I learnt most about jihadists on the Maldives. Yes, the Maldives. That non-Arab country which is famous for its beaches and luxury resorts, but has at the same time the world's highest per capita number of foreign fighters. In Paris or in Brussels, you talk to Muslims about the Islamic State, and they all have this mortified air, as if wanting to apologize. They say: They are not true Muslims. In the Maldives many people say: They are heroes.
But because the Maldives have just a 400,000-strong population, and every year, 3 billion dollars of tourism revenues flow their way, they could live like in Switzerland. However, in reality, it's all controlled by a few well-connected businessmen. Many others are subjected to a life of poverty. Heroin addiction, and street violence aren’t rare in the streets of Malé. In the Maldives you get the full social range. All the elements which fuel jihadism like poverty, absent future prospects and religion. Saudi Arabia funds many schools: spreading a radical understanding of the Quran.
Writing about jihadists is tough. It means that most of your preconceptions won’t be confirmed. Although jihadists have many motivations, they share the same idea: Islam as justice. When I arrived there in 2015, Aleppo was in its final days. And they all wanted to leave for Syria: For Muslims, with its 500,000 dead, it symbolised a world that disrespects their way of life.
The first person I talked to on the Maldives was Ali. Aged 20, he was a student, who had his flight to Turkey paid by his father. Only Islam, he said, makes you free. "Because it's submission to God, to your values: rather than to Assad. Islam means keeping on the right track, even when the world, around you, is going astray," he said. "And placing men at the heart of society. Not the king. Not the one in power, the thug of the day." His role model, after the Prophet, was Malcolm X.
Also the brother of Ailam, a 25-years old lawyer, went to Syria. "The jihadists are normal guys. They are like us," she told me. Her brother worked in a resort. If you are from the Maldives, you work at most as a cook, as a porter, or similar, and in competition with Bangladeshi immigrants. All the jobs in the tourist sector, such as hotels, prefer Western expats. That is, non Muslims. Basically Ailam's brother left because all his friends had left. And Ailam was the only one in the family still talking to him. "Because if you want a better world, you have to be a better person. Starting with yourself," she said. "And instead, here we are. As if nothing were happening in Syria." I was told the same by another Maldivian jihadist over Skype, speaking from Aleppo. "I came here to stop the war," he said. "Only, I prefer actions to words."
The problem is that we usually only talk to jihadists on the front lines, the young fighters. That is like asking a Marine to explain the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. And while you are at it, Western civilisation too. But when you talk to jihadists of different age, with different roles, course: it all changes.
And in the Maldives I came across a business meeting where four jihadists from different countries introduced themselves as logistics specialists. They used the Maldives as neutral meeting ground and for money laundering – which can be confirmed in the Al Jazeera documentary Stealing Paradise.
"When we founded the Caliphate, and demolished the border between Syria and Iraq, you rushed to bomb us. But why? How did you create Europe? If a border between a Pole and a Portuguese doesn't make sense to you, why should a border between a Syrian and an Iraqi, who speak the same language, make sense to us?", I was told by Abu Yasser. Who came from a Bedouin family. "And if you ask our people, ‘where are you from?’ they say: From my father, and from my father's father. They don't say: From Iraq", he said. "When you think of the state, you think of hospitals, of highways. Of pensions. You think of something that protects you. When I think of the state I think of it as something I must protect myself from. That is what this is all about."
Kareem from Egypt went even further in his criticism: "You are trying to impose on us what you criticize the most: a nation state and a democracy. You always say that real power is now with the banks, the multinationals. That governments no longer matter. And so, why should we want a system that you are the first to admit doesn't work? Why is it not acceptable to look for a better system?" he said. It goes without saying that the system he was thinking of was Sharia law. "In the end, we all want the same thing. We want to control our lives again."
But my time in the Maldives wasn't always like that. And not only because the Maldives too have cases of slashed throats. The danger, actually, comes mostly from all those who cover up radical islam. Those who don't want to expose what's lurking behind the wonderful sea, all the poverty, all the inequality. Those who own the economy. On April 23, 2017, Yameen Rasheed, one of the most renowned bloggers, who had helped me a lot, and had helped al-Jazeera, too, for a documentary on corruption, was stabbed to death. He was 29. All the others who helped us are now abroad.
And also Ali, the young student, finally upped and left. But not for Syria. Now he is studying for a PhD in Europe. Because in the end, as I was told by the human rights activist Ahmed Nazeer: what matters is leaving. "If you can afford it, you pay for a university overseas. Otherwise, you go to Syria. Anything is better than this life."