After SL serial-blasts, Maldives displays cautious optimism

Image credit – Stanford Alumni Association. India and the Maldives.

N Sathiya Moorthy  22 May 2019

The Easter Day serial-blasts in neighbouring Sri Lanka may have rattled Maldives, but the nation is not afraid. Defence Minister Mariya Didi told the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, recently that “there was no specific or imminent terrorist threat to the nation, but in today’s world, we can never really entirely rule out the possibility”.

Minister Mariya Didi’s declaration came after the Maldivian security forces notified that there were no updates on the 69 Maldivian people who had joined the ISIS overseas. The security forces also mentioned that they were keeping track of the people who were returning home at the end of the Syrian civil war. Keeping head-count became necessary and also possible after frequent complaints from families in the islands, notifying the local police of the returnees having had joined the IS overseas.

Minister Mariya Didi’s declaration came after the Maldivian security forces notified that there were no updates on the 69 Maldivian people who had joined the ISIS overseas.

The erstwhile Yameen Government, which was otherwise blamed for not actively discouraging, if not positively encouraging the fast-tracked growth and spread of religious fundamentalism/extremism in the country, did keep a close eye on such activities. In reality, the spread of IS ideology was facilitated by mobile phones and the internet, which have otherwise become the life-lines of the sparsely-populated islands; not as freely accessible as other mainstream landed territories in South Asia.

In acting against religious fundamentalism in the Sunni-Islamic Republic, the Yameen Government went to the extent of banning the burqa in Government schools, a measure that was not liked by societal conservatives and traditionalists. There is no denying that as a ‘moderate, modern Muslim nation’, in Maldives freedom for women includes the freedom to dress freely.

There is no denying that as a ‘moderate, modern Muslim nation’, in Maldives freedom for women includes the freedom to dress freely.

Women in politics and public, including Minister Dunya Maumoon and former Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, both belonging to right-liberal and religious conservative families and political parties, for the most part don modern/western clothing.  However, in recent years, there has been a rise in women wearing the burqa in public, all over the country, including the capital city of Male.

Emergency exercise

In the aftermath of the Easter serial-attacks in Sri Lanka, the security forces in Maldives conducted an emergency response exercise, and border security was tightened – as much as was possible for a resources-short archipelago nation of the kind. Given the inherent constraints in Maldivian preparedness, even in the early years of the Yameen regime, Indian counter-terrorism experts visited Male, for a continuing exchange of information. This seemed to have continued, however, haltingly, even after political strains appeared in the bilateral ties between the nations in the concluding months of Yameen’s five-year elected term.

In the aftermath of the Easter serial-attacks in Sri Lanka, the security forces in Maldives conducted an emergency response exercise, and border security was tightened.

As the Maldives Independent reported recently, the Yameen Government disputed the US-based Soufan Group estimates of 200-250 Maldivians fighting with the IS in Syria and Iraq, at the time. Considering that not many people in the country know of one or many ‘missing persons’ of the kind during the said period, the Government’s charges of exaggerated western assessments seem plausible.

“It is difficult to give an official figure. It is an offence punishable by several years of imprisonment to engage in a foreign war. Therefore, those who have travelled to join foreign wars have travelled under the guise of travelling to friendly countries,” Minister Mariya Didi told The Hindu. The Maldivian position thus seemed to differ distinctly from that of neighbouring Sri Lanka, where Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the Government could do nothing much about the Easter blasts perpetrators, as there was no law to act against those engaged with overseas terror-groups.

The terror attacks in Sri Lanka was “of extreme concern to Maldives”, The Hindu further quoted Minister Mariya Didi. “The magnitude of the attacks, the level of coordination and the tactics chosen by the terrorists are alarming and indicate new levels of brutality to which terrorists may resort,” she said. “As a country predominantly dependent on tourism, we do not take these attacks within our neighbourhood lightly, and we are acting on these concerns with the urgent establishment of national-level, multi-agency security structures and measures”.

As the minister explained, the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) gets its numbers from relatives and others who come forward and report on people they know have travelled abroad to join foreign wars. The NCTC puts the current figure at 69, excluding women and children.”In February, the NCTC said widows of Maldivian jihadis who left to fight in Syria and Iraq were seeking to return to the Maldives. The minister said that the incumbent Government of President Ibrahim Solih was working on a “rehabilitation programme for radicalised individuals”.

The National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) gets its numbers from relatives and others who come forward and report on people they know have travelled abroad to join foreign wars.

According to reports, the nation’s security agencies have also been enhancing their operational capabilities. “Two senior-level committees, the Counter-Terrorism Steering Committee and the Counter-Radicalisation Committee, ensure a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach to address this issue,” she said. “It involves capacity-building at the organisational-level and conducting community empowerment programmes for vulnerable communities and other important social sectors such as the education sector, and the NGOs”.

Screening preachers?

Alongside Minister Mariya Didi’s specific pronouncements, her MDP party boss and former President Mohammed Nasheed kicked up a controversy when he indicated that the SL blasts master-mind Zarhran Hashim might have visited Maldives to preach and deliver sermons in 2016. Nasheed said that it was unclear whether Zarhran had travelled to Maldives under an assumed name – and thus a fake passport. “It is unwise to issue visas to enter the Maldives without screening people come in the guise of foreign sheikhs,” he tweeted. “He might have travelled under another name, but the point is that we should be mindful in allowing preachers,” he told The Hindu at the time.

Nasheed did not produce any concrete proof of evidence and his tweeted statements contradicted the nation’s Immigration Department’s claims of Zarhran not having visited Maldives.

Re-trial for boat-blast

A new political-cum-police row is now likely to arise, with a three-Judge Bench of the Male Bench of the Maldives High Court upturning former Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb’s 15-year jail-term. He was convicted on terrorism charges. Adeeb was arrested while still in office upon his return from an official visit to China. He was charged with plotting to assassinate President Yameen, when the latter was returning from Saudi Arabia, in September 2015.

A bomb went off under the seat meant for the incumbent in the President’s speed-boat when Yameen was returning home after landing in the Male international airport, in which First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim sustained injuries. The High Court accepted the defence submission of a hurried trial which was influenced by politics and has since ordered re-trial in the case.

The question that arises now, is if it were to be now found that Adeeb was not behind the bomb-blast, who then, was behind it? Would it still constitute as an act of terrorism under the 1999 law or would there be a need to conduct fresh investigations from the start?

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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