The Perils of endorsing religious extremism in Muizzu’s Maldives

Beyond the glittery beaches and resorts in Maldives, lies the island nation facing a detrimental challenge of dwindling down into religious extremism. The archipelago nation of Maldives has for years been encountering a significant surge of Islamic radicalism in the past decade. With an openly Islamic party, endorsing hardcore radical views in power post the elections a few months ago, many analysts have come to belive this to be the beginning of a far more violent growth of radical sentiments within the country. The current President of Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, and his political aides have on most occasions endorsed such groups casting serious concerns over the future of counter-terrorism in Maldives as well as worry among the more moderate political figures regarding the future of the island country and its global role.

Radical militant groups in the small nation began gaining prominence after the devastating Tsunami that wrecked Male’s economy and ecology in 2004. Under the cover of NGO’s, radical Islamic groups from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia arrived on the island to provide assistance and in turn advance radical preachings.  Groups including the Idara Khidmat- e-Khalq the civil society arm of the Lashkar-e-Taiba was among the top recruiters of Maldivian citizens, taking them into training camps in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  

These concerns have also been evident with the Commissioner of Maldivian Police revealing that over 450 Maldivian citizens attempted to enrol with terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq while 180 plus of them were fighting in foreign countries representing extremist groups including ISIS and Al Qaeda among others. The data revealed by the security forces also shed light onto the role of certain ‘travellers’, ranging in hundred, who had returned from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan in order to inject radical ideologies among the Maldivian population. The opposition party on the other hand has however claimed the figure to be well above 200 and increasing each year. The demographic of such traveller as well as fighters, according to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has majorly consisted of unemployed young men between the ages of 18 to 35 with a few couples also being lured into such practices as well. Given the dearth of educational opportunities, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has become a preferred destination for the youth’s higher education, however, students from Maldives have more often than not found themselves brainwashed by radical elements that seek to project a far more extremist approach. This has also in return led to grassroot extremism in the country with the formation of Jamiyyatul Salaf and Islamic Foundation of Maldives, both of which have been initiated with the very same purpose of grassroot radicalisation.

Furthermore, the country had also earned itself the title of contributing the highest number of foreign fighters per capita to wars in Syria and Iraq, representing terrorist organisations. A report published by Maldives top-most security agency also warned of the dire effects of ultra-conservative ideologies plaguing Maldives growth. Incidentally, under President Abdulla Yameen, the erstwhile predecessor to the current President Mohamed Muizzu’s party, the number of per capita fighters for terrorist organisations was the highest during his presidency from 2013 to 2018.

These instances have also gone onto harm the Maldivian population, perhaps more so than any other country. Since 2018, the island has witnessed over 37 terrorist attacks as per data sets from South Asia Terrorism Portal, signifying the surge in the past few years. Even though security officials have arrested more than 80 terror suspects along with their aides, the situation has only deteriorated more so since the ruling party’s assent to power in the recent elections with an environment considered by many to be conducive for such terror-related matters to escalate. More so, these attacks have also gone onto target key political figures within the democratic system in the country including sitting State officials. In 2022, Alo Solih, Minister of State for Environment in the Maldives’ government was brutally attacked with a knife, the attacker, as per reports, chanted verses from the Quran during the attack and was also wearing a shirt depicting the logo of the Islamic State. A year earlier in 2021, former President of Maldives and then Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Nasheed was seriously injured IED blast outside his home in Male, causing serious injuries to victims to his bodyguards and two civilians, one a Maldivian and the a British national.

With over 17 lakh tourists visiting the island nation every year, it is only time before a large-scale event may be in the books. The present political dispensation in the country under Mohamed Muizzu must realise the adverse effects of its political rhetoric and act swiftly to prevent any detrimental attack that will not only stumble the faith in the country’s ability to curtain terror-related attacks, but also supress its economic stability potentially also causing political turmoil. Moreover, irrespective of its sympathy with radical ideologies, the government must ensure that tourist as well as its own citizens are provided adequate measures for their safety. The future of the island nation hinges upon how it will deal with the onset of a surge in radicalism, for if it fails to curtain the threat, a political instable nation would be an ideal breeding ground for terror organisations that are already capitalising on the Maldives sympathetic political leadership.