since 2019, including 26 in 2022, thwarting several plans to carry out attacks. The major arrests in 2022 included:
December 11: Maldives Police Services rearrested Mohamed Gais, who had first been arrested on November 11, 2022, for plotting to use an explosive device in Addu city, but was released on December 11. The Criminal Court ordered Gais’s remand until the end of his trial, citing the potential threat to the safety of the community.
November 14: 14 Maldivians, with suspected links to the Islamic State, were arrested in a joint counter-terrorism operation conducted by the Maldivian Police Service and the Maldives National Defence Force. A large quantity of explosives was also recovered from the homes of some of the arrested suspects. The suspects planned to target the National Police College and the Indian establishment in the Addu area. According to the Police, these suspects were plotting to carry out a mass casualty terrorist attack in the Maldives, using explosives in collaboration with the Islamic State.
On January 8, 2022, moreover, the Maldives Police Service revealed that they were probing a ‘last warning’ given to release the suspects arrested from Addu City. Posters of the warning, demanding the release of the suspects, had been put up in different areas of Addu City on January 8.
January 6: Hood Mohamed Zahir was arrested by the Maldivian Police in a joint operation with the United Sates’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and European investigative agencies in Malé. The Prosecutor General’s Office later filed five charges against him, including encouraging terrorism online and using different phones/social media accounts to encourage individuals to conduct terrorist acts by harming and killing others and damaging property, as well as sharing photos and videos related to the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the terrorist threat has become a real challenge for the tourism industry of Maldives, which accounts for the maximum proportion of remittances to the economy of the Island nation. In recent years, Sawt al Hind (Voice of India) magazine, an Islamic State publication targeting Indian Muslims, had called for attacks on Maldivian targets. Some analysts have also pointed out that the channel ‘TouristwatchMV’ set up on Telegram by Islamic State sympathisers, has also targeted tourists. Further, the US Department of State, in its advisories has put Maldives in its ‘Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution’ category. An October 5, 2022, update thus states,
Terrorist groups may conduct attacks with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. Attacks may occur on remote islands which could lengthen the response time of authorities.
Furthermore, the radical elements working within the social fabric of the Island nation are still going strong. On June 21, 2022, on the occasion of International Yoga Day, an angry mob barged into the Galolhu National Stadium in Malé and disrupted the yoga event organised by the Indian High Commission and Maldivian Ministry of Youth. “Perpetrators had sought to incite fear by forcefully entering, destroying property and attempting to assault participants of the event,” a Police statement asserted. Before the event, the protesters brandished placards proclaiming that yoga was against the tenets of Islam. Yoga is a burning issue in the Maldives for orthodox Muslims, who believe it is an ‘un-Islamic’ religious practice and not a physical discipline.
Inputs indicate, further, that the United Islamic Society is emerging as a significant organization suspected to be providing a platform to spread extremist ideologies, particularly over social media. Individuals linked to such organizations are suspected to be involved in establishing small extremist cells in remote islands of the country.
Criminal gangs are also actively involved in recruitment and radicalisation of young minds. According to a 2022 report, Prison Radicalisation in the Maldives, published by Transparency Maldives in collaboration with the Maldives Ministry of Home Affairs,
Gang involvement does not appear to be incompatible with radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives…There is a great deal of overlap between gangs and militant jihadist groups. Maldivian gang members may be told that they can continue most of their gang activities, as stealing from kafirs (unbelievers), especially in order to finance militant jihad, is halal (permissible). Thus, the criminal/terrorist nexus is forged and the two support each other’s activities. Other Maldivian laws prohibiting gang related activities may also be broken since the militant jihadists do not recognise the Maldivian government as legitimate.
Moreover, drug cartels operating with foreign support are creating additional security challenges. At least 45 incidents of major drug recoveries were reported in 2022, in which over 62 drug traffickers were arrested. In 2021, 22 such incidents were reported, with 51 persons arrested. Seven persons have already been arrested in six separate incidents in 2023. The role of Pakistan in the narcotics trade in Maldives is underlined by the April 3, 2022, incident, in which two Pakistani nationals who smuggled drugs into the Maldives were arrested at Velana International Airport. Ahmed Ali (32) and Moimina Gulfam (20), were arrested after drugs were found in their bags and hidden inside their bodies.
Despite persistent threats, the prosecution agencies are failing time and again. Thus, on July 4, 2022, the Maldives Criminal Court acquitted a Pakistani national, Mohamed Imran, who was apprehended by local authorities in 2017 for smuggling illicit narcotic substances concealed inside his luggage. The Court held that the evidence produced by the state prosecution was insufficient to confirm that the suspect held ‘reasonable knowledge’ of the narcotic substances in his baggage.
Further, on October 26, 2022, drug kingpin, Arshad Khalid, who was arrested a day earlier, on October 25, was again released over lack of evidence. Arshad was first arrested in January 2020 in a counter-drug operation in which police seized nine kilograms of Heroin and four grams of cocaine, along with MVR 4.6 million in drug money. Eight people were charged in the case. However, only two of them were convicted, and the remaining six, including Arshad, were acquitted for lack of evidence. However, an appeal was filed in the High Court with regard to which he was again arrested on October 25, 2022.
Similarly, 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. He, and his associate Abdul Latheef Ibrahim, however, are still facing charges over the deliberate burning of a Police speedboat docked at the harbour of Gan, Laamu Atoll, on March 22, 2020.
On September 16, 2021, the High Court ruled in favour of Mohamed Ameen, who is believed to be the leader of Maldivian faction of the Islamic State, dismissing the charges against him and ordering his release. He, however, remains behind bar, as he was re-arrested on October 11, 2021, after the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s ruling on October 3, 2021.
Significantly, following the June 21, 2022, incident of anti-yoga violence, Sheikh Mohamed Fazloon, an Islamic scholar and one of the 20 suspects arrested in connection with the mob attack, was granted conditional release by the Criminal Court on July 21, 2022. He was held in Male City on June 22.
Disturbed by such developments, the courts in Maldives have now ordered that the accused in cases of extremism or terrorism be retained in custody till their trials end.
If the threats to security are to be met adequately, the enforcement agencies need further strengthening, as there have been several instances in the past where people released/acquitted by the courts have subsequently carried out attacks. Mohamed Jameel, who attacked Minister Ali Solih, for instance, had earlier been arrested for disrupting a Friday congregation at the King Salman Mosque in July 2022, but was released.
Crucially, Islamist radicalism also finds significant space in the mainstream political discourse, particularly of the Islamist parties, such as the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), headed by former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom’s Presidency had been marked by a surge in extremist mobilization in the country, as well as the migration of over 250 Maldivians to Iraq and Syria, to join the Islamic State. Significantly, on December 23, 2022, a prominent PPM politician, who had served as the Commissioner General of Customs during Gayoom’s rule, openly called for an attack on the Indian High Commission at Male, purportedly to ‘avenge’ an incident of arson on February 8, 2012, at Addu, for which he falsely blamed India. Riza was subsequently arrested, on December 25, on ‘hate speech’ charges, but was conditionally released by the Criminal Court on February 13, 2023.
The Maldives State Policy on Terrorism and Violent Extremism adopted in 2014, stresses that it has a “zero-tolerance policy on terrorism and violent extremism”. This policy document is complemented by the National Strategy on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, adopted by the National Counter-Terrorism Centre in November 2017; as well as the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism 2020-2024. This “zero-tolerance” policy appears to have succeeded in containing major acts of terrorism and violence, but the deep-rooted radicalism and fundamentalism that afflicts significant populations in the country need to be dealt with, if stability and security in the Island nation is to be preserved.
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management