Maldives: Is the attack on Nasheed a sign of escalating radicalism? 

Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed is seen during a speech at the Janakie Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on September 21, 2018. Nasheed was seriously injured in a bomb attack on Thursday, officials said. File Photo by M.A. Pushpa Kumara/EPA-EFE

Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed is seen during a speech at the Janakie Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on September 21, 2018. Nasheed was seriously injured in a bomb attack on Thursday, officials said. File Photo by M.A. Pushpa Kumara/EPA-EFE


N Sathiya Moorthy  7 May 2021

Parliament Speaker and ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chief Mohamed Nasheed, fondly known as ‘Anni’, escaped what the local police suspected was an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion, outside his Malé house at 8:30 p.m., on Thursday, the 6th of May. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, better known as ‘Ibu’, joined other leaders, cutting across political parties to condemn the attack on his childhood friend and political mentor, and said it was not just an attack on Nasheed but on Maldives’ “democracy and economy”. He called in the Australian police without any loss of time, to assist in the investigations.

As the incident occurred  in the midst of the Islamic fasting month of Ramzan, the incident has triggered speculation on extremism in the island, given the Indian Ocean archipelago’s growing quota of news and analyses on international Islamic terrorism. Nasheed is the nation’s first President to be elected under the multi-party democracy election of 2008. His term ended abruptly in February 2012, in the midst of the nation-wide protests for his exit.

Soon after the blast, Nasheed was wheeled into ADK Hospital in the city which reported that he had suffered multiple injuries but his ‘vitals were stable’. At least four other people—three from Nasheed’s security detail from the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and one European—also suffered injuries. They were also out of danger, the officials said.

Even as President Solih and other leaders condemned the incident, Parliament met in an emergency session under Deputy Speaker Eva Abdulla, to take stock. Parliament’s National Security Committee met to discuss the development even as President Solih called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). A clearer picture about the real cause for the blast, the men and their motives—if any behind the episode—will be known only after the investigations make some progress. This is, however, likely to be pushed until after the weekend as the Australian team will arrive on Saturday.

The second VVIP to be under threat

At 53, Nasheed is the second VVIP to face a blast threat of whatever kind in the country. In 2015, Fathimath Ibrahim suffered injuries and President Abdulla Yameen—currently serving a five-year prison term, pending appeal against a lower court verdict in a corruption case—escaped unhurt in a blast in his official speedboat. Investigations led to the arrest of Yameen’s chosen Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb, for plotting the blast, in which First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim suffered injuries.

However, the seriousness of the charges of conspiracy were lost following the arrest of Defence Minister, Col Mohamed Nasim, for allegedly plotting to overthrow President Yameen. Both Adeeb and Nazim spent years in prison, until the latter was freed after the Solih administration came into office in 2018. Adeeb continues to be under house arrest on corruption charges dating back to his days as Yameen’s all-important tourism Minister.

Bomb blast in Sultan Park and its implications

The first bomb blast in the country occurred in Malé’s Sultan Park at the height of the pro-democracy movement and protests in 2007, injuring 12 foreign tourists. Though the administration of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom sought to link it to the fledgling democracy movement that supposedly wanted to ‘wreck [the] tourism economy’, the police arrested a few Islamic radicals from an island, not long after, thus, acknowledging it as an act of radicalism.

Since then, international analysts have been talking about increased fundamentalism and extremism in the archipelago-nation. The Yameen administration acknowledged that Maldivian youths were fighting with the ISIS in Syria, and put the number at around 50, including some dead. The collapse of the ISIS in Syria meant that some of the disillusioned militants returned home—purportedly to lead a new life.

Earlier in 2015, the Malaysian police revealed that three Maldivian youths were being prepared to target the US and Israeli consulates in Chennai and Bengaluru, both in south India. The US armed forces had detained a few Maldivian youths fighting with the Al-Qaeda along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Ever since these two episodes and one another in Mumbai have occurred, the Indian security agencies have been on high alert, and have been working with their Maldivian counterparts to thwart all such moves.

In April last year, ISIS claimed responsibility for an arson incident in the island, in which four speedboats, a sea ambulance and two dinghies that were docked adjacent to each other were burnt at night. The Maldivian police initially dismissed it as a “retaliatory attack for recent investigations into drug trafficking and religious extremism”. In doing so, the authorities acknowledged the existence of religious extremism in the country but denied ISIS presence or involvement.

The incident occurred months after the August 2019 report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that delved into  the spread of fundamentalism and extremism in the nation. Holding Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates responsible for the disappearance and assumed killing of a ‘liberal’ journalist in 2014, the Commission said ‘Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates’ operated in the country, and that the latter was only a breakaway group of the former.

The Solih government began following up on the Commission report by identifying island families that followed radical Islam to the point of keeping their children, especially girls, out of schools, and also conducted MNDF exercises in preparation for possible assaults on terror dens. They also began a re-education programme for these ‘radicalised’ youths and parents. The government, especially senior police officers, also addressed a national conference of local council members—who are the men on the ground—to create awareness on related matters.

However, the intervening COVID-19 pandemic and its rapid spread seemed to have directed the government’s efforts away from tackling Islamic radicalisation. While it’s understandable, the injuries to Speaker Nasheed now have revived memories of what remains undone—whatever be the final verdict of the blast investigators.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation-Chennai Initiative)

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