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Maldives: A Tiny country whose 200 Young men have joined ISIS in Middle East

ISIS has been successfully radicalizing the youth in Maldives through the use of internet and social media

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A screen grab of a video purportedly released online by Islamic State shows militants threatening to launch strikes on the Maldives, Aug. 31, 2015. Image SOurce: BenarNews
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  • The Maldivian government has asked India for help in sharing intelligence in light of an increasing threat from ISIS
  • The rise of the digital age is exposing the Maldivian youth to terrorism and turning them into radicals
  • Recently passed Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act criminalizes defamation and fines anyone spreading false information

The Maldivian couple was still struggling with the shock of their 22-year-old son being locked up in a Turkish prison after Muslim radicals almost recruited him.

“On July 12, we woke up and found him gone, his passport missing. Two days later, we got news that he was arrested in Turkey while attempting to travel to Syria to join a radical outfit,” the man’s father told a BenarNews reporter who was visiting the couple’s home in a congested by-lane of Male, the capital of the Maldives, late last month.

“As a family, we are shattered,” he said, “but relieved at the same time. At least we won’t have to live with the shame of knowing our son is killing innocent people in the name of Islam.”

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The father, who wished not to be identified, said he was well aware that his son might be looking at a life behind bars if he were sent back to the Maldives. Its government recently announced jail terms of up to 20 years for those attempting to go abroad to fight  for Islamic militant groups.

“He will get what he deserves. I only hope he gets a chance to repent,” the man said of his boy, whose identity he also shielded.

His son is one of more than 200 Maldivians who have left the Muslim-majority Indian Ocean archipelago – better known for its pristine beaches and high-end tourist resorts – to fight in the Middle East alongside militant outfits including the Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, according to the country’s main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and The Soufan Group, a U.S.-based security and intelligence firm that tracks terrorist threats worldwide.

The number of Maldivians fighting for these radical groups abroad is relatively high given the country’s small population of 345,000, according to a 2013 census.

The Maldives has the world’s second highest per capita of people fighting for IS, behind Tunisia, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), an American think-tank. One out of every 500 Maldivians has joined the Mid-East extremist outfit, according to research by the NBER.

At least 20 Maldivians have died in battle in the Middle East, said the Twitter page of Bilad Al Sham Media group, which appears to be run by Maldivian militants in Syria. BenarNews could not independently verify this figure.

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And even though the government of President Abdulla Yameen puts the figure at no more than 50, there is cause for concern, said a former top police official in Male.

“Even going by the number the government is stating, it is a worrisome trend considering the small population of the Maldives,” he told BenarNews.

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Mohamed Irfan (alias Abu Yushaw Maldif) is shown before he died fighting for the al-Nusra Front in Syria, Sept. 20, 2015. [ Bilad Al Sham Media]
Opposition exaggerating figure: governmentThe government said the opposition was exaggerating the number to bring disrepute to the Maldives, whose population is largely Sunni Muslim.“No bona fide security analyst has said or confirmed the figure which has been repeated by those with close associations to former President Nasheed; who themselves fail to attribute this number to any credible source, much less ones that can be independently corroborated or verified,” Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, Yameen’s international spokesman, told BenarNews.He was referring to Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s democratically elected leader. Until Nasheed was elected in 2008, the Maldives had endured decades of autocratic rule. But he resigned in February 2012, saying a coup had forced him out. Nasheed now lives in exile in Britain, where he has received refugee status.Shihab, however, added that the present government was taking the threat posed by terrorism seriously, but he declined to say how many Maldivian youths had been stopped from leaving the country to join extremist outfits in the Middle East, or if the country had a de-radicalization strategy in place.In February, President Yameen established the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) specifically to investigate cases of radicalization in the Maldives. In June, the president followed that up by submitting a policy paper on “Terrorism and Violent Extremism” to parliament for added recommendations with the aim of strengthening national security and contributing to the global fight against terror, Shihab said.Government in denial

But security analysts described NCTC as a sham.

“It [the NCTC] is a façade to pacify critics,” Azra Naseem, a Maldivian counter-terrorism expert at Ireland’s Dublin City University, told BenarNews. “It is based in the Maldives National Defense Force – making counter-terrorism a military issue rather than a policing issue. And as far as the public has been allowed to know, there are only two members of staff on it.”

She said the government’s main policy was one of “denial and obfuscation,” making it almost impossible for researchers and journalists to get accurate figures because the “government is working actively to cover things up.”

“The government is afraid that if it becomes known that an increasing number of Maldivians are leaving to join the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters, it would harm the country’s exclusive tourism industry.  Rich Western Europeans, toward whom most of the Maldives’ tourism industry is geared, would not want to book expensive holidays in a country known for production of jihad,” Naseem said.

“If the tourism industry is damaged, the miniscule percentage of rich Maldivians who control it would suffer and many of them bankroll the Maldives government. So the current regime downplays the number of Maldivian jihadists, pretends it is a problem that does not exist, and labels anyone who speaks about it a traitor,” she added.

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A tourist resort is pictured in the distance from Villingili island, the Maldives, July 24, 2016. [Rohit Wadhwaney/BenarNews]
Taboo topic 

On the streets of Male, an island of close to 6 square km (2.3 square miles) that is crammed with 130,000 residents, no one wants to speak of the growing threat of radicalization, not openly at least.Naseem, one of the few Maldivians who agreed to comment on the subject on the record, explained why.“I would not be surprised if the new Anti-Defamation Act is brought to bear on those who speak of this problem,” she said, referring to the recently passed Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act. It criminalizes defamation and includes provisions to impose fines of up to U.S. $130,000 on anyone caught spreading false information.

“This government really wants to depict the problem of radicalization as a fictitious one concocted by the opposition to harm the country and by ‘jealous’ Western countries who do not want the Maldives to prosper because it is a Muslim country,” she said.

‘We are very vulnerable’

Yet on Thursday, the Maldivian government for the first time publicly conceded its vulnerability to radicalization as it asked India for help in sharing intelligence in light of an increasing threat from IS and reports of radicalization among youths.

The chief of the NCTC will be visiting New Delhi on Aug. 29 to discuss specific requirements to tackle the terror threat, Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim told the Press Trust of India.

“Because of our small size, we are very vulnerable and we have sought India’s help in strengthening our mechanisms to tackle threats of terrorism,” Asim said.

The request came barely two months after India’s Intelligence Bureau sent a classified report to agencies indicating that the growing IS influence in the Maldives could prove to be a threat to the Indian sub-continent, whose southwestern coast lies about 320 km (200 miles) away.

The IS has been “successfully using the internet and social media in influencing youths in the island nation and is determined to expand its network further,” the report said, while putting the figure of the outfit’s sympathizers in the Maldives at about 500.

New threat from online recruitment

Acknowledging that the number of potential terror recruits in the Maldives was well beyond the figure the government had been stating, the former senior police official from Male said the problem of radicalization in the archipelago was an old one.

“Radicalization of Maldivian youth came to the fore back in 2004, when several Muslim groups came to the Maldives in the garb of helping people affected by the tsunami and began preaching radical Islam,” the former cop said on condition of anonymity.

“And now, with almost every one of the near 350,000 Maldivians connected to the internet, radicalization of our youth is easier than ever,” he said.

Counter-terrorism expert Naseem agreed.

“There are several websites dedicated to publishing jihadi literature. A lot of books published by leaders of IS and al-Nusra are translated into Dhivehi and made available to Maldivians to download and study.

“Despite the government’s claim that they are clamping down on this, this material is very easily accessible,” she said. (BenarNews)

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Regional Political Turmoil Reflects India-China Rivalry

Recent differences between President Sirisena and his sacked prime minister over whether a container terminal at Colombo’s port should be developed with Indian investment also strained their ties.

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India. political
Maldives' new President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, center right, receives Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the President's office in Male, Maldives. VOA

Political developments in two tiny countries in the Indian Ocean region, Maldives and Sri Lanka, reflect the growing rivalry between India and China in the strategic region. A new government, which is resetting frayed ties with India, has taken over in the Maldives from the previous administration seen as pro-China. But political turmoil has engulfed Sri Lanka following the controversial reemergence of a pro-China leader on the political center stage of the island nation on India’s southern tip.

Optimistic of regaining ground lost to China in the Maldives in recent years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew in to the Maldivian capital, Male for the swearing-in of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as president, who won a surprise victory in September. Modi was the highest-ranking foreign leader at the ceremony held on Saturday.

Shifting ties

New Delhi was not disappointed. Solih signaled an end to the country’s pro-China stance as both countries expressed confidence in the “renewal” of their close bonds. The new Maldivian leader mentioned a “dire economic situation” facing the country due to the country’s growing debt with Beijing incurred as his predecessor signed onto a host of China-funded projects. “The damage done due to projects conducted only for political reasons, and at a loss, are huge,” he said.

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Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (C), the president-elect of the Maldives, interacts with his supporters during a gathering in Male, Maldives. VOA

Meanwhile the head of the Maldivian National Party that leads the ruling alliance, Mohammad Nasheed, has said that the new government would pull out of a free-trade agreement signed last year with China.

The statements were positive for India, which saw its influence in the Maldives decline under Solih’s predecessor, and worried that a spate of infrastructure projects by Beijing could pave the way for it to establish a strategic base on the islands chain.

Modi assured the Maldives that New Delhi would help get it through its economic difficulties.

But even as New Delhi looks to rebuild bridges with the Maldives, observers caution that India will struggle to maintain its once predominant influence in its neighborhood amid growing Chinese presence in South Asian countries.

Chinese state companies already have large investments in the Maldives and thousands of well-heeled Chinese tourists pour into the country every year.

“As China pushes itself into the Indian Ocean region, one of the key drivers that all these countries are now pursuing is trying to maximize benefits from both India and China,” says K. Yhome at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

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Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena waves to supporters during a rally outside the parliamentary complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka. VOA

Sri Lanka

Observers point to developments in another Indian Ocean country, Sri Lanka, where in 2015 the defeat of a pro-China leader Mahinda Rajapaksa brought into power a new administration friendlier to India under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

But in a hugely controversial development, Sirisena last month sacked Wickremesinghe, seen as more pro-India, and appointed Rajapaksa as his prime minister. Rajapaksa has twice failed to prove his majority in parliament and the move has attracted criticism from Western countries amid fears that it violates the constitution and is a setback to democracy in Sri Lanka.

Although the political tussle in Sri Lanka was largely triggered by deep differences between President Sirisena and Wickemesinghe, who led a fragile coalition, observers say the shadow of India and China is not far away.

Pointing out that a domestic crisis presents an “opportune moment” for big powers, Harinda Vidanage, director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo says that “the larger context of the current political situation is clearly the intensifying India-China rivalry in countries like Sri Lanka.”

Others also point to the reemergence of Rajapaksa, who took the country closer to China during his ten-year rule.

Sri Lanka, political
A photo taken Feb. 10, 2015, shows a general view of Sri Lanka’s deep sea harbor port facilities at Hambantota. VOA

“The assumption is that whatever Rajapaksa does, the financial bill as it were will be met in some way by the Chinese,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, “The consequences of that of course is that it will push us further into the Chinese arms as it were.”

Rajapaksa had awarded a string of projects to Beijing including building a strategic port at Hambantota. In a bid to counter China’s growing presence, New Delhi also began bidding for infrastructure projects.

Also Read: Parliament In Sri Lanka Get Dissolved, President Calls For Election

However recent differences between President Sirisena and his sacked prime minister over whether a container terminal at Colombo’s port should be developed with Indian investment also strained their ties. Wickremesinghe, according to reports, wanted the project to go to India, President Sirisena did not.

Observers also say that although China has faced criticism that many of its investments under its ambitious Belt and Road initiative are driving smaller nations like Sri Lanka and the Maldives into debt, the Chinese offers of gleaming infrastructure continue to be an allure for smaller countries. (VOA)