Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 01, 2019

The Solih government has its job cut out on fighting jihadism closer home.

Maldives: Jihadi terror groups may not be here to stay

Despite an empowered Presidential Commission of Inquiry with policing powers exposing the existence of Al-Qaeda and breakaway IS affiliates in Maldives, their genre of jihadi terror groups may not be here to stay on in the Indian Ocean archipelago, as anticipated by security analysts in the region and elsewhere. If anything, the authorities take the stories of those cadres from the war-front to impressionable youth in the country, the chances are that they may be repelled by any idea of joining hands.

The limited history of jihadism in contemporary Maldives has been blown up by western academic/administrative assessments of a ‘per capita terrorist’ against a limited population. Leaving aside the fact that such calculations will matter, only if such persons take to ‘lone wolves’ of whatever kind, and even by such counts fewer Maldivians might have landed in ‘terrorist war-fronts’ over the past years.

Reports about ‘Maldivian jihadis’ first appeared when US forces apprehended a few of them along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border a few years ago. It was followed by Indian security forces’ action in Mumbai, followed by intelligence reports of Maldivians based in Sri Lanka being assigned to target US and Israeli consulates, respectively in Chennai and Bengaluru, both in south India. New Delhi tracked down the case to the Pakistani ISI and sought to bring the culprits to India for further investigation.

With the collapse of the IS in Syria, and even before that — the Maldivian government of presidents Abdulla Yameen and more so with incumbent Ibrahim Solih — have been trying to locate stranded cadres, the young widows of some, and also children who have survived the vicissitudes of war.

Yet, it was only when reports came in of Maldivian cadres dying in IS’s failed war in Syria that the nation stood up and took notice. Even more reports were of Maldivian men misleading their families about their destination and taking their wives and infant-children with them. With the collapse of the IS in Syria, and even before that — the Maldivian government of presidents Abdulla Yameen and more so with incumbent Ibrahim Solih — have been trying to locate stranded cadres, the young widows of some, and also children who have survived the vicissitudes of war.

Rehabilitation and re-education

The reasons for Maldivians, both young and middle-aged, getting attracted to high-powered IS social media propaganda is not too difficult to gauge. But that is also where solutions to stall future ‘migration’ to IS war-zones in the future, may lie. The ‘IS returnees’, if they could be called as such, may need re-education and rehabilitation, but they may also form the core of telling fellow Maldivians the ‘why-not’ of repeating their failed experience of experimentation.

For an exclusive, close to 900 years old Sunni-Muslim nation, Maldives — both because of geographical isolation and also a peace-loving Hindu-Buddhist past — has always practised ‘moderate’ Islam (which could also pass for ‘modern’ Islam) in the context of the religion’s Gulf-Arab origins. The spread of social media, and its overnight explosion and reach all across the Maldivian islands and atolls in the last years of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s long term (1978-2008), preceded by what they preached as ‘America-inspired unjust wars’ in Afghanistan and Syria, meant that impressionable individuals in an otherwise sober nation, could be captivated and drawn into ideological submission.

The role of ‘democratic transformation’ — rather the social transformation and challenges that it posed — in disillusioning a section of the youth over the past decade or so, cannot be ruled out either. In a nation without left-leaning political ideologies, parties and organisations, it was not unnatural for a section of the disillusioned Maldivian youth to take to religious orthodoxy; again a factor that cannot be ruled out. If some of them confused orthodoxy with jihadism, they alone were and are not to be mistaken.

The role of ‘democratic transformation’ — rather the social transformation and challenges that it posed — in disillusioning a section of the youth over the past decade or so, cannot be ruled out.

Yet, Maldives may have learnt, and thus gained as much as it may have lost to the Al-Qaeda/IS jihadism, especially those who had gone to the war-fronts elsewhere. For starters, Maldivian Islam of the Sunni school, though tinged by more orthodox Salafism in recent years, is much more different from the hardline jihadi approach and attitude, especially of the IS. In the name of creating a new ‘caliphate’, IS jihadi leaderships had all other forms of Islamic practitioners, including fellow Sunnis, declared ‘kafirs’, or those who deserved to be killed.

For an average Maldivian fighter in the IS rolls, this was obviously against the experiences and practices back home, and there seemed to have been ‘adjustment problems’ and failures. As a result, there were reports of IS punishing one of the Maldivian cadres with death, from pushing off the top of a multi-storeyed building.

Broken marriages

Despite being members of ‘Male gangs’, some of the IS fighters from the country would not have imagined the violence and brutality even of ‘just wars’, leave alone a ‘jihadi’ war, had they been told it simply was for a ‘just cause’. Herein lies a unique Maldivian social problem, for which successive governments have failed to find a solution.

Given the dubious record for the highest number of per capita divorces in South Asia, which has in it three other ‘Muslim majority nations’ in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Maldives has also been plagued by a high density of population in urban centres. The capital Male also has the highest density of population in South Asia, due to which housing is a huge, costly problem.

Given the combination of a high incidence of divorce and high population density, many children of such broken marriages — both boys and girls — are left to the streets, where they ‘gang up’ with other such children, and ultimately end up in the hands of professional drug-smugglers and mafia lords. The fact that Maldives continues to be a transit-and-user nation for international drug mafias, despite the collective work of security agencies in the country, along with those in the neighbouring India and Sri Lanka, has not helped. Like elsewhere across the world, some of these gangs end up being the hand-maidens of the local political class.

It is the waywardness of street-life, the desperation of a drug-consumer and pusher, or the ‘failure of the promised land’ in a democratic Maldives, that have been the causes for the present-day youth turning to religion. Given their own limited exposure to religion thus far, they have especially fallen prey to indoctrination from certain religious preachers, who accost them either in street-corners or prisons, where many of them end up.

Twin-instruments

Religious orthodoxy first came to Maldives when President Gayoom was in power. Unlike often believed outside that the religious scholar from Al Azhar University in Cairo was going easy on religion, some anti-government preachers and other conservatives launched the Adhaalath Party, or Justice Party, which was the first of the anti-protest movements in the country. Appointing himself as the Head of Religion in the country along with being the Head of State and of the Armed Forces, Gayoom, however, managed to strike a certain balance, though not always with success.

It was thus that when the ‘Sultan Park explosion’ took place in 2007 in the heart of Male, less than a mile from the President’s Office, some in government blamed the pro-democracy movement, which was past its infancy, for allegedly wanting to stall foreign tourism and jeopardise the nation’s economy. However, the security agencies rightly attributed it on the fledgling jihadi movement in the country and also raided some of the strongholds on a remote island.

The western nations especially, were sold on the anti-Gayoom campaign of the pro-democracy movement — and as a result — they saw the government of the day as being sympathetic to international jihadi groups of the day, without helping them fight the latter on the homefront.

Yet, the western nations especially, were sold on the anti-Gayoom campaign of the pro-democracy movement — and as a result — they saw the government of the day as being sympathetic to international jihadi groups of the day, without helping them fight the latter on the homefront. They also carried it to the Yameen era, where again they confused his anti-democratic acts with his anti-jihadi security initiatives.

Now that democracy has returned to the nation, there seems to be some amount of political stability, at least until the island council elections trigger something different next year. Till then the Solih government has its job cut out on fighting jihadism closer home. In such an endeavour they could well use the experience of the ‘IS returnees’ and also some of their expertise, to educate the Maldivian youth, through television interviews and public sermons and other such permissible avenues.

The government should also make an all-out national effort at addressing social problems such as divorces and drugs, that account for a large number of divorces, broken marriages and ‘orphans’, who otherwise see their parents walking the streets with their step-parents, and yet are expected to maintain their inner calm and poise, unaffected to the least. It is not going to be an easy task, but then the benefits of medium and long-term benefits for the Maldivian nation, from kick-starting such a multi-dimensional approach to problem-solving will be much more than fighting further incursion of jihadism into a peace-loving society and nation.

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Author

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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