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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.