Maldives: Amidst worsening Covid19 crisis, ISIS ‘claims maiden attack

Islamic State Terror in the Maldives as COVID-19 Arrives – The ...
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

N Sathiya Moorthy 24 April 2020 

Maldivian authorities are still investigating an ISIS claim about last week’s burning down of several boats in the Mahibadhoo harbour, in the South Ari Atoll capital, 75 km from the national capital of Male. The claims and investigations come in the midst of the nation facing the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic fallout that could hit the mainstay tourism sector, even otherwise.

According to early reports, five speed-boats were damaged in the Mahibadhoo fire incident, which occurred in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, 15 April. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), the nation’s tri-Service military, put out the fire. The reports also quoted the HMH company, whose speed boats were damaged, that the fire broke out on a sea-ambulance and spread to the other nearby boats. Two speed boats owned by a well-known oil supply company and two dinghy vessels were also affected by the fire, the reports further said.

The 15 April episode comes not long after an incident on 22 March, in which a police speed-boat was burned down in an acknowledged arson-attack at Thundu harbour in L Gan. Police spokesmen said that the rope used to tie the boat to the harbour was found cut. There is nothing to suggest that the two incidents were linked, and the police are investigating the two cases. Nor does there seems to be any link with the more recent theft of a dhoni (country-boat) in Raa Atoll, in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, 23 April. The police have arrested four persons in this regard.

After the 15 April incident, MNDF chief, Maj-Gen Abdulla Shamaal, declared that the forces would not allow anyone to exploit the Covid19-centric situation to commit any crime. Though he might have implied the pre-dawn arson-attacks and did not mention names, at that stage at least local intra-island quarrel was seen as the motive. Definitely, no ISIS hand was seen, nor any claims made at that time.

However, ISIS’ claim in the weekly Al Naba newsletter that the 15 April incident was their ‘first-ever attack’ in Maldives. According to reports “an exclusive source told Al Naba that yesterday morning soldiers of the Caliphate attacked five boats belonging to the apostate Maldivian government. While repeating the open-source information already reported in the Maldivian media, the Al Naba newsletter did not provide any additional information.

It is now left to the Maldivian investigation agencies to establish the truth or otherwise of the ISIS claims, if the Al Naba report itself is found to be genuine. However, the Government has acknowledged the possible presence of Al Qaeda and (breakaway) ISIS ‘elements’ in the country. A Presidential Commission that probed unexplained deaths and disappearance of journalists and other rights activists over the previous years, said as much in its interim report, presented in September last.

Through the past two decades, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of President Ibrahim Solih had voiced concern over ‘increased radicalisation’ of youth in some islands as also in the densely-populated capital city of Male. Party chief Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, former President and present Parliament Speaker, has been particularly critical of non-MDP Governments.

Following the Commission Report, officials raided some islands, and arrested men who had denied their family women and children their rights in the name of religion. They also enrolled them in schools ahead of the commencement of the new academic year in January 2020. The pandemic may have delayed and diverted some of the good work being done on this score, so also policing work on the Al Qaeda/ISIS fronts.

At the height of the pro-democracy movement in the country in end-September 2007, at least 12 persons, including some foreign tourists and migrant employees, were injured in a bomb-blast at the centrally-located Sultan Park in Male. Though sources in the Government of incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom claimed the blast was aimed at rocking the nation’s tourism economy, subsequent official statements attributed to local radicals.

The confirmation about local radicalisation came when authorities investigating the Sultan Park explosion tried to enter the Dal-al-Khur mosque on Himandhoo island. Initially, the authorities were not prepared for what became a 40-hour stand-off. It ended with the arrest of 60 men and boys, who were holed in in the mosque, and injuries to 30 policemen. One of the policemen had his hand chopped off.

Further evidence came in the form of vandalisation of monuments put up by two member-nations, namely, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at the successful conclusion of the SAARC Summit in southern Addu, in November 2011. Months later, at the height of the anti-Nasheed protests in February 2012, vandals destroyed non-Islamic archaeological finds, including Buddha statues, from the nation’s distant past, at the National Museum in Male. No links to Al Qaeda was established, nor was there any ISIS at the time, to make any such connection.

Covid19: President’s appeal

The arson-attack comes in the midst of the nation fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also threatened to hit the economy hard, in every which way. More importantly, the ISIS claims, whether true or otherwise, comes as a much-avoidable distraction when the nation as a whole is focussed on the pandemic-induced crisis, almost by the hour.

Independent of the arson incident, President Solih appealed to the people to cooperate with the authorities in minimising the Covid risks. Given the nation’s geography and consequent dependence on imports, the President, in an emotional speech, also reassured the people that they had enough food stocks. The question is increasingly relevant with the official commencement of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramzan on Friday, 24 April. The Government has since announced an allowance of MVR 5,000 ($ 325) to those that have lost their jobs to the pandemic crisis.

The latest count of covid-positive cases in the country has since crossed the psychologically sensitive 100-mark  – 110, to be precise — a substantial figure for the archipelago-nation with 400,000 population. When early signals of an increasing number emerged, the government decided to extend the Male City lock-down by two more weeks, after beginning with a 24-hour lock-down. In a recent incident, an expat worker was found dead on the streets of Male; in the first incident of the kind, two locals could be quarantined only after obtaining court orders as they were non-cooperative.

It has also been considering a nation-wide lock-down. The Government has also banned inter-island travel, as most islanders have family members working and/or residing in the capital, so as to avoid further spread of the pandemic. President Solih has since ordered the closure of all Government offices until April-end. After banning mass prayers in Male mosques early on, the authorities have also extended the same to other population centres like Addu and Fuvahmulah.

Speaker Nasheed cautioned the nation that over 2,000 may contract Covid-19. He however reassured the people that the Government was prepared to face any eventuality and asked them ‘not to worry’. However, citing projections, National Health Protection Agency’s (NHPA) Dr. Nazla Rafeeq, has put the possible number of victims at a high 98,000, or close to a quarter of Maldivian population. She said that daily ‘new contacts’ number was above the global average and asked Maldivians to ‘get used to the new normal’.

Economic fall-out

Mobility, both of the inland variety and also of foreign tourists, has been key to the nation’s economy. The continuing ban on air-travel to and from the country has had a very bad impact on the country, and recovery could take possibly more time than the Boxer Day tsunami of 2004. The Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) has calculated that the profits of State-run organisations has plunged by 26 percent, or a fourth, in March.

Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA), the world’s largest sea-plane operator, has cut staff salaries in half. For its part, the Bank of Maldives, the nation’s central bank, has fixed an upper-limit on dollar-withdrawals from ATM machines. In a country where the American green-pack holds great attraction for businesses, tourists and ordinary Maldivians travelling to neighbouring India and Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Australia for medical treatment and higher education, it is saying a lot. Incidentally, the economic crisis is independent of perceptions of an existing/emerging social crisis, where staying at home is not considered ‘safe’, especially for girl children, given past instances of child-abuse.

To help Maldives tied over the Covid19 crisis, the Indian neighbour has sent a medical team, followed by multiple consignments of medical and food supplies, with promises of more. President Solih and Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke again recently, and discussed mutual cooperation in fight against Corona. Indian authorities are also reportedly collecting information on migrant labour from the country working in Maldives, to facilitate their home return when air travel resumes.

President Solih also spoke to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterre and Foreign Minister Shahid spoke to his counterpart Kang Kyung-Wh of South Korea. Even Bangladesh has donated some medical provisions for the island nation.

While the World Bank had earlier committed $ 70 m as emergency aid during f Covid19-threat, the IMF has since announced $ 28.9-m aid to the country. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has now offered $ 20 m, through the OPEC International Development Fund, or OFID. It however remains to be seen if such assistance can help Maldives reduce, if not discontinue dependence on China. 

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University