Why Maldives suspects larger conspiracy behind the blast

N Sathiya Moorthy  14 May 2021

It is not going to be the same again for ordinary Maldivians and their VVIPs, some of whom have been incorrigibly lax and insistently non-cooperative in following security protocols, what with the government promising to undertake a ‘security/ intelligence audit’ forthwith. Simultaneously, Parliament’s National Security Committee, too, began investigating the ‘security breach’ that possibly facilitated the 6 May bomb-blast, from which Parliament Speaker Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, escaped with grievous injuries.

For his part, President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih has since asked his Cabinet to ‘reinforce the security’ for heads of all three branches of the government, if needed by amending the Constitution. He also wanted official residences for the Parliament Speaker and the nation’s Chief Justice—respectively heading the Legislature and Judiciary branches of the government. The two were, thus far, entitled only to personal security.

In a televised greeting on Eid-ul-Fitr, marking the conclusion of the Islamic fasting month of Ramzan, President Solih also reiterated his government’s commitment to unravelling the larger conspiracy and bringing the culprits to justice. With the police having arrested three persons, who have reportedly denied involvement, the President’s continued reference to a ‘larger conspiracy’ indicated that there was more than meets the eye and that the police were still connecting the dots to draw the big picture.

For now, credit should go to the local police and also the doctors, for rising to the occasion, that too in the midst of the spiking COVID-19 pandemic across the country and the region. The medical team at the private sector ADK Hospital performed as many as 16 surgeries and other procedures on Nasheed, and brought him around, within the first 24 hours or so.

In his first tweet after hospitalisation a few days down the line, Nasheed congratulated and thanked the medical team. He was flown to Germany in an air ambulance on Thursday for further treatment, with another jet accompanying for security reasons. His wife and two daughters, residing in the UK, are expected to join him there.

Confident disclosure

It was the first major blast in the country, especially after the ‘Sultan Park blast’ of 2007, also in Male. In that case, the late B Raman, the international terrorism expert from India, likened the modus to the ‘London subway blast’, weeks earlier. This time, the police could declare with confidence that the current blast was caused by an IED (improvised explosive device) attached to a motorcycle, parked near Nasheed’s house, and was triggered by remote-control.

Three of Nasheed’s security personnel too were injured in the blast along with a bystander. That did not deter the security team from rushing Nasheed to the hospital in a record eight minutes. Together, they pointed to the high levels of professionalism acquired by the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), entrusted respectively with the investigations and VVIP security.

Denied involvement

According to local media reports, the three persons arrested within as many days have denied involvement. They were identified by CCTV footage from near Nasheed’s home, which was the scene of the crime. At one stage, the police had indicated that the third person, then yet to be detained, was the possible mastermind.

However, the nation’s police chief Mohamed Hameed said that more people were behind the conspiracy. He said that the arrested persons followed a ‘dangerous, extremist’ ideology. More details may be available when the three are produced before the court at the end of the 15-day remand period, when their interrogation too is expected to have been completed.

It remains to be seen if the authorities will proceed with the case under ordinary criminal laws or the anti-terror law of 1989. The terrorism law was passed a year after the aborted coup against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, which the Indian Air Force (IAF) helped thwart through ‘Operation Cactus’.

In all, 19 Maldivians, including eight soldiers, lost their lives in the coup. Yet, coup leader, Abdulla Luthfee, chased and arrested by the Indian Navy, jumped bail when Nasheed was President, surrendered in Sri Lanka in 2019, and was brought home to serve the remaining three years of his sentence, indicating procedural laxity, if not political favouritism – thus indicating a favourable environment for militancy to thrive.

Lone wolf?

Initial leads seem to be pointing to ‘international Islamic terrorism’. Given Nasheed’s known opposition to Islamic radicalisation and consequent political isolation at the international-level, the modus operandi, particularly the use of a remote-control device, immediately confirmed by Maj-Gen Abdulla Shamaal, chief of the nation’s defence forces, supports such a theory. However, a week after the blast, no group has claimed responsibility, which is a near-must for international terror groups wanting to get noticed and make an impact.

Maldives is also home to ‘affiliates’ of Al Qaeda and breakaway ISIS groups, as unearthed by the Solih-appointed Presidential Commission in 2019. It is not unlikely that some Maldivian youth who had returned home dejected after fighting the ISIS’ failed jihad in Syria, too, might have possessed the knowhow. Likewise, individuals linked to fellow-Maldivians that had fought Al-Qaeda’s war on the Af-Pak border and those trained to target US and Israeli consulates in South India, might have acquired the skills.

Maldives is also home to ‘affiliates’ of Al Qaeda and breakaway ISIS groups, as unearthed by the Solih-appointed Presidential Commission in 2019

If any of them were involved, ideology and execution need may or may not connect. So could it be with frustrated pro-democracy youth—who are witness to inadequate democracy in the MDP and its non-existence in other political parties together afflicting the Maldivian national scheme—acquainting themselves with those with the skills.

Cart before the horse

The attack on Nasheed, the nation’s first democracy President and leader of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), comes at a time when politics in the country has become increasingly nebulous despite a stable government with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Nasheed camp has added to the prevailing administrative confusion caused by the unmatched demands of pandemic management, by causing the exit of government ministers, charging them with corruption, when the passive President Solih’s leadership could ill-afford the politico-administrative consequences.

The Nasheed camp has added to the prevailing administrative confusion caused by the unmatched demands of pandemic management, by causing the exit of government ministers, charging them with corruption, when the passive President Solih’s leadership could ill-afford the politico-administrative consequences.

Nasheed himself added to it even more recently, that too in the midst of the MDP losing the prestigious Male municipal council and mayoralty to Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine in the nation-wide local council polls of 10th April. In a private missive to President Solih, which he almost-officially shared with many others in the party, Nasheed demanded a switch-over to the parliamentary scheme ahead of the 2023 presidential polls with himself becoming prime minister.

Nasheed’s critics from outside the MDP protested straightaway, saying that it was not for an individual to decide it. Incumbent Solih shared this view. Critics also pointed to the fact that the retention of the presidential scheme under the pro-democracy Constitution of 2008 followed a national referendum. Uncharitable critics have gone as far as to claim that by proposing a change of governance scheme, Nasheed had put the cart before the horse.

Coming back stronger…

In this background, and in the midst of the blast and also the pandemic, President Solih, addressing the MDP’s national council, called for avoiding unpleasant contests in the party’s organisational elections later this month. It was the time for the MDP to demonstrate unity, which would be lost in the face of organisational elections down the line. Hence, the party congress, scheduled for 27 May, should be postponed, he advised. Party officials identified with the Nasheed camp had earlier insisted on going ahead with the internal polls, even after the blast and despite the pandemic.

In his first message to supporters, conveyed through his family members, on the third day of the blast, Nasheed promised to come back ‘stronger’. His family has also indicated that they did not want Nasheed to ‘distance himself from politics’ because of the blast. Be it as it may, a popular leader like Nasheed may not be returning to the Maldives that he had known, especially after it became a multi-party democracy.

Post-blasts, political campaigns, if not politics per se—Maldives is not going to be the same again. It is more than likely that new security protocols for VVIPs and their supporters would be in place by the time Nasheed returns home from Germany and enters public life in full spirits—adding to, or hopefully replacing, the prevailing COVID-19 protocols like social-distancing.

It is the kind of ‘security state syndrome’ that neighbouring India and Sri Lanka, among other South Asian nations, have got accustomed to – and to which both Maldivians and their ruling class, too, have to get acclimatised. It is precisely for this reason, too, that there is an urgent need for the police investigators to unravel the greater conspiracy, if any, behind the blast, so as to ensure that it does not recur, in this form or whatever.

https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/why-maldives-suspects-larger-conspiracy-behind-the-blast/

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

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