Video threats, religious extremism and Maldives tourism

Video threats, religious extremism and Maldives tourism
September 01 17:45 2015

On Tuesday, a video message was posted on YouTube threatening to kill President Abdulla Yameen and launch terrorist attacks on Maldives’ luxury tourism industry. Three gun-wielding men in the video, purporting to represent the Islamic State, demanded the government stop harassing a former diplomat in Switzerland, and called for the release of a jailed opposition leader and the withdrawal of a new anti-terror bill. The men gave the government a 30-day ultimatum.

Judging from social media responses, many Maldivians do not believe the video is made by IS, and have labeled it as an attempt by the government to further crackdown on the opposition. If it is authentic, then it means Maldivians, disillusioned by months of deadlock, are considering threats of violence to resolve political disputes.

Regardless of whether the video is authentic or a hoax, it does a lot of harm for the Maldives, especially for its reputation as a safe and paradise-like honeymoon destination.

Here are some of the theories put forth on social media – the video was released to distract the Maldivian public from the storm of criticism against the government over the death of 24-year-old Azfa Zuhair, who died from injuries after being struck by a metal post leftover from last month’s Independence Day celebrations.

Others are pointing the finger at the government saying this is a ploy to harass Sheikh Imran Abdulla, the jailed opposition leader named in the video. Sure enough, Imran was transferred from a remand center to a low-security prison on Monday, despite never having been sentenced.

Still others say the video provides the government reasons to expedite the anti-terrorism bill, now before parliament. The bill is of great concern. As the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has noted, loose definitions of terrorism could be used to put a stop to street protests, on the claim that they disrupt traffic.

In my view, it is unlikely that the video was produced by the IS. Several Maldivians who support the IS, and have family members or friends living in IS controlled territory have dismissed the video as inauthentic. “Islamic State Mujahideen are not concerned about the democratic Sheikh Imran,” one woman said in a Facebook post.

The government’s involvement appears to be unlikely, because it does not need further excuses to harass the opposition or push an undemocratic bill through the ruling-party controlled parliament, even for appearance’s sake.

Moreover, threatening to harm the country’s economic mainstay is not in a rational government’s interest (many, however, have noted this government is hardly rational). On New Year’s Eve, a similar video surfaced threatening to harm Jamaican Singer Sean Paul, who was due to perform in Malé. Paul called his performance off, citing security concerns. Even then, tourism sector staff had expressed concern over the damage to Maldives’ reputation from that video threat.

Tourist resorts are particularly vulnerable; none of them have walls, and it is nearly impossible to guard every inch of their open beaches. For instance, last year, a group of people boarded a Maldivian resort in the middle of the night and left with all the money in the resort’s safe.

The Maldives is mainly a recruitment ground for militants. Hundreds of Maldivians are thought to be fighting with IS and other militant groups in the Middle East. Security experts have said the threat of domestic terror acts is low, but given the vulnerability of Maldivian resorts, even one lone-wolf attack could do irreparable damage. Monday’s video threat must not be taken lightly.

The Maldives’ reputation is already under strain, due to the disproportionate number of Maldivians fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the eight-month long political crisis. If this persists, we may start to see a decline in visitors.

It is also of great concern if opposition supporters are behind the video. It means Maldivians are becoming cynical and disillusioned by the government’s authoritarianism and refusal to listen to the public who, over the past eight months, have exercised peaceful means of protest. It is worth noting here that numerous death threats against dozens of journalists and politicians over the past year have gone uninvestigated, which will only embolden those who prefer violence over peaceful political activity.

Monday’s video threat highlights once again the need for democracy and the need for a comprehensive de-radicalization strategy in the Maldives. It should not be an excuse for the government to turn to authoritarianism. The government must urgently address the ongoing political crisis, release jailed opposition leaders and restore democracy in the Maldives.

Hawwa Kareem is a pseudonym. She is a student of political science.

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