The Maldives-Syria Connection: Jihad in Paradise?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 22

Screenshot from Abu Turab video in Divehi (Source: YouTube)

The Maldives, the Muslim-majority archipelago country in the Indian Ocean, is going through a tumultuous time, facing increasing Islamist activities at home, an exodus of radicalized youth to join the jihad in Syria and a growing domestic clamor for the implementation of Shari’a law. This has been accompanied by the targeted abduction and intimidation of local Maldivians who hold progressive ideals and secular values. Although the country is better known as a romantic honeymoon destination, these developments – which include the establishment of the “Islamic State of the Maldives” (ISM) group – have exposed the deep extremist undercurrents in Maldivian society and are increasingly drawing the attention of local and international security forces.

Syrian Connections

In October 2013, some of the first cases of radicalized Maldivian youths attempting to travel to Syria were reported when two youths were detained at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in the capital Malé (Haveeru Online, June 1). Since then, about 100 Maldivians are believed to have joined the Syrian conflict and most of these are said to have joined up with al-Qaeda’s official affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (or al-Nusra Front/the Support Front). Several recent incidents shed further light on the ongoing jihadist exodus. In October, Sri Lankan security officials detained three Maldivians, including an 18-year-old woman, who were suspected of planning to travel to Syria through Turkey. Separately, another Maldivian family – comprising a 23-year-old radicalized man, his mother and his 10-year-old sister – was reported to have travelled to Islamic State-held territory in Syria or Iraq, from where they sent a message home stating that the Maldives is a “land of sin” and an “apostate nation.” These statements were perhaps an early indication that jihadists might someday regard the Maldives itself as a legitimate target (Minivan News, October 30). Meanwhile in November, it was reported that at least six more people from the Fuvahmulah and Meedhoo areas of the Maldives had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State organization, illustrating that the flow of jihadist recruits to the Middle East continues (Minivan News, October 30; November 6).

As of November 8, at least five Maldivians have reportedly died in Iraq and Syria fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra. The dead have been identified, under their assumed jihadist aliases, as Abu Turab, Abu Nuh, Abu Dujanah, Abu Ibrahim and Abu Fulan. Of these, Abu Turab and Abu Nuh were reportedly killed in late May; both died in Syria fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front’s (IF) Suqur al-Sham brigade (Minivan News, May 27). Prior to his death, Abu Turab sent a message via YouTube that he was joining the jihad to establish an Islamic State and to implement “Allah’s Shari’a.” Urging all Muslims to join the struggle, he said, in his native Divehi language, that “Enemies of Allah are spreading democracy all over the world, as fast as they can. So in return for every person they lead astray, I want to – even if by myself – kill as many enemies of Allah as I can.” [1] Some of these militants appear to have also made an impression on other foreign fighters; an Australian jihadist with Jabhat al-Nusra has feted Maldivian fighters as “courageous and well-mannered mujahideen.” [2]

As with other foreign jihadists in Syria, social media is vital for relaying their message to audiences back home. A key social media tool used by Maldivian jihadists is their online media forum, Bilad al-Sham Media (BASM), is run by a group of Maldivians in Syria to publicize the activities of Maldivian jihadists and their perceived heroics on the battlefield. According to information circulated in the BASM-run blog, the group currently fighting in Syria are mostly young university students of Maldivian origin who have travelled to Syria through a third country with the aim of “liberating” the Islamic world and establishing the global Islamic caliphate. The managers of BASM appear to be closely involved in fighting units; the latest slain Maldivian fighter killed in early November was Abu Fulan, who was a disciple of another slain Maldivian identified as Abu Dujanah. Dujanah was BASM’s founding editor. According to reports, Abu Dujanah was killed in September this year and since then BASM has been run by another group of Maldivian mujahideen. [3] Abu Dujanah was later identified as Yameen Naeem, from the Maafannu area in Malé; he had decided to travel to Syria while studying in Egypt (Haveeru Online, November 8; Minivan News, September 2).

Amid these fast unfolding developments, the establishment of the so-called “Islamic State of Maldives” (ISM) group, which claims to be a local organization affiliated with the Islamic State organization, emerged in the last week of July. This coincided with the Maldives’ Independence Day celebrations and an Islamic State flag was hoisted for the first time in Malé’s Raalhugandu area in the same month. Islamic State flags were also seen during an early August protest march against the Israeli attacks on Gaza City. On September 5, hundreds of pro-Islamist protesters, including veiled women and children, marched in the streets of Malé holding Islamic State flags and banners, calling for the implementation of Shari’a law in the country. Some of the banners read: “We want the laws of the Quran,” “Islam will eradicate secularism” and “Shari’a will dominate the world” (Minivan News, September 6).

Domestic Radicalism

The flow of recruits to Syria has been accompanied by radical elements in the Maldives becoming more assertive and violent. Most notably, this has involved taking liberal and progressive individuals hostage or threatening them with serious consequences if they speak out against radical Islamism. The latest victims of such Islamist vigilantes are the journalist Ahmed Rilwan, who has been missing since early August, and a web administrator of the Ranreendhoo Maldives pro-opposition Facebook page (Minivan News, November 13). In addition, Islamist-linked criminal gang members (e.g. from the Bosnia, Kuda Henveiru, Dot and Buru gangs) have participated in attacks on scholars, journalists and free speech activists for their allegedly “anti-Islamic” activities (Minivan News, September 22). The gangs have also issued threats through text messages on mobile phones, threatening to violently attack anyone they regard as “laa dheenee” (non-religious) (International Federation of Journalists, August 8). Physical attacks on such dissenters are also common, and there are also reports of Islamist vigilantes abducting and interrogating young men in order to force them to identify online activists advocating secularism or professing atheism through social media sites (Minivan News, June 9).

Although politicians in the Maldives have engaged in a public blame game over the visibly deteriorating situation, there is little doubt that the root cause of the rise in visible Islamist radicalism is the growing popularity of Salafist ideologies among some sections of the population, notably the younger generation. In particular, years of grooming by visiting clerics and radical preachers have played a key role in fermenting radicalism and anti-Western sentiment in the archipelago. Known radical English-language preachers with substantial online presences such as Bilal Phillips, Zakir Naik and Anjem Choudary have also notably played a key role in popularizing radical Islam in Maldives, a trend which is now merging into rising support for transnational jihadism. [4] At present, however, the government seems oblivious to the serious long term implications of this grassroots Islamist surge and it is likely to continue to attempt to sweep such issues under the carpet, even as evidence grows that the Islamic State organization’s brand of Islam has now reached its shores.

Animesh Roul is the Executive Director of Research at the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC).

Notes

1. Please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6ZIn3B33EA.

2. Shaykh Abu Sulayman al-Australi said that “Maldivians are some of the most courageous and well-mannered Mujahideen,” on his now suspended Twitter account (@abusulayman321) on May 25, 2014.

3. See, “Q & A with Bilad al-Sham Media: Maldivians in Syria,” http://biladalsham.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/part-1.pdf.

4. See video message of UK-based Anjem Choudary exhorting Maldivians to protect Islam and take up jihad: http://www.maldivestimes.com/video/message-muslims-maldives-anjem-choudary-shariah4maldives.