Features | Security | South Asia

Fighting Terrorism in Paradise

Desperate to maintain its image as a tourist paradise, the Maldives is boosting co-operation with regional partners to combat the threat of militants.

The Maldives, the small island nation in the Indian Ocean best known for its idyllic beaches and world class resorts, has quietly joined the global fight against terrorism. Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed has been actively seeking to promote his country’s image with international investors as a safe tourist destination, and appears to believe this goal is best served by boosting co-operation with regional partners.

Senior officials in Washington and New Delhi continue to express concern that madrassas funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have the potential to radicalize Maldivian young people through jihadist doctrine. Such fears were given some credence in 2006, when three Maldivians were detained in Sri Lanka on suspicion that they were using the country to transit to Pakistan to join a jihadi training camp. It’s with cases like this in mind that the Maldives’ National Central Bureau – which heads up intelligence and national security operations – remains invested in its partnership with Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigations Department to enhance intelligence sharing on terrorism and national security issues.

Even further afield, the Maldives also has a well-established partnership with India on counterterrorism issues, and New Delhi has indicated it remains committed to developing the capacity of the Maldivian army to combat counterterrorism. Indeed, Indian-Maldivian defence co-operation is nothing new. In 1987, for example, India deployed its air force to the Maldives to counter a coup attempt by Tamil militants from Sri Lanka.

More generally, India is alarmed by the growing presence of radicalism in the Maldives, and has offered its experience in detecting and responding to terrorist attacks. But setting aside the more immediate benefits for it of doing so, the Indian government also likely sees its co-operation with the Maldives through the prism of its grander strategic policy of targeting Pakistani-based terrorism in the region. Over the past few years, the Indian Coast Guard has been continuing its efforts to train Maldivian authorities on ways to avoid maritime terrorist attacks through enhanced surveillance of sea lanes and increased monitoring at key ports. 

The Maldives has little history linking it to terrorism, whether international or domestic. Still, local and regional authorities aren’t taking any chances. After all, Maldivian citizens still recall the Sultan Park bombing in the capital of Male in the autumn of 2007. While no one was killed in the attack, a dozen foreigners were wounded, prompting Maldivian business owners and politicians alike to roundly condemn the infringement to the islands’ harmony and the threat it posed to tourism there.

State law enforcement authorities quickly rounded up nearly a dozen suspects (10 of whom were Maldivian citizens) within the first few days following the Sultan Park attack. Investigators eventually traced the bombing back to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and jihadi groups were widely reported to have based their operations. Nine of the 12 suspects – all Maldivian – were arrested in the FATA region, but were later released due to a lack of evidence that they were tied to the attack. While no legal case was made against the ‘Maldivian nine,’ intelligence officials in New Delhi and Washington understandably felt something was amiss with Maldivians ‘vacationing’ in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.  

The administration of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – the quasi-autocratic leader who ruled the island nation for three decades – was unable to overcome another smudge on its image, and a year after the bombing, Gayoom was voted out of office in favour of the Western-back reformist, Nasheed.

Since coming to office, Nasheed’s government has been doing more than just taking advantage of capacity building initiatives led by Western countries – it’s also working to amend its own laws in order to facilitate greater cooperation in areas such as intelligence sharing and joint operations between its national security agencies.

Included in this domestic review is a look at national security legislation on terrorism and radicalization cooperation with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and international partners such as India and the United States. The review is part of a larger process aimed at completing a new bill, currently being drafted, which would facilitate the government’s ability to pre-empt a terrorist attack within its territory.

But while details of the bill remain secret, some international observers fear that the process is an attempt by the government to gain carte blanche over opposition forces and the religious establishment. Current legislation on terrorism is codified in the Prevention on Terrorism Act of 1990. The most ambiguous clause of the four page bill is section 2 (g), which declares that terrorism may be defined as the ‘use of terror tactics, force or making threats to cause harm or damage…or other means to create fear in the community.’ But the ease with which this existing Act can be reinterpreted has been criticized by international human rights groups and opposition parties alike, and new legislation that further empowers the government’s ability to interdict and pre-empt terrorist activities, while beneficial for counterterrorism purposes, would undoubtedly pose some contradictory hurdles for the Maldives’ international supporters. The Arab Spring has shown Western leaders the danger of stifling individuals’ freedom of press and religion. Yet this new legislation could serve to suppress the country’s religious establishment and quiet influential clerics who having opposing views to the sitting government.    

Still, there are some encouraging signs over the Maldives’ boosted co-operation. In March, Maldivian national Iqbal Mohamed was detained by local authorities after returning from a trip to Pakistan. There had been an Interpol red notice out on Mohamed for his suspected involvement in the Sultan Park bombing in 2007. While Maldivian police released Mohamed on March 25, it appears that they had received intelligence that he might be involved in planning a terrorist attack at the World Cricket Cup in India. The attack never happened, and the quality of the intelligence is still being assessed. However, the cooperative system between India, the Maldives and Interpol was widely seen as a success.

Of course, not every operation will be as efficient as this one. But if the Maldives wants to protect its citizens’ livelihoods, it has no choice but to work closely with other nations.