The message was simple: the man fired his machine gun at a makeshift target made up of pictures of Maldives president Abdullah Yameen, and his predecessors, Mohammed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and then trampled on the torn-up paper with his boots. “Tyrants, this is a small warning,” the narrator said. “What we want, however much you disapprove, is to free slaves from the slaves of the infidels.”
In the months Al Qaeda’s Maldivian fighters released that video back in 2016, dozens of young men from the islands flew West to join jihadists in Syria — and for months, governments across the world have been waiting warily for their return. The United States (US), among other countries, has warned visitors to the tourism-dependent islands of a high risk of terrorist attack.
Now, the ongoing political chaos in the Maldives — the consequence of the government’s failure to honour a Supreme Court judgment quashing terrorism charges against Nasheed, and ordering the release of political prisoners — could give the religious right real opportunity.
Flailing in the face of pressures from his political opponents, President Yameen has often turned to the religious Right-wing for support. Jihadists, in turn, have adroitly capitalised on youth anger with authoritarianism and corruption. Failure to establish firm foundations for democracy in the Maldives, therefore, could have consequences dangerous to the entire region
Indian and Western intelligence services estimate up to 250 Maldives citizens, out of a tiny population of 3,59,000, may have volunteered to fight with jihadists in Iraq and Syria — the highest by far, in population-adjusted terms, of any country in the world. The Maldives government says it can confirm 57 people have made the journey, while the Islamic State and its Al Qaeda affiliated rival, Al Nusra, have released at least nine obituaries for Maldivians killed in combat.
Entire families have, in some cases, headed to the so-called Islamic State. Fathullah Jameel’s three sons, Aatifu, Samihu and Aataru, all headed to Syria with their spouses and children, after 2013. The three men, their father speculates, were frustrated with poverty: only Aatifu had a job, and the three families had to take turns sharing a single bedroom.
The Maldives government says it can confirm 57 people have made the journey, while the Islamic State and its Al Qaeda affiliated rival, Al Nusra, have released at least nine obituaries for Maldivians killed in combat.
Last year, couple Mohammad Zakman Adam Ismail and Marim Sanah are reported to have migrated to the Islamic State, along with dozens of others.
Faced with mounting international pressure, President Yameen’s government has taken some action against jihadists. In 2015, the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act made it illegal to travel overseas to join a terrorist group. In May 2016, three men arrested on the Syria-Turkey border were prosecuted on terrorism charges. The trials of Ahmad Niaz and Mohamed Abdul Rahman, both of whom fought in Pakistan’s North Waziristan for several years, is underway.
In an effort to shore up its frayed democratic legitimacy, however, President Yameen’s administration has at once allied with neo-fundamentalist clerics. In December 2016, he appointed controversial Pakistan-educated cleric Adam Shameem to the Fatwa Majlis, the body responsible for adjudicating religious disputes in the Maldives. In his speeches, Shameem had described multi-party democracy as irreconcilable with Islam, and backed jihadists in Syria.
Earlier, in the 2013 presidential elections, Shameem blamed the fall of Muslim Spain on Muslims forming business and political relations with non-Muslims — a thinly-veiled attack on former President Nasheed.
The Yameen administration has also thrown its weight behind efforts to institutionalise Islam in the Maldives’ everyday life. Last month, Malé residents Hafiz Saeed and Ali Abdul Sattar were sentenced to 40 lashes for drinking alcohol — in addition to a prison sentence mandated by civil law.
Little action has been taken against Islamist networks alleged to be behind the 2017 murder of liberal columnist Yameen Rasheed. The murder of his colleague, Ahmed Rilwan and liberal religious scholar Afrasheem Ali, remain unpunished — and online death threats against liberals have become routine.
Textbooks, human rights activists in Maldives say, contribute to the problem. The Class IX Islamic studies textbook tells students, “performing jihad against people that obstruct the religion” is an obligation. It promises that “Islam ruling over the world is very near.” Promising a caliphate, the textbook says, “this is something that the Jews and Christians do not want. It is why they collaborate against Islam even now.”
“A new despotism is now in place in the Maldives,” scholar Azim Zahir wrote after Yameen Rashid’s killing, “one that employs the formal institutions and other trappings of democracy, but is fully corrupt and criminal at the core.” He argued that “politicians have normalised a discourse supportive of extreme political violence and have partnered with violent gangs to protect their interest.”
The story of jihad in the Maldives dates back decades. In 1983, Pakistan-educated cleric Mohamed Ibrahim Fareed returned to the islands, warring against the mainstream Shaafi-Sunni traditions the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom propagated. He was banished to the southern atoll of Himandhoo — but used the opportunity to build a Shariah-bound mini-state modelled on the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Fareed began drawing young men rebelling against Gayoom’s despotic rule. “Men grew beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas, and crowned their heads with Arab-style cloth,” scholar Aishath Velazinee has recorded. “Women were wrapped in black robes. Goats were imported, and fishermen gave up their vocation to become shepherds.”
Mohamed Halim, from Maldives’ Laam atoll, recalls large numbers of students from the islands began arriving in Pakistan to study at the Jamia Salfiyya seminary. “There were 23 students from Maldives there in 1989,” he recalls in perfect Urdu, “and dozens of others at other seminaries across Pakistan. Some used to go off for training with jihadi groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Long a crossroads for trade across the Indian ocean, Maldives’ traditional culture had relatively relaxed attitudes to personal freedoms. In the 14th century, the great traveller and cleric Muhammad Ibn Battutah recorded his frustration at the disinclination shown by local women to cover up. “I strove to put an end to this practice and commanded the women to wear clothes, but I could not get it done,” Ibn Battutah had written.
Islamism began to gather force in the Maldives after 2004, after the Indian ocean tsunami claimed hundreds of lives on the islands, and destroyed entire communities
“Preachers began touring the islands, armed with cash from Islamic charities who had arrived from Pakistan and the Middle East,” said writer and analyst Yameen Rasheed. “Their message was simple: Maldivians were paying for their sins, and must atone to avoid Allah’s wrath.”
The Himandhoo circle now expanded its ambitions. In 2009, Ali Shareef carried out a bombing at Malé’s Sultan Park — targetting Chinese tourists, who he believed to be Japanese. Along with Mohamed Mazeed of Male, as well as Ali Rashid and Mohammad Saleem, both residents of the Kalaidhoo island in the Laam atoll, Shareef plotted to establish a Shariah-based state in the Maldives.
Fearing backlash, Maldives did little to rein in these networks. In 2008, Maldives national Ali Assham, alleged to have been involved with the Lashkar-e-Taiba network and accused of attacking the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 2005, was deported from Sri Lanka to Maldives. Despite Indian demands, he was never prosecuted, and now lives in Male.
Ali Jaleel, who in 2008 became the first Maldives citizen to conduct a suicide bombing, had been imprisoned two years earlier on terrorism-related charges, but was released and allowed to leave for Pakistan
Male’s powerful street gangs, in turn, linked to heroin cartels and protection rackets, are providing soldiers for the new Islamist army. Photographs of former gang member Ismail Rahim travelling to Syria as part of a group organised by Adam Shameem — appointed to the Islamic council by President Yameen — have surfaced.
Azlif Rauf, named as a suspect in writer Rilwan’s disappearance, fled to Pakistan last year, where he is thought to be hiding out with contacts in the Tehreek-e-Taliban.
Throughout the city, as well as in some of the smaller islands, graffiti calling on young people to join the jihad in Syria is widespread — as are online Twitter handles and websites promoting the cause.
Finding a durable solution to the problems driving the growth of jihadism necessarily involve restoring a democratic, accountable political order — reason enough for the region, and the world to be deeply concerned with the crisis unfolding there.
Praveen Swami is an award-winning journalist and the National Editor (Strategic and International Affairs) of The Indian Express. He tweets @praveenswami.