More than seven Maldivians fighting in foreign civil wars, reveals home minister

More than seven Maldivians are currently fighting in foreign civil wars, Minister of Home Affairs Umar Naseer revealed at the People’s Majlis today.

Responding to a query during minister’s question time from former police commissioner and Jumhooree Party MP Abdulla Riyaz about the ministry’s efforts to prevent Maldivians joining civil wars in foreign nations, Naseer said police were monitoring persons with extremist religious views.

“In such cases, persons attempting to leave abroad with the intention of joining civil wars have been stopped with court orders and prohibited from leaving,” he said.

“And the passports of some people have been withheld for a period determined by the court.”

Maldivian jihadis have also been brought back to the country with help from foreign law enforcement agencies, he added.

However, police faced difficulties in proving guilt at court of persons intending to join foreign civil wars, he continued, suggesting that the evidentiary standard should be lowered for terrorism cases.

Police were also working with the Islamic ministry to provide religious counselling and advice to discourage Maldivians from flying overseas to fight in civil wars, Naseer said.

Efforts were meanwhile underway to establish an efficient mechanism for taking action based on intelligence information, Naseer said.

While neighbouring countries provide assistance in returning Maldivians intending to travel for jihad, Naseer said the government was unable to bring back Maldivians who have made their way into Syria.

The government is studying a recently-approved UN security council resolution on foreign terrorist fighters, Naseer said, and would comply with obligations.

A strategic action plan is also being implemented to combat religious extremism, he added, which involved prevention of radical views in public schools.

Asked about efforts to prevent recruitment in the country, Naseer said the government has banned independent prayer congregations across the country.

Naseer denied claims by opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik that Maldivian students who went to Sudan through the Islamic ministry in 2012 are involved in violent conflicts.

He also denied MDP MP Abdul Bari Abdulla’s allegation that government ministers were involved in a “network” for recruiting Maldivian jihadis with help from foreign terrorist organisations.

Police intelligence officers were constantly monitoring alleged recruitment efforts, Naseer said, insisting that foreign terrorist organisations or religious extremists would not be able to interfere in domestic affairs.

“The number of Maldivians participating in foreign wars would be proportionately much lower than large European nations,” he said.

Islamic State

Last month, a jihadist media group called Bilad al-Sham – which describes itself as ‘Maldivians in Syria’ – revealed that a fifth Maldivian had died in Syria.

Earlier in the month, Sri Lankan police detained three Maldivians who were allegedly preparing to travel to Syria through Turkey.

The three – two men aged 23 and 25, and a woman aged 18 – were from the island of Madduvari in Raa atoll and were released from custody upon being brought back to the Maldives.

The incident followed reports of a couple from Fuvahmulah and a family of four from Meedhoo in Raa atoll traveling to militant organisation Islamic State-held (IS) territories to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

A UN report obtained by the UK’s Guardian newspaper earlier this month observed that foreign jihadists were now travelling to Syria and Iraq on “an unprecedented scale”.

The report mentioned the Maldives as one of the “unlikely” places from which IS supporters have emerged.

Meanwhile, a protest march took place in the capital, Malé, in September, with around 200 participants bearing the IS flag and calling for the implementation of Islamic Shariah in the Maldives.

In late August, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon issued a press statement condemning “the crimes committed against innocent civilians by the organisation which identifies itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

Dunya’s remarks followed Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed’s declaration that the ISIS would not be allowed to operate in the Maldives.

“ISIS is an extremist group. No space will be given for their ideology and activities in the Maldives,” Shaheem tweeted on August 24.

Shaheem had also appealed for Maldivians to refrain from participating in foreign wars and has recently defended the government’s record on extremism before the Majlis.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), however, promptly put out a statement questioning Shaheem’s sincerity, suggesting that the words had not been backed up with concrete action by the government.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed has claimed that up to 200 Maldivians are on jihad, alleging that a vast majority of them are ex-military – a claim vehemently denied by the security services.

“Radical Islam is getting very very strong in the Maldives, their strength in the military and in the police is very significant. They have people in strategic positions within both,” Nasheed said in an interview with UK’s Independent newspaper.

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Analysis: Gangsters, Islamists, police, and the rule of low

During President Abdulla Yameen’s first year in office, one journalist was disappeared, four people were stabbed to death, dozens suffered near fatal injuries in knifings and criminal gangs began harassing and abducting individuals they deemed un-Islamic.

At least four Maldivians were reportedly killed while fighting with Islamist groups in Syria, and dozens left the country to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

Yet, Yameen at a rally on November 14 said: “We now have peace and order in Malé and all regions of Maldives. We have peace. However, this is not to say that isolated and significant dangerous crimes do not occur.”

His solution for the allegedly isolated cases of violence is the death penalty and restriction of fundamental freedoms such as the right to remain silent and right to legal counsel.

“I want to say tonight as well in your presence, this government will have no mercy at all for those who slaughter Maldivian citizens with no mercy,” he told supporters at a rally to mark the government’s first anniversary on Thursday. .

The president’s words ring hollow after a year of refusal to even acknowledge the dangers of radicalism and a failure to address increasing criminal and vigilante action by Malé’s gangs. Further, offering draconian measures while ignoring the Maldives Police Services’ inability to ensure minimum standards of public safety raises further doubt over the president’s sincerity.

What Jihad?

Yameen has refused to publicly comment on the increasing numbers of Maldivians fighting in foreign wars, saying in September that the government was unaware of Maldivians fighting abroad. If they were fighting in foreign wars, it was not being done with the government’s consent, he said.

At the time, three Maldivians had been killed while fighting with the Jabhat Al–Nusra Front in Syria. A fourth was reported killed in November.

Soon afterwards, on September 18, Maldives police said there were only 24 Maldivians associated with foreign terrorist groups, but refused to provide further details.

Yameen’s comments came in the same month that hundreds of protestors took to the streets of Malé carrying black ISIS flags, calling for the implementation of the Islamic Shari’ah and rejecting the laws of the 2008 Constitution.

‘We want the laws of the Quran, not the green book [Maldivian constitution]‘, ‘Islam will eradicate secularism’, ‘No democracy, we want just Islam’, ‘To hell with democracy’, ‘Democracy is a failed system’, read some of the placards, which were all written in English.

Police were reportedly unable to stop the protest, despite foreign minister Dunya Maumoon and Islamic minister Dr Shaheem Ali Saeed condemning ISIS’ actions in the Middle East and pledging to ban their supporters’ activities in the Maldives.

Since then, numerous reports of Maldivians leaving the country to join the dozens of Maldivian militants in Syria have surfaced. In October, 23 year old Ahsan Ibrahim, his wife, mother and 10-year-old sister left for ISIS territory, claiming the Maldives is “a land of sin.” Three weeks ago, three Maldivians were apprehended in Sri Lanka on their way to Syria via Turkey.

Although Dunya and Shaheem have spoken out against ISIS, without the president’s acknowledgement of the issue and a comprehensive deradicalisation policy, their statements appear to be mere lip service.

The government has consistently labeled former President Mohamed Nasheed’s vocal criticism on the issue as an attempt to tarnish Maldives’ reputation abroad.

Courting gangs?

As concerning is the government’s refusal to acknowledge growing radicalism among Malé’s criminal gangs and failure to address frequent death threats against journalists and opposition politicians.

Several gangsters, some of whom were seen at the forefront of the ISIS March, reportedly abducted several young men in June to identify advocates of secularism and atheism online.

They forced the young men to hand over their Facebook details before hijacking and shutting down a Facebook group called ‘Colorless’ – among one of the many vibrant forums for discussion on politics. A similar abduction occurred earlier this month.

The police, however, have made no move to investigate the abductions.

The same individuals have been implicated in the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan. Today is the 107th day since he was abducted. Days before his disappearance, Bilad al-Sham, the self-proclaimed voice of Maldivian militants in Syria, warned Rilwan that his days were growing short when he contacted them for comment on a story.

Death threats have become a common occurrence. In August, an estimated 15 journalists from across the political spectrum were threatened with death should they report on a spate of street violence that saw one dead and at least nine grievously injured. The killing was the third fatal knifing in Malé this year.

Since then, journalists and politicians have continued to frequently receive death threats via an anonymous web SMS caster service.

On September 25, a journalist from Haveeru was warned she would be killed if she named the gangster, Ahmed Muaz, responsible for vandalising Minivan News office security cameras. The threat came after she had made a phone call to the police and before she published her article. It is not clear how those who made the threat came to know she was working on the story.

That night, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party offices were firebombed and Nasheed’s family residence was vandalised. The police, again, have made no move to investigate the death threats or vandalism. Muaz was released within 24 hours of his arrest.

More worrying is that the government’s youth policy appears to be aimed at controlling and appeasing Malé’s gangs.

In August, Yameen intervened and halted a police attempt to dismantle gang huts in Malé. The police had claimed the demolition would curb gang activity. Yameen has also erased 2000 criminal records.

The President’s Office has declined to reveal names and criteria used for the policy decision. The lack of transparency and failure to enact rehabilitation programs signal the move may simply have been to buy the loyalty of a vulnerable sector of youth rather than a genuine effort at rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, government officials including Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb and Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim have been photographed with several gangsters who have records of murder and assault, at several government and PPM functions.

Protect who?

The Maldives Police Service’s performance this year has been dismal, as evident by their poor handling of Rilwan’s disappearance.

An abduction at knifepoint was reported in front of Rilwan’s building at the time he would have reached home on the night he disappeared. Eyewitnesses immediately informed the police.

A team of officers confiscated a knife that abductors dropped on the scene. A couple of officers reportedly went after the car, but failed to stop and search it. If the abduction had been investigated in a timely manner, Rilwan’s fate may be clearer.

Meanwhile, police involvement in crime has been growing this year, with three officers arrested in drug busts in Malé, Hinnavaru, and Addu. Police officers were also accused of cutting down all of Malé City’s areca palm trees.

Minivan News has also learned that the police’s Serious and Organised Crime Department only forwarded 53 of the 465 cases that were lodged this year for prosecution.

Combined, these events suggest a Maldives far removed from the peaceful and orderly country described by the president.

Yameen’s draconian punishments will do little to deter violent crime without a competent police force. Instead of enforcing the death penalty and restricting constitutional freedoms, Yameen must acknowledge and address rising radicalism, and prosecute criminal activity by Malé’s gangs instead of courting them.

Related to this story

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Jihadist media claims two more Maldivians killed in Syria

Online Jihadist group Bilad Al Sham Media (BASM) have claimed two more Maldivians have been killed in the Syrian civil war.

“Martyred brothers in the yesterdays operation include Abu Dujana Maldifi, Abu Ibrahim Maldifi and Abu Ukasha Indonesi,” read a post on the BASM facebook page today.

The latest reports follow similar stories in May when two Maldivians – who had taken the names of Abu Nuh and Abu Turab – were said to have been killed after travelling to Syria for jihad

While the group claims that Abu Dujana was the founder and editor of the BASM page, the group has not provided any information regarding his real identity, stating that this omission was at the request of his mother.

Local media has, however, identified Abu Dujana as Yameen Naeem of Georgia in the Maafannu ward of the capital Malé. It is reported that the man, in his early twenties, travelled to Syria after studying in Egypt.

BASM – which Minivan News has learned has members situated in both Syria and the Maldives – has previously claimed that its members arrive in Syria from numerous points of destinations, and that many were students.

The group has previously criticised incumbent President Abdulla Yameen, describing his presidential win as “a victory for Jahiliyya [ignorance] over Jahiliyya” and has condemned the Maldives National Defence Force as “fighters in the devil’s path”.

While other senior figures in the government refused to take a definitive stance on the issue of Jihad, Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed in July urged Maldivians to refrain from participating in foreign wars.

“Islamic jihad is that waged with sincerity, in the name of Allah, in defense of religion and nation, behind a designated Muslim leader, and against enemies of Islam and nation,” Shaheem said, adding that fighting between two Muslim groups cannot be described as jihad.

Shaheem said Maldivian militants who go abroad must not be punished, but be rehabilitated and informed of religious teachings.

Admitting to growing radicalisation in the Maldives, Shaheem said the media and scholars must help the government in its effort to educate the public.

Radicalisation begins with praying in separate communities, refusing to register marriages at court, and declaring other Muslims infidels, Shaheem said.

The rise of religious radicals within the Maldives has been noted by numerous group both locally and internationally.

While the Maldivian Democratic Party has recently accused security services of fostering radical elements – a claim rejected by authorities, the then acting prosecutor general Hussein Shameem called for the state to take the issue more seriously.

Last week Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon again spoke in support of moderate Islam, condemning the atrocities of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The US State Department’s 2013 country report on terrorism noted that local laws “severely limit” the prosecution of cases associated with violent extremism. Then acting prosecutor general Hussein Shameem in March called for the state to take the issue more seriously.

The US expressed growing concern since 2010 “about the activities of a small number of local violent extremists involved with transnational terrorist groups”.

“There has been particular concern that young Maldivians, including those within the penal system, may be at risk of becoming radicalized and joining violent Islamist extremist groups. Links have been made between Maldivians and violent extremists throughout the world,” the report stated.


Second Maldivian killed in Syria, claims jihadist media

A second Maldivian man has been killed in Syria in a gunfight with soldiers loyal to Bashar Al Assad, according to Bilad Al Sham Media (BASM), an online media group ostensibly run by Maldivians in Syria.

While the group revealed this week that a 44-year-old Maldivian man was killed in a suicide attack on Sunday (May 25), BASM claimed on social media that the second Maldivian militant – who had taken the name Abu Nuh – died during “regular combat” in the northwestern town of Ariha.

Local media has identified the deceased as Hassan Shifaz, of Galolhu New Moon in the capital Malé. The first Maldivian has also been identified as Ali Adam from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani atoll.

Both the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Maldives Police Service (MPS) have since launched investigations into the incident.

Bilad Al Sham Media meanwhile posted a message on Facebook today allegedly from Shifaz’s wife.

“I am proud of my husband. He was a loyal husband, a great father and a righteous son. His entire family is proud and happy for him for we cannot even imagine the provisions Allah swt will provide for him,” she wrote.

“Leaving us and all he had in this world was the toughest choice he made but still he sacrificed this worldly life for his aakhira [afterlife]. He was supportive all throughout his life, a guard always on duty looking out for his family.”

“He proved to us that he is not just a smart mouth who only had words to fight with, but he showed us with his actions that he meant everything he said,” read the post.

According to BASM, the first Maldivian – who took the name Abu Turab – entered Syria after a “long tiring journey” but remained fasting and spent months in the mountains before the attack.

BASM’s tweets were responded to by Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Australi – an Australian preacher – who said that “Maldivians are some of the most courageous & well-mannered Mujahideen”.

Abu Sulayman is a member of the shariah council of Jabhat Al Nusra, Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Syria. Following BASM’s tweets about the second Maldivian, Sulayman replied, “He came to me a few days ago, RA asking to intercede for a martydom [sic] operation he signed for. He sought & shahadah came.”

Minivan News’ coverage

BASM has also posted a statement on Facebook objecting to Minivan News “characterising Bilad al-Sham Media as a group rather than being a media.”

“We stress that we are a media and we are located in Syria only. The Muslims who share and like our posts cannot be classed as members of this Media,” the statement read.

“This is no other than an attempt by the Minivan News to back the statement of a Sri Lankan group which claimed presence of ‘terror cells’ inside Maldives. And this is reflected in one of the News articles last paragraphs where they quoted the Sri Lankan group after designing the article in a way to guide the reader to understand that there are ‘terror cells’ in Maldives.”

BASM also contended that Minivan News misquoted Sheikh Abu Buran as saying that Abu Turab was no longer in need of prayers.

“This is a lie and the Sheikh did not say this. Rather we quoted the Sheikh and this is what we wrote: ‘He asked the Sheikh Abu Burhan al-Suri to make Du’a for him, then the Sheikh smiled and replied to the brother: “You are not in need from US to make Dua””

And you can see that we wrote the word “us” in capital letters and the reader can easily understand that the context being spoken is a context of humility from the Sheikh infront of Abu Turab. It is as if he was saying: ‘Who am I to make Dua for a great man like you?’ So the Sheikh was humbling himself infront of Abu Turab and nothing else.

But Minivan News distorted it and made the Sheikh look like as if he was a Sufi and distorted his words to make the reader understand as if the Sheikh is saying that Abu Turab has reached such a high status that he was no longer in need of a certain form of Duas. Subhaanallah.”

Moreover, BASM contended that Minivan News also misquoted from a video titled ‘The obligation of Jihad’ posted by the group in which a masked man holding a rifle preaches in Dhivehi, who stated: “the rulers of the Maldives are disbelievers and if they are disbelievers, they should be fought.”

“This is a lie as the speaker said ‘if they are disbelievers, then the RULING about DISBELIEVERS is that they be fought,'” BASM explained in the statement.

“And there is a huge difference between the two sentences. The speaker said the statement in his phrase to make it understood that it’s the Islamic ruling to fight disbelieving rulers, but at the same time, such rulings are dependent upon Siyasat al-Shar’iyya (Shar’i politics) and the speaker does not see it politically fit to wage war in the Maldives. Hence he stayed away from stating such.”


Maldives a target of regional terrorists, says Sri Lanka analyst

A Sri Lankan national arrested in Chennai on April 29 on terrorism charges was also targeting locations in the Maldives, terrorism expert Dr Rohan Gunaratna has told the New Indian Express (NIE).

The Tamil Nadu Police arrested Zakir Hussein, 37 years, in Chennai on suspicion of acting as an operative for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and planning attacks on diplomatic missions including the US consulate in Chennai. The police are now investigating if Hussein was involved in bomb blasts at the Chennai Central Railway Station on May 2. The twin blasts killed one woman and injured 14 people.

Gunaratna, who heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Zakir Hussein was planning to launch attacks on locations in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India.

Further, terror cells similar to Hussein’s are active in all three countries and pose a “severe threat” to the South Asia region, Rohan said. He declined to reveal further details, but told the NIE terror groups in the region are harder to track now as they are “becoming autonomous and developing a life of their own.”

According to NIE, Gunaratna predicts terrorists and extremists organisations will expand rapidly and become more active across South Asia due to the reduced US military presence in Afghanistan.

“It is, therefore, of critical importance for India, Lanka, and the Maldives to have a joint approach towards terrorism,” Gunaratna was quoted as saying. Considering the connections, Hussain’s arrest is “very significant” for the region, he added.

Home-made weapons

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office has confirmed receiving a case involving a Maldivian man who produced home-made weapons.

According to Haveeru, the weapons were discovered in a police raid in September 2013 in connection to reports of a person preparing to join the Syrian civil war.

Hand guns, sniper rifles and mines were discovered during the raid, but the man accused of producing these weapons has no connections to religious extremists, Haveeru said. The PG  office declined to comment on the matter.

Social media groups have cropped up to recruit Maldivians for the civil war in Syria, while pamphlets against Alawites and Shiah Muslims have been found at local mosques. Local NGOs  led a humanitarian fund-raising campaign dubbed ‘Help Syria Through Winter’ in January and raised US$39,294 in three weeks.

Links to global terrorism

In 2007, Maldives witnessed its first terror attack when a home-made IED was detonated remotely at the Sultan Park, a popular tourist attraction in Malé. Twelve tourists were injured in the attack.

Prior to the attack, the Indian State police in 2005 arrested a Maldivian named Ibrahim Asif who tried to procure arms from Kerala to use it in the Maldives. He was suspected to be member of a UK-based Islamist group with a “dormant unit” in the Maldives.

In May 2009, Ali Jaleel, who is suspected of links with Sultan Park attack suspects, died in a suicide attack at the ISI headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistani government suspect the Taliban to be behind the attack which left 30 people dead and 300 injured. It was later revealed that Jaleel also had connections with the Al Qaida.

Just a month before Jaleel’s attack, nine Maldivians were arrested by Pakistani security forces in the Wazaristan region for suspected involvement with militants. One of the nine was a suspect in the Sultan Park case. All nine of them were later repatriated and released by the Maldivian government.

The same year, former President Mohamed Nasheed told the CNN IBN in an interview that local religious extremists were being recruited by foreign groups particularly in Pakistan, where Ali Jaleel was also recruited.

Nasheed’s VP Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan also expressed similar concerns, but on assuming power in February 2012, Waheed’s administration denied existence of religious extremism in the country.

In late 2010, a leaked diplomatic cable revealed US diplomats were concerned of activities of “al-Qaida associates” in the Maldives in 2008 and alleged that Maldivians participate in online recruitment forums to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US State Department’s 2013 “Country Report on Terrorism” stated that Maldivian authorities believed that funds are being raised locally to support terrorism abroad.