Fighters from Syria

by Hajar Waheed

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

On September 29, 2007, a bomb blast rocked Male, the small capital city of the Maldives. Twelve tourists were injured in Sultan Park, a popular attraction and the site of the bombing. Although there were no killings, it was the first time that such an attack was unleashed on the country. For the first time terrorism, which had rocked societies around the world, struck at home. And it brought to the fore an issue that lurked in the nation’s subconscious: Islamic radicalisation.

The population of the Maldives consists almost entirely of Sunni Muslims since the country's inhabitants converted from Buddhism to Islam in the 12th century. But Maldivian Islam has been practiced in a much more relaxed and idiosyncratic way than on the Arabian Peninsula or in the Gulf States. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did Salafist and Wahhabi ideologies seep into the country on the Saudi model. But an increasing number of young people who moved to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to study brought their own beliefs back with them when they returned home. But radicalized Islamists led a largely shadowy existence for a long time. Their extremism first took a public violent form with the Sultan Park incident.

The attack took place in the last year of the reign of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a long-time Maldivian ruler. Gayoom himself is a moderate Muslim, part of a close-knit group of scholars that espoused an Islam that wasn’t so much about wearing the veil or donning long beards – rare until the last few years of his rule – focussing instead on the five pillars of the religion and propping up his regime using Islam. But how Gayoom dealt with radical elements is highly controversial.

In the 1990s, his government ordered a large-scale raid on radical Islam. The aim was to bring together Wahhabism, cast in the Saudi model, who met for prayer in their own mosques and preached a strict, literal version of the religion in the capital. "They came when I was in my shop, took me with them and threw me in prison," says Kamal Ab-ubakr*, a 55-year-old shopkeeper from Malé who was a victim of the raid. "There they shaved off my beard and poured chilli sauce on my face." Even though all the prisoners were released from prison after a short time, the raid laid the foundation for an increasingly radicalized group.

The men later returned to society but felt even more alienated and isolated than before. Over the years, this discontent continued to fester and spread.

On Boxing Day in 2004 the area was stuck by the devastating south-east Asian Tsunami. It sparked a wave of conservative Islam on our islands, propagated in part by preachers who blamed the calamity on the ‘wickedness’ of our people. In the mid-2000s, the veil became commonplace and, for the first time in urban Malé, it was the unveiled who stood out. The dawn of the digital era also meant that Gayoom’s take on religion, once almost universal in the Maldives, had lost much of its potency.

A week after the explosion at Sultan Park, Himandhoo, an island in North Ari Atoll, made global headlines. The police and military conducted a special operation on the island to clear an ‘illegal’ mosque, Dhar-ul-Khair, a gathering place of Wahhabi/Salafist elements. The government also believed Himandhoo harboured suspects connected to the Sultan Park incident.

About 70 men took up ‘arms’ (swords, iron rods and two-by-fours) against the security forces. A clash between soldiers, police and the men ensued, followed by a siege of the mosque. Some fifty men were later taken into custody.

Himandhoo, an island about 50 miles south of Male with a population of about 600, was a refuge for fundamentalists. “A number of Himandhoo residents were among those arrested in the 90s,” a reporter reveals, wishing to remain anonymous. “It’s not just Himandhoo, though. When things became hard for them in Male, many moved to the island where they had little police oversight.”

Mohamed Nasheed’s government replaced Gayoom’s 30-year regime in November 2008. Behind Nasheed, however, stood some of those fundamentalist elements, including people like Kamal. Their hatred of Gayoom translated into support for Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Nasheed’s brief rule saw these fundamentalist elements command a larger audience – there was virtually no restriction on preaching. Sermons and public events by radical elements proliferated.

Over the following years, moderate voices, critical of radical Islam, were silenced: Journalist Khilath Rasheed, an outspoken critic against religious extremism, was attacked in June 2012. The assailant slit his throat. No suspects were identified and the case has not been followed up on since. Rasheed survived and fled abroad and kept a low profile since then. In October 2012, Dr. Afrasheem Ali was found brutally murdered near his residence in Male. Dr Afrasheem was an Islamic scholar, who received death threats from radical Salafists because of his moderate stance on matters considered religious. His murder remains unresolved. In 2014, the young journalist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared. In 2017, blogger Yameen Rasheed, who was trying to uncover Rilwan's disappearance, was found stabbed in front of his own house.

Mohamed Nasheed's short term in office was followed in 2013 by President Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of former President Gayoom. His tenure was characterised by rapid improvements in infrastructure, but came at a high price: strict restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly and the Maldives' distancing itself from its traditional allies, India and the West. Instead, Yameen courted China and Saudi Arabia and used religious-nationalist rhetoric in his speeches. He ignored fears of the growing number of indigenous jihadists who joined the fighters in Syria.

While their numbers remain unclear, jihadists frequently travel to Syria via Turkey. Meanwhile, in 2016, the prosecutor general’s office reported some 21 men were charged under a new law enacted in 2015 that criminalised travelling abroad to join a terrorist group.

In 2016, the Yameen government’s official figures for local jihadists abroad were in the double digits, while The Soufan Group, a think-tank monitoring the flow of foreign jihadists to Syria, put the number at 200 in 2015. In 2018, the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) reported that 68 people were caught on the way to Syria, including nine minors.

Currently, there is growing concern as liberals critiquing violent jihad and extremism on local social media have been threatened with violence and even death by extremist groups. But no action has been taken on this, the government’s position was denial and their actions were largely reactionary.

And in 2019, MDP is back in power with long-time parliamentarian Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as president. Meanwhile, former president Nasheed heads the People’s Majlis (parliament).

The new government has pledged to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the abduction and deaths of Ahmed Rilwan, Yameen Rasheed and Dr. Afrasheem Ali. A presidential commission has been formed and tasked with investigating the cases.

This July, President Solih said the government was working to bring back Malidivian women and children in Syria and deradicalize them in the Maldives. Though their numbers are not known, a source close to several refugees at the Al-Hawl camp said it holds about 40 local women and children. Many families continue to call on the president to bring back their women and children.

“My step-son Abbas* was taken by his father to Syria in 2015,” said a man from the island Hithadhoo. “It happened without our knowledge. The father had died in battle and we’d given up hope on Abbas. But a few months back, we were told that Abbas is in a refugee camp. My wife is in a constant state of anguish – knowing that he’s alive but not knowing if she’d ever see him again. Abbas is only eleven years old. He’s an innocent child. Keeping him there is inhumane.”

A few returnee jihadists remain free in the Maldives - they haven’t been deradicalized. The task of dealing with them weighs heavyily on this government. There is no blueprint to follow, no signposts or quick fixes. Only trial and error. One hopes the errors won’t prove too costly.

*names changed due to security reasons

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