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Maldives: A fresh look at the terror threat

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Maldives has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2007, when a bomb exploded at Male's SultanPark on September 29, injuring 12 tourists of different nationalities. The attack which had stunned the otherwise peaceful and idyllic Island was immediately condemned by its leadership and the task of the investigation entrusted additionally to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)[1]. The investigations into the attack indicated that the global jihad network had managed to effectively spread its tentacles into the Islands as well. This network is starting to rear its head again in security briefings for the region.

The primary explosive used in the bombing was a gas cylinder[2]. Investigations showed that the terror threat from radicalized youths in Maldives had reached high levels with indoctrination being received from Wahabbist schools of thought based in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In 2002, the FBI had arrested a Maldivian national Ibrahim Fauzee in Pakistan. Subsequently released, he continues to be under surveillance by Maldives security apparatus. In 2006, three Maldivian nationals were arrested by Sri Lanka on suspicions of transiting to jihadi training camps in Pakistan. They too were released for want of evidence[3]. Mohammed Faseehu, from the Laam atoll island of Dhanbidhoo, and Shifahu Abdul Wahid of the Dhiffushi Island in the Kaaf atoll were two of many teenaged boys missing from Maldives and suspected to be involved in Jihadi operations. The fate of the above mentioned boys was proclaimed to their parents in 2007, in a phone call from Karachi, which claimed that they had become 'martyrs' in Kashmir[4].

The role of Pakistani madrassas in radicalizing the youth of Maldives was brought up by the Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed in December 2008. Talking about Islamic fundamentalism, the Maldivian President admitted that between 30 to 40 out of 150 Maldivian students in madarassas in Pakistan were getting education in more radical ones[5].

Links to the Sultan bombing were again traced back to Pakistan when nine Maldivian suspects were arrested in the violent Waziristan region of Pakistan. It is feared that members of the groups were being given sanctuary by the dreaded Lashkar E Tayeeba in the region. The fact that Al-Qaeda operatives and Afghan and Pakistan Taliban elements are known to operate in that region further compounded the fears that the training had reached a superior level[6]. The Lashkar had already established a base in the Islands through its charitable front, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, which carried out extensive relief operations in the southern atolls after the 2005 tsunami[7].

The role of the Lashkar's patronage to Maldivian youths is further documented in the fact that the Jamia Salafia Islamia - a Faisalabad seminary whose alumni are several Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders- was the school for Mohamed Halim, vice-chief of administration for the Laam atoll. "There were 23 students from Maldives there in 1989," "and dozens of others at other seminaries across Pakistan. Some used to go off for training with jihadi groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border." [8]
Saudi funding to schools in the Maldives have further compounded the radicalization in the state. Saudi financing helped construct the Islamic Studies Institute in Male where students are taught in Arabic[9]. Part of the causative degeneration of the Maldivian society can be traced to the rise of Abdul Gayoom to Presidency in 1978. An Islamic scholar who passed out from Al Azhar University in Cairo, he heavily promoted the Islamization of the country by sending the youths to Islamic institutions in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and India for Islamic studies[10].

The economy of Maldives is heavily dependent on tourism, and therefore the corresponding rise in Islamization of the country was not matched with a corresponding increase of attacks on foreign tourists in the country. However, the local population was starting to see the effects of the influx of foreign clerics and wahhabist thoughts into the country. According to Jennifer Latheef, a local human rights activist "The number of women wearing the veil has risen dramatically"[11]. Furthermore, the radicalization of the state also had an impact on the linguistic culture of the state, wherein more people were moving from the native term for God-"Maaiyraskalaange" to "Allah" for fears that any other name would be sinful to god. It further resulted in an increase of anti-semitism in the state[12].

Islam in the Maldives has a violent history. Practice of other religions in the state is prohibited and has been since 1153, when the king at the time fell under the sway of an Arab traveler and ordered his subjects who were previously Buddhist to convert. Islamic practices and the states dependence on tourism dictate that alcohol is only sold to foreigners[13].

It is tourism however which has been the most significant motivator for the government to tackle extremism in the state. In response to fears that the country's safe image would be tarnished by the bomb blast, the government introduced a slew of measures to curb radicalization. Among the measures taken was a police raid on extremist strongholds in Himandhoo, while Salafi mosques have been closed down[14]. The Maldivian president has vigorously pursued the role of Pakistani Madrassas with his counterpart and has even requested the Indian governments help in educating the youth of the country[15]. In addition, on October 18, 2007, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ordered that fundamentalists should not be allowed to conduct religious services and that foreign clerics should not be allowed to enter the country without special permission. Under the new measures, the Government will also not recognize educational qualifications obtained from madrasas[16].

India has an active role to play in the counter-terrorism operations of Maldives. Maldives figures very highly on the risk assessment of maritime security threats being faced by India. Former Indian home minister Shivraj Patil had in 2006 speech spoken about the need to strengthen India's coastal security, primarily owing to threats from the Lashkar E Tayeeba maritime wing. His assessment was based on inputs that Maldives resident, Ali Assham, a member of the Lashkar, had studied the prospect of using a deserted Indian Ocean island for building a Lashkar storehouse, from where weapons and explosives could be moved to the coastal state of Kerala and then on to the rest of India[17]. It was loopholes spoken by Patil which were exploited in the November 2008 attack on Mumbai city.

Further concerns to the Maldive terror link was highlighted when A planned attack on an Indian Space Research Organisation facility in southern India was called off after a Maldives national code-named 'Ehsham' backed out of the plot[18]. Lashkar operatives' interrogation have revealed that they continue to view Maldivian national's superior knowledge of the sea as a major asset in the employment of maritime terrorism, the likes of which Mumbai was just the beginning[19].

The Indian link to the 2007 bombings would also be a worrying aspect for the Indian security establishment. Asif Ibrahim, a Maldivian national arrested in Kerala in April 2005, told investigators that he had been tasked with the setting up of a support unit for a new Maldives-based terror group, the Jamaat-ul-Muslimeen [20]. Indian intelligence reports have consistently warned of global terrorist designate Dawood Ibrahim would setup a terror base in Maldives have also contributed to the security fears of the Indian government.

Measures have already been taken between the Maldivian and Indian governments to cooperate on the maritime threat. Recent high level governmental visits included a visit by the Indian chief of Army staff, the Home secretary and the foreign minister to the state[21].

The November 2007 videotape titled "Ansar Al Mujahideen Targets the Maldives" made it amply clear that Maldives has a greater role to play in Jihadi operations in the region[22]. Some of the key aspects of the radicalization of the state are yet to be addressed including discrepancies in the distribution of wealth among the Islands and the growing drug addiction in the state[23]. The fact that a large majority of the population is relatively young and reeling under economic duress would push them towards a religious ideological leaning. Maldives has taken a number of steps in the aftermath of the 2007 bombings, but fresh inputs continue to pour in highlighting the volatility of its peace.

[1]'FBI joins Maldives Probe', France 24 News, 1 October 2007, click here
[2]'Two British tourists injured in bomb attack on Maldives', The Independent, 30 September 2007, click here
[3]Raman, B, 'Al Qaeda in Maldives - International Terrorism Monitor--Paper No. 308', South Asia Analysis Group, 19 November 2007, click here
[4]Swami, Praveen, 'Nine Maldives jihadists held in Pakistan', The Hindu, 4 April 2009 click here
[5]'India, Maldives to enhance marine anti-terror cooperation', Indo-Asian News Service, 25 December 2008,click here
[6] Swami, Op Cit, click here
[7] Ibid
[8]Swami, Praveen, 'Maldives: militant Islamists on the rise', The Hindu, 24 November 2008, click here
[9]Raman, B., 'Copy-Cat Bali in Male', C3S Paper No. 57, 1 October 2007
[10]Upadhyay, R., 'Islamic Radicalisation of Maldives', South Asia Analysis Group paper 2610, 7 March 2008, click here
[11]'Maldives were 'warned of Islamic danger', The Telegraph, 1 October 2007, click here
[12] Upadhyay, Op Cit, click here
[13]Lancaster, John, 'Looking for Osama in the Maldives', Slate, 28 May 2007,
[14]Swami, Praveen, 'Uneasy in Paradise', Frontline volume 24 Issue 24, December 2007, click here
[15]'India, Maldives to enhance marine anti-terror cooperation', Indo-Asia News Service, 25 December 2008, click here
[16]'Maldives cracks down on extremism', click here
[17]Swami, Praveen, 'INDIA: Mumbai: The Road to Maximum Terror', South Asia Intelligence Review volume 7 number 23, 15 December 2008,
[18]Swami, Praveen, 'Inside the mind of the Jihad', The Hindu, 13 April 2008, click here
[19]Nanjappa, Vicky, 'Maldives chapter in Lashkar's terror plans', Rediff News, 19 December 2008, click here
[20]Swami, Praveen, 'India links emerge in Maldives terror probe', The Hindu, 14 November 2007, click here
[21]'Indian Army Chief begins visit to Maldives', Press Trust of India, 12 February 2007, click here
[22]Grace, Nick, 'Ansar Al Mujahideen Targets the Maldives', Rapidrecon, Threats Watch, 18 November 2007, click here
[23]Madhok, Rajat & Crowe, Sarah, 'Fighting drug addiction among Maldives Youth', UNICEF, 11 March 2009,
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Siddharth Ramana is an MscEcon in Intelligence and Strategic Studies. A student of peace and conflict studies, he is presently pursuing an additional Masters in Counter Terrorism (Israel). He has worked as a research assistant for the Institute of (more...)
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