A private investigation commissioned by Maldives Democracy Network has implicated gangs – possibly motivated by religious extremism – in the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan 45 days ago.
Discounting theories of voluntary disappearance and suicide, the investigation – conducted by Glasgow-based Athena Intelligence and Security – concludes the disappearance is likely to have been an abduction.
The report confirmed evidence of possible “hostile surveillance” at the terminal conducted by two known affiliates of Malé based Kuda Henveiru gang. One of the suspects is identified as Ahmed Shiran Saeed.
Rilwan was previously an openly conservative Islamist and a well-regarded member of a group known as ‘Dot,’ but is now a known advocate of religious tolerance and an open critic of government policy and radical Islam, the report stated.
In July, Rilwan told his friends he was being followed regularly by “people who looked like Islamists,” and “regularly received clear threats to his life” for his online activity.
Citing a series of gang attacks against perceived secularists in June, the report said gang activity in Rilwan’s abduction to be a “strong possibility”.
The report noted increased radical activity among members of three main gangs in Malé – Bosnia, Kuda Henveiru, and Buru – and claimed gang members have participated in attacks against individuals they deem “un-Islamic”.
Government ministers are said to pay gangs to intimidate dissidents, the report said, though it discounted allegations that Rilwan may have been targeted due to his alleged investigation into a corruption case involving Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb.
The report called on the police to further investigate the activities of extremist groups, gangs, and politicians in Rilwan’s disappearance.
The Maldives Police Service has yet to suggest any possible theories or lines of inquiry being followed, last week noting that no “concrete evidence” could be found between Rilwan and a reported abduction outside his apartment shortly after his last sighting.
According to the report, an online Jihadi group called Bilad Al- Sham made a clear and unambiguous threat to Rilwan’s life shortly before his disappearance in which they stated “his days were short.”
The group’s founder Yameen Naeem has reportedly been killed while fighting in the Syrian civil war this month.
In the week prior to Rilwan’s disappearance, the group on its Facebook site said they “had taken a break during Ramadan” but has returned to their campaign against those perceived as mocking Islam.
A friend of Rilwan’s told the investigators he had received information on August 4 that the ‘Dot’ group was targeting individuals advocating against religious extremists, and had a list of 400 people who “need to go”.
According to Rilwan’s friend interviewed as part of Athena’s investigation, Bilad Al- Sham “have the resources, funding, boats and the ability and intent to abduct people … even from their homes,” said the report.
CCTV footage shows evidence that two Kuda Henveiru gang members undertook “possible hostile surveillance” of Rilwan at the Malé – Hulhumalé ferry terminal.
The first suspect, Shiran, arrived at the ferry terminal minutes before Rilwan’s arrival and proceeded to look around inside the waiting area. He then headed back outside.
Meanwhile, a second unnamed suspect was waiting outside on Shiran’s red motorbike. However the two “deliberately disassociate from each other whilst at the terminal and do not demonstrate that they have an existing relationship,” the report said.
Cell phone data from Shiran’s phone shows a flurry a SMS activity between his phone and a second handset, registered to a man called Ahmed Husham.
“It is entirely possible that their task was to provide advance notification of Rilwan’s arrival at the terminal and confirmation of his boarding the ferry. It is possible that the flurry of communication was an effort to coordinate activity with any reception team in Hulhumalé.”
Police have since withheld Shiran’s passport, the report said.
The investigation noted Rilwan would have arrived in Hulhumalé at 1:30am and suggested he did not board the local bus, but travelled on foot to his apartment.
At around 2am, witnesses living near Rilwan’s apartment building reported seeing two unidentified males struggling with each other and one male being forced into a red car, the report said
The witnesses were unable to identify either of the men, as it was fully dark. As both males entered the car, it sped off immediately, indicating at least a further suspect as a driver.
A bayonet knife was recovered at the scene, but police claimed it contains no evidence, suggesting the knife’s presence was circumstantial and probably on the ground before the abduction, the report said
There are two red cars in Hulhumalé, one owned by Ibrahim Firaq – a member of the Jumhooree Party, and another owned by Arliph Rauf – a member of a notorious crime family suspected of involvement in the 2012 murder of MP Afrasheem Ali.
Police are investigating Rauf’s car for having been illegally imported to Hulhumalé on August 4, and returned to Malé sometime between 13 – 15 August. Police sources say Rauf had sold the car, the report said.
Living on Hulhumalé and having a relatively predictable routine would have made Rilwan an easy target, the report noted.
Radicalisation of gangs
The report suggested gang leaders had been exposed to radical Islam during incarceration in prison, saying that they openly supported the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and recruited Jihadists for the war in Syria and Iraq.
Gang members have reportedly been involved in a series of violent attacks against those preaching religious tolerance, and justify their attacks by labeling such individuals as un-Islamic.
Gang members “see themselves as the self-appointed guardians of religious morality and take responsibility for the education and guidance of those who openly undermine Islamic principles and teachings.”
They had abducted a number of individuals in connection to a Facebook group called Colorless in June and questioned them on their beliefs. One of the abductees is now in self imposed exile, the report said.
Rilwan was taking medication for clinical depression and gastritis, but “there is no indication that he had suicidal thoughts or that he had previously committed self-harm.”
On the evening prior to his disappearance, he spent time with his sister and his friends in Malé, where he was playing a GPS based located game called Ingress and watched a Baibala tournament (Maldivian rugby).
No body or suicide note has been found. Furthermore, none of the people who saw him last reported a change in normal demeanor or felt in any way that he was in some way saying farewell or putting his affairs in order which might indicate an intent to commit suicide.
Rilwan had voiced a wish to “drop out” and visit islands where he could study cultural poetry, the report noted. But there is no record of him departing the Maldives despite his passport not being found during a search of his apartment.
No clothes or personal effects were removed from his apartment that might indicate relocation, the report said. Further, Rilwan has to date failed to cash a paycheck he received hours before his disappearance.
“The lack of data activity and that he had not cashed his cheque or prepared funds, and that he did not take personal effects from his apartment, or if he travelled, he did so during silent hours, indicate that it is extremely unlikely that he willingly disappeared himself.”
The report stated that it was not uncommon for Rilwan to “go offline” for days at a time and family members and colleagues did not consider it unusual when he failed to show up for a few days.
“It was only five days after the abduction before he was missed enough and attempts to contact him had failed to sufficiently raise the alarm,” the report stated.