By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
October 21, 2019
On October 10, 2019, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih gave his assent to new amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act, according to which, the Maldives Police Service is now authorized to make warrant-less arrests for certain criminal acts that constitute terrorism, as well as to conduct inspections and strip searches under specific circumstances.
On September 30, 2019, the amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed by the People’s Majlis (Parliament) in a special sitting. Out of the total 57 Members of Parliament (MPs) present, 52 voted in favour, while remaining five did not vote. There are a total of 87 MPs.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted in 1990. Later, in 2015, a new Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2015 was legislated, replacing the 1990 law. Principally, the 2015 act added clauses criminalizing Maldivian nationals travelling overseas to join and fight for terrorist formations. At the same time, news report indicated that the broad definition of terrorism in the Act, including elements such as ‘causing a suspension of public services’, could in fact be used to target political dissidents.
On September 19, 2019, the Maldives Government made public the details of 17 terror organisations placed under the Anti-Terrorism Act on the recommendations made by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security. These groups included the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), Lashkar-e-Taiba(LeT), Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Abu Sayyaf (AS), Boko Haram (BH), Al-Shabaab, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HuJI), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), National Thowheed Jama'ath (NTJ), Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) and Willayath As Seylani (WAS).
Further, on September 1, 2019, Husnu Suood, head of the Presidential Commission on Deaths and Disappearances, disclosed that Al Qaeda was responsible for three murders and one attempted murder in the country, between 2012 and 2017, during the period under the previous Governments led by Mohammed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen. It also indicated the role of former Maldives President Abdulla Yameen in “diverting” the Police investigation in the Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla abduction-cum-murder case. Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla was abducted and killed on August 8, 2014. Suood also claimed that the then Vice President Ahmed Adeeb could be charged with obstruction of justice. Notably, the commission commenced its work officially on November 21, 2018, with a two-year deadline to investigate 27 cases.
Indeed, a growing threat of Islamist terrorists using Maldives as a recruitment ground has been visible. On September 10, 2019, the United States (US)’s Department of the Treasuries Office of Foreign Affairs Control (OFAC) had designated a 35-years-old Maldivian, a ‘recruiter’ for Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-Khorasan), Mohamed Ameen, as a “terrorist leader”. The US Treasury Department notification describes Ameen as a “key leader for ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] in Syria, Afghanistan, and the Maldives [who] used to direct terrorist fighters to Syria, but now sends them to Afghanistan.” According to the OFAC press release Ameen, as of April 2019, was “actively engaged in leading ISIS recruitment” in the Maldives. The OFAC stated,
Ameen’s subordinates were holding roughly 10 recruitment sessions per week under the guise of Islamic classes at several Malé, Maldives-based locations, including Ameen’s home. Ameen and his group continued to recruit on behalf of ISIS from various Maldivian criminal gangs”.
Worryingly, according to latest updates from local media, Ameen remains free in the Maldives.
Indeed, reports suggest that 200 Maldivians had joined IS in Syria and Iraq, producing one of the highest ratios in the world, in terms of a total population of just over half a million. Moreover, the Maldivian Government is worried about the fate of those citizens now in detention camps after the fall of ISIS held territories in Syria. On June 15, 2019, speaker Mohamad Nasheed cautioned,
...We don't have the capacity to rehabilitate these people to the extent that they will not have a further impact on society… I think the international community should join together and decide what we should do to the returnees...
Conspicuously, former President Mohamad Nasheed, addressing Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) on September 4, 2019, identified radical Islam as the ‘biggest threat’ and warned,
Al Qaeda and ISIS are developing a deep state within the Maldives. They are capturing strategic positions in security forces, in the police, in the military, in immigration, in education ministry and therefore the deep state is able to influence…
The radicals have made deep inroads into Maldivian society substantially because of contradictory state policies. There is, for instance, no answer as to why the Government took two diametrically opposite actions on the same day, October 10, 2019. While giving assent to new amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act – a welcome step – in a totally unwarranted step, the Solih Government asked Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working on Human rights issues, to suspend its operations on the grounds that the NGO’s report on radicalisation in Maldives had allegedly put “content slandering Islam and the Prophet Mohamed”. Though the full report has been removed, snippets of the report available online clearly demonstrate that it was critical of certain Islamic beliefs and questions the supremacy of the Faith, as taught to children in the island nation. One available snippet reads: “Holding the Prophet to a level of a demi-god regrettably blinds Muslims to the rights of others when it is Mohammed that is being satirised or even just drawn.”
MDN, however, argued,
....The findings of our 2016 research show the alarming existence of violent extremism in the Maldives, evidence of terrorist activities carried out by organisations and individuals in recruiting Maldivian youth into violent extremism. Urgent action and vigilance from all State institutions are required to halt these unlawful activities. It is worth noting that specific groups are working to conceal threats and divert the focus of possible investigations, through targeted campaigns to spread disinformation and hatred. We call on all State institutions to combat the spread of violent extremist narratives, the incitement to violence, and to prevent further shrinking of civil society space in the country…
The Government’s action against MDN was preceded by a campaign launched by religious scholars after screenshots of ‘offensive sections’ in the report were widely shared on microblogging site Twitter under #DefendIslam and #banMDN and gained public attention in the first week of October. The religious scholars asked the Government to take action against the MDN. Later, on October 7, 2019, President Ibrahim Solih promised to take to task MDN for “mocking” Islam. Understandably, MDN was forced to remove the report from its website following the furore and issued an apology for “unfortunate use of language in some sections of the report.” Incidentally, Aishath Nooshin Waheed, MDN's Chairperson, was appointed as a Counter-Terrorism Consultant by the President’s Office in September 2019; but resigned on October 6, 2019, following the controversy.
The political sensitivity around protests surrounding Islam is understandable in Maldives as back in 2012 the then elected Mohamad Nasheed Government eventually fell after the protests following the publication of a 30-page pamphlet by the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), which had accused the Government of pursuing anti-Islam policies.
MDN’s suggestion that a diversion of public attention by extremist groups cannot be entirely ruled out, despite the fact that the Government has taken several initiatives against extremism and terrorism. Nevertheless, sensitive issues surrounding religion, if successfully sensatiolinsed beyond a point, could hinder further progress on crucial issues such as radicalization, by labelling the entire exercise a vendetta against the followers of traditional religion, by those following ‘western’ standards in public life.
The politically sensitive issue of ‘disrespecting’ Islam will have to be deftly handled by the Government, and not be allowed to undermine much needed initiatives against radicalisation and terrorism. The scourge of terrorism in Maldives needs to be dealt with in a coordinated and concerted way so that the nascent restoration of democracy can be sustained in the island nation.
Giriraj Bhattacharjee is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
Original Headline: 'Countering' Terror
Source: South Asia Intelligence Review