COLOMBO: In response to concerns expressed by the West as well as the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) about “growing” Islamic radicalization in the Maldives, the Maldivian police spokesman Ahmed Shifan emphatically states that the problem is grossly exaggerated and that the situation is, in fact, well under control.

“The government is fully geared to keep track of what is happening and nip any radicalization in the bud,” Shifan said.

“ With the help of foreign agencies, including those of the US, we have been able to track down some Maldivians on the Turkey-Syria border. We have remanded them and put them through a de-radicalization process,” he added.

The Maldives believes in reformation or rehabilitation rather than punishment. “Punishment does not work in such cases,” Shifan said.

(Ahmed Shifan, Head Strategy and Legal Affairs and spokesman of the Maldivian police. Photo.Maldives Police)

The Context

The Maldivian opposition put the figure of Maldivians fighting with Islamic groups in Syria at 250. According to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice G.Wells, Maldives has the highest per capita representation in the ISIS compared to other countries. But according to the Maldivian Defense Minister, Adam Shareef Umar, the number of Maldivians fighting in Syria in later April, was 49.

In late September, the UK’s updated travel advice to the Maldives warned that terrorists are “very likely” to carry out an attack. But the government downplayed the update and insisted that the country “remains one of the safest tourist destinations in the world.”

However, according to Maldives Times, the Maldivian police said that three Maldivian nationals were charged with terrorism following their arrest from the Turkey-Syria border in February 2016. A Maldivian man who attempted to cross into Syria was arrested and repatriated in February this year. Two others who allegedly fought with militant groups in Pakistan are standing trial in the Maldives.

In September, three Maldivians were arrested in a joint operation with the Turkish law enforcement authorities. They were planning to cross the border into Syria to join a militant group. Two Maldivians who were en route to joining the fighting in Syria had been arrested in Turkey and brought back to the country. Both suspects were remanded.

Recently, two Maldivians with links to the ISIS, were arrested in Malaysia. They were accused of “using Malaysia and Singapore as a transit point before heading to Syria to join ISIS.”

The Maldives Times further said that at least six Maldivians fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front in Syria, are believed to have been killed in battle. In late April, the group’s media wing reported that a Maldivian man with the alias Abu Yousif Al-Maldivi was killed during clashes with the Syrian Arab Army inside the town of Taybat Al-Imam in northern Hama.

Maldivian Perspective

However, the Maldivian government’s perspective is that Islamic radicalization in general, and terrorist activism in particular, are individualistic phenomena and not a collective or mass phenomena in the Maldives.

“Radicalization is at the individual level. There is no Wahabi institution or group as such here. It is not a group or mass phenomenon,” said Shifan, who is Head of Strategy and Legal Affairs in the Maldivian police besides being its spokesman.

“There has not been a single terrorist incident in the resort islands for the world to shout about,” pointed out Mohammed Hussain Shareef, the Maldivian Ambassador in Sri Lanka.

The last bomb blast in Maldives took place way back in September 2007 at Sultan Park in Male in which 12 foreigners were injured.

However,realizing the need to protect tourism, the backbone of the economy, the Maldivian government passed an anti-Terror law in 2015. Besides it has got the police and the Maldivian Ministries of Home and Islamic Affairs to conduct an outreach program to sensitize teachers and students to the need for being vigilant against elements trying to radicalize young people.

“Maldives is a 100% Islamic country, but what we practice is a moderate form of Islam. Government wishes that it remains that,” said Ambassador Shareef. “Islam is a compulsory subject in schools but the Islam taught is moderate,” he added.

And the government has the means to enforce the moderate notion of Islam.

“All mosques in the country are run by the government. There is no private mosque. And those who deliver sermons are government approved. So we know what is said. Besides there are no Wahhabi organizations in the Maldives,” Shifan pointed out.

However, in spite of this, a few are getting radicalized.

“This is due to teachers who have had their Islamic education in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Shifan explained.

“We put such teachers through a re-orientation program. We also educate the public through outreach programs going to the remotest atolls.”

The Maldives police are expanding their operations fast to attend to issues and reach out to the atolls.

“There are now 117 police stations in 20 atolls and we have a speed boat service which can reach any crime spot in any inhabited atoll within 10 minutes,” Shifan said.