A December 2015 report by the Soufan Group – a private intelligence agency run by former FBI agent-turned contractor Ali Soufan – put out a count of foreign fighters who’d volunteered to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Four South Asian countries featured in that list – Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and the Maldives — sending an estimated 393 fighters among them. It was the island nation in the Indian Ocean that sent analysts and headlines into a tizzy.
A total of 200 fighters from the Maldives had traveled to the frontlines of the war for a Caliphate, according to the Soufan report.
Malaysia – which has been on the radar for rising Salafist indoctrination for over the past two decades, had contributed 100, the report said. The usual suspect in the region, Pakistan, had contributed a mere 70. The other Muslim majority country in the region, Bangladesh, had zero.
Granted, 200 might not seem like a big number compared to several thousand Islamic State fighters from each of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, Russia, and Morocco. But it’s the per capita figure where the Maldives paints a frightening picture.
With a population of just over 400,000 people in the year 2015 (418,403, according to the Maldivian government), 200 fighters translates to almost five of every 10,000 Maldivian citizens. And this is only a count of those who were able to actually travel to the war zone and does not take into consideration the people who ran operations domestically, carried out long-term and sustained propaganda, and handled logistics both domestically and through expats living around the world.
The truth is that the island paradise was not lost suddenly, nor was a hub of Islamist extremism built in a day.
Beyond the travel brochure images of an exotic atoll of coral islands and luxury resorts, the story of the real Maldives has been one that features the rise and rise of extreme and militant political Islam. The nation has long stopped even pretending to be anything but a remorselessly majoritarian and intolerant nation-state.
The Maldives is a nation that is also a reminder of how failed liberal democracies are the substrate on which fascist orders bloom.
The Rise and Rise of Political Islam
After gaining independence from direct British occupation in 1965, the Maldives declared itself an Islamic Sultanate, installing a constitutional monarchy under King Muhammad Fareed Didi (son of former Sultan Prince Abdul Majeed Didi).
While the monarchy was dissolved in favor of a republic two years later, in 1967, no separation of church and state was ever attempted, and no real secular sentiments or opposition took root.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, one of the loudest voices for building a republic, took over as president and the leader of the civilian government. Then 41 years old, Gayoom had trained to be an Islamist scholar at Egypt’s Al Azhar University. Before returning to his home country, Gayoom taught at the government-run Ahmad Bello University in Nigeria.
When Gayoom began his political conquest in the early 1970s, his hardline politics and promotion of Sharia as the de facto civil law played well to the teeming galleries of the Islamist clergy. The clergy, through an intricate hierarchy of mosques and madrasas, wielded massive power over the daily social and political lives of the Maldives’ near monolithic religious demography of 98.4 percent Sunni Muslims.
On the one hand, Gayoom preached a hardline Sharia to Maldivians in their native Dhivehi, and claimed Islam was the true anecdote to entrenched and corrupt powers that had thus far ruled the Maldives; on the other, his fluency in Arabic and English made him a darling of the international centers of Islamist power.
In 1997, armed with a near absolute majority in the Majlis — the Maldivian parliament — Gayoom amended the constitution. The new constitution, which practically outlawed any other religion by denying citizenship to anyone who refused to embrace Islam, codified changes enacted under a 1994 law, the Religious Unity Act, which prescribed the death penalty to any Maldivian who refuses to accept Islam as the only religion. Although the Maldives has executed very few under the law, it served as a deterrent against any voices that dared echo any secular or liberal sentiments.
Like all rulers, Gayoom hunted with the foxes and ran with the hares.
In his domestic politics, Gayoom rapidly transitioned from a young voice demanding a republic that gave rights to the citizen, to an absolute ruler overseeing sham elections and refusing to leave the president’s office for three decades.
Hunting With the Wolves
On the international front, Gayoom maintained excellent relations with the Maldives’ largest neighbor, India. The Indian establishment returned the favor by turning a blind eye to both the strangling of democracy and the use of hardline Islam to maintain order.
“Maldives is a complex story,” Hormis Tharakan says.
Tharakan, an officer of the Indian Police Service, was the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence organization, from February 1, 2005 to January 31, 2007. Hailing from Kerala – the Indian state closest both geographically and culturally to the Maldives – Tharakan understood and handled India’s intelligence operations in the island nation from close quarters.
“Maldives is a very egalitarian and liberal society in many ways – the matter of women rights for example,” he continued. “But those qualities live alongside hardline political Islam. It’s not for us to interfere and decide what they do in their domestic politics. And whatever one may say about the deficiencies of Maldivian democracy, elections and participation in them shows that people are pro-democracy.”
The hands-off approach worked well for India for the longest time. What influence India may have had in the Maldives was diplomatic in nature and centered on preserving its interests.
The one glaring exception was the 1998 coup d’état engineered by Abdullah Luthufi.
Luthufi, an influential businessman, burned his bridges with Gayoom. He then used his money and political influence to recruit a group of Tamil mercenaries from the secessionist People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to capture and kill the president. Some reports say this was done at the behest of former president Abdulla Nasir – who had tried to end a young Gayoom’s political career by exiling him but later had the tables turned on himself.
In what was christened Operation Cactus, India rushed two units of paratroopers from an airbase in Agra to Malé, the Madivian capital.
As detailed in the book Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives by Sushant Singh — an Indian Army officer turned journalist –India sent a mammoth contingent of 16,000 personnel to secure both the capital and the presidential palace. And sealing a decisive victory, INS Godavari, a frigate of the Indian Navy stationed off the Sri Lankan coast, chased down Luthufi and the handful mercenaries who were trying to take him to the safety of Tamil rebel held areas by boat.
But Operation Cactus was an exception.
When Gayoom’s successor, Mohamed Nasheed, was deposed amid widespread political turmoil and the declaration of a national emergency, India stayed away from exercising any military options and refused to heed Nasheed’s direct call for intervention.
In Nasheed’s own words from exile in Europe, he had been “forced to resign at gunpoint.”
Nasheed had run afoul of the hardline Islamists of his own party and his government was replaced by the overtly pro-Chinese and hardline Islamist leader Abdulla Yameen.
Yameen sparked another political crisis in February 2018. When the country’s Supreme Court overturned the criminal convictions of nine opposition leaders, rather than obeying the ruling Yameen ordered the arrest of the chief justice and another judge who was party to the judgment. He also declared a state of emergency, which prevented parliament from meeting and responding to his moves to remake the judiciary. During the crisis, some — including Nasheed — openly called on India to intervene.
“1998 and 2018 were very different calls” explained Tharakan, the former RAW chief.
“In 1998, it was a sitting president who asked for help and in 2018 it was a deposed one. It was an internal matter. And India going in, would’ve been a tantamount to a violation of international laws.”
The China Factor
Some ascribe India’s refusal to take the military route in 2018 to China’s increased might.
One of the first acts by Yameen in the five years that he held office was to sign up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and push ahead with singing a free trade agreement with China, thereby delivering a major snub to India.
Besides obvious business incentives, the Maldives has been an important piece in China’s long standing String of Pearls doctrine, which has been attempting to circle India with naval bases. Military intervention in the Maldives would have possibly drawn China’s ire.
The Chinese state-backed Global Times made this clear in an editorial dated February 12, 2018 by saying: “…New Delhi has been seeking an opportunity to showcase its military again in its ‘backyard.’ If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi. India should not underestimate China’s opposition to unilateral military intervention.”
Moreover, Chinese anti-India policy has, for a long time now, tried leveraging Islamist extremism as a force to keep India occupied in skirmishes.
As Shrenik Rao, editor-in-chief of the Madras Courier opines: “China’s policy is quite clear when it comes to aiding anti-Indian jihadist forces. It supplies arms and money to Pakistan, and Pakistan sponsors outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and other anti-Indian military groups. The Chinese veto blocking the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] resolution to declare Masood Azhar (founder and leader of Jaish-e Mohammad) a banned terrorist, is direct evidence!”
Given the Maldives’ clear descent into the lap of the global jihadist movement, and how Nasheed was taken down by the hardline Islamist sections of his own government, could China be trying to use the same formula in the island nation?
“That’s too far-fetched a possibility at the moment,” Tharakan, the former RAW chief, said. “Yes, China does things like help anti-Indian, Pak-based outfits, but it’s a limited engagement. China knows very well that the fire might come home to burn their own house down. Do you think sponsoring Islamists overseas won’t encourage China’s own problems with Islamist problem inside the Uyghur regions?”
While Tharakan may be right, India’s hands-off approach toward the Maldives and its growing Islamism may be the only possible option at the moment. And the patience seems to have paid off: Yameen lost a re-election bid in 2018, which some have attributed to covert Indian influence. At first he refused to relinquish office. Rejecting the report of the Maldivian Election Commission that categorically said the elections had been fair and had seen a voter turnout of 89.2 percent, Yameen called the vote a fraud and went to court. When the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the election results, he finally had to relinquish power. New President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has made a point of reaching out to India.
But not everyone agrees that the hands-off approach is best.
“The truth is Indian intelligence fumbled the ball on Maldives,” says Shirish Thorat.
Thorat, a retired policeman turned private security consultant, is the author of A TICKET TO SYRIA: A Story about the ISIS in Maldives — a book in which he details a personal account of the rise of radical Islam and Salafist tendencies in the island cluster.
“Our [Indian] security problem is it’s all about Pakistan,” he lashed out at Indian intelligence and foreign policy makers. “We saved that country from a coup using our navy! Why couldn’t we make a naval base there? There was no China at that time! The reason is Maldives didn’t even matter to Indian foreign policy and we ignored how Pakistani Salafist preachers trained by the Saudis had taken things over. Even kindergarten textbooks are full of Salafist doctrine teaching the Sharia to little children. It will be the next Pakistan for India. And if this massive contribution to the [Islamic State] doesn’t wake India up, God knows what will!”