Maldives: ‘Designation’ brings US ‘terror-war’ closer?

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The United States on Tuesday designated a Maldivian as a “terrorist leader” for the first time and imposed targeted sanctions against the 35-year-old man.

By ‘designating’ Mohamed Ameen a ‘key leader for ISIS’, Washington may have taken the ‘global war on terror’ to the southern Indian Ocean neighbourhood.  

N Sathiya Moorthy 13 September 2019 

By ‘designating’ 35-year-old Maldivian Mohamed Ameen a ‘key leader for ISIS’, Washington may have taken the all-but-forgotten US-led ‘global war on terror’ to the southern Indian Ocean neighbourhood, though only indirectly. The US move coincides with a new Maldives law, criminalising terrorism overseas involving locals, and passed by the Parliament, which was recalled to convene urgently after having prorogued for recess

In turn, this has indicated previous consultations, if not possible coordination and collaboration, between the two nations, prior to their own separate moves to fight the spread of terrorism in the Maldives. How further cooperation between the two countries take shape, and how it impacts on the existing schemes and expertise of regional powers like India and Sri Lanka  remains to be seen.

This is the first time that the US ‘designation’ of the kind has named a Maldivian, and the order passed by the Trump Administration has imposed ‘targeted sanctions’ on Ameen. Most other ‘designees’ from South Asia are either from Pakistan or Afghanistan, with some exception   like Dawood Ibrahim from India.

The US order is noted for its declaration that Ameen was “actively engaged in leading ISIS recruitment” in  Maldives.

The designation named Ameen as a “recruiter for ISIS-Khorasan, a branch of the militant group Islamic State, and a “key leader for ISIS in Syria, Afghanistan and the Maldives, used to direct terrorist fighters to Syria, but now sends them to Afghanistan”, the Maldives Independent quoted a news release by the US Department of Treasury

The US order is noted for its declaration that Ameen was “actively engaged in leading ISIS recruitment” in  Maldives. According to the Treasury Department, “Ameen’s subordinates were holding roughly 10 recruitment sessions per week under the guise of Islamic classes at several locations in Maldives including Malé and even Ameen’s home. Ameen and his group continued to recruit on behalf of the ISIS from various Maldivian criminal gangs.” He was also specifically charged with sending a Maldivian citizen to work in Afghanistan and to translate material for Ameen, for a monthly pay of $ 700.

Ironically, neither the Waheed government of the time, nor his  successor, the presidency of Yameen  appealed for his release.  In fact they did not even kept a watch on Ameen’s movements and activities.

Ameen’s designation follows the Maldivian Presidential Commission naming him as the leader of a local affiliate of ISIS, following a split in the local Al-Qaeda group over Abubakr al-Bhagdadi declaring the formation of an ‘Islamic caliphate’ in 2014. According to the Maldives Independent, Ameen was suspected of being involved in the 2007 Male’s ‘Sultan Park bombing’ that injured a dozen foreign tourists. This was followed by an Interpol ‘red notice’ when he was found to have fled the country before the bomb-blast. He was later brought back home from Sri Lanka, but a local court ordered his release in May 2012, “on the condition that he would neither get involved in any further terrorist activities nor leave the country”.

Ironically, neither the Waheed government of the time, nor his  successor, the presidency of Yameen  appealed for his release.  In fact they did not even kept a watch on Ameen’s movements and activities. Until the report of the Presidential Commission, appointed by incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, named him last week, while probing the ‘disappearance’ and death of an independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla five years ago; Ameen’s name did not seem to have found a place in any fresh official record or news report. 

Criminalising ‘recruitment’

Coinciding with the US order is a new Maldivian law, an amendment to the 2015 anti-terror law, which the contemporary ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had dubbed ‘draconian’. The 2015 law itself was an update of a 1989 vintage version, passed after the coup bid against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, aborted by India’s ‘Operation Cactus’ swift military initiative. While the Yameen Government used the 1989 law to ‘punish’ former President and present-day Parliament Speaker Mohammed Nasheed in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, the new law goes on to criminalise the recruitment of Maldivians for foreign terror organisations.

Coming in the era after President Yameen’s five years of alleged ‘anti-democratic’ laws and processes, the changes have prompted immediate concerns over civil rights. This is because the law grants law-enforcers sweeping powers to arrest and detain terror-suspects, on the lines of similar laws in most other democracies, especially post 9/11 incident.

A more relevant and specific provision empowers the President to “publish a list of terrorist organisations and war-zones, which would have to be reviewed annually under advice from the National Security Council (NSC).

According to Maldives Independent, the proposed amendments “include a slight alteration to the definition of terrorism”, and also new provisions that penalises participation in ‘foreign wars’, propaganda, recruitment, facilitation, etc, even while exempting Maldivian journalists and humanitarian workers in such ‘war zones’, but they would have to obtain prior clearance from the Defence Ministry in Malé .

A more relevant and specific provision empowers the President to “publish a list of terrorist organisations and war-zones, which would have to be reviewed annually under advice from the National Security Council (NSC). A provision in the original law that required the President to publish such a list was scrapped in 2016, by the Yameen Government which had cleared the provision only a year earlier.

The new provisions may have to be read in the context of neighbouring Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s declaration that there was no law in the country to punish nationals participating in ‘foreign wars’ or joining ‘foreign terror outfits’ like the IS and Al-Qaeda.  Wickremesinghe said it in the overall context of why the nation’s security forces could not, or did not act on an ‘intelligence alert’ (from India) on this year’s ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’, which claimed over 250 lives, including  39 foreigners.

While the Yameen government did publish updated lists of Maldivians who had joined the IS in Syria and also of those dead on the war-front of returnees—the latter especially after the successive defeats for the outfit on the Syrian front—much of the rehabilitation work was ad hoc in nature. The administration then believed more in education and rehabilitation than on treating it all as a crime under local laws. The Solih law, in contrast, provides legal mechanisms not only for controlling the terror-spread but also for rehabilitation.

Drawing distinction

However the Solih ledership differs from the previous MDP Government of then President Nasheed when it comes to distinguishing Islamic fundamentalism (now, terrorism) from holding up traditional international beliefs of the contemporary Maldivian society. Specifically, the Foreign Ministry has since reaffirmed support for a Palestinian State based on the 1967 borders. The ministry also strongly condemned the “irresponsible statements” made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regarding the annexure of the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of West Bank.

The current approach of an MDP Government, identified with ‘western, liberal values’ in domestic politics, differs on specifics from the Nasheed presidency’s seeming tilt towards the West, especially the US, on religion-centric issues nearer home and afar, including sympathy and support for Israel.

“Any attempt to annex any part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories would be a grave violation of international law including the Geneva Conventions, and would further push back any chance of meaningful dialogue between the parties towards achieving a lasting peace in the Middle-East,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The Maldives calls on the international community, including the United Nations Security Council, to undertake immediate efforts to uphold its relevant resolutions, especially resolution 2334 and to condemn the flagrant violations and disregard Israel has shown towards upholding the rule of law,” the statement also added that, “The Government and people of the Maldives extend its full support to the Palestinians and will continue to advocate for a two-State solution.”

The current approach of an MDP Government, identified with ‘western, liberal values’ in domestic politics, differs on specifics from the Nasheed presidency’s seeming tilt towards the West, especially the US, on religion-centric issues nearer home and afar, including sympathy and support for Israel. This caused the Nasheed leadership to lose the support of those sections of ‘Maldivian conservatives’, who had otherwise backed the MDP’s pro-democracy movements and initiatives against predecessor President Gayoom.

Compared to the Maldives, which is constrained by both resources, starting with human resources, and also the expanse of the seas and the spread of its islands and atolls, both India and Sri Lanka, in the shared Indian ocean, have varied expertise in fighting terror.

In this context, particular mention needs to be made about the Nasheed Government inviting Israeli farm scientists to educate local counterparts on farming in Maldives’ salty waters in the marine environment. While the political opponents of the MDP and Nasheed leadership may have ridden on what they propagated as the former’s ‘anti-Islam’ agenda, the ‘December 23 Movement’ of religious NGOs did gather critical mass and momentum on its own, owing to the Government’s ‘pro-West, pro-Israel’ decisions, which also included the acceptance of an American request to house a Chinese terror-suspect, held in the Guantanamo Bay.

Compared to the Maldives, which is constrained by both resources, starting with human resources, and also the expanse of the seas and the spread of its islands and atolls, both India and Sri Lanka, in the shared Indian ocean, have varied expertise in fighting terror. The Indian experience goes back to the seventies, when the ISI-trained ‘Khalistani terrorists’ targeted the northern state of Punjab, leading to Operation Bluestar’ involving the Army and the subsequent assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Sri Lankan fight against LTTE terrorism, including the extinction of the dreaded ‘Sea Tigers’, was no small feat.

While all three nations are known to combine their anti-terror measures in a big way, the US ‘designation’ now may pour greater global attention on the region, which can cut both ways. The fact that the US has technological superiority and also foot-prints in both Syria and Afghanistan, to send out timely alerts to all three nations in the IOR, there may be a requirement for greater discretion in letting the local governments fight local terror, locally, either separately or as a joint effort , which ever fits them well.

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