The security services on Monday revealed previously undisclosed information about the extent of religious extremism in the Maldives, including the number of militants overseas and confirmation of a foiled bomb plot in 2017.
“There are close to 1,400 Maldivians with us today across the country who have fallen into extremist ideology to the point where they would not hesitate to take the life of the person next to them,” Commissioner of Police Mohamed Hameed said during a briefing at a conference for councillors.
According to the police chief, 423 Maldivians attempted to join terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq, of which 173 people managed to enter the war zones. “Hundreds” of local extremists also travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan before the Syrian civil war, some of whom have been spreading radical ideologies since returning to the Maldives, Hameed said.
The new number of jihadis is significantly higher than the figure of 69 offered by the previous administration, which downplayed the issue and dismissed claims of the Maldives being the highest foreign fighter contributor per capita to Syria and Iraq.
As many fighters were killed in battle, Hameed said the number of Maldivians left in Syria was 59, of which 91 percent were women and children. Of the 173 Maldivians who went to Syria, nearly half were women and children, forty-eight percent had criminal records and 39 percent had known affiliations to criminal gangs.
The government is planning to bring them back within the next seven months in collaboration with other countries, Hameed said, after which they would be placed in a rehabilitation and de-radicalisation centre under construction on Himmafushi island.
The police commissioner went on to reveal that an attempt to blow up an airplane had been foiled in 2017. An improvised explosive device had been manufactured on the instruction of the terrorist group Islamic State’s leadership, he said.
The plot was orchestrated by a Maldivian IS member in Syria and it was foiled by local authorities working with the “five biggest countries in the world” in the year’s largest global counter-terrorism and intelligence operation, Hameed said, without providing further details.
According to presentations at the conference, religious hardliners consider the Maldives to be a “land of sin,” refuse to accept the constitution and laws, and believe that Maldivians who do not share their views are infidels whose wealth could be rightfully seized.
Members of local extremist groups illegally marry underage girls out of court and refuse to vaccinate their children or send them to school as “they consider education to be a Western ideology.” More than 250 cases of parents refusing to send children to school have been reported to the ministry of gender, family and social services.
In his concluding remarks at the conference on Monday evening, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said there was no benefit from suppressing or keeping the information about extremism hidden from the public.
“We have accepted that extremist ideology is present in the Maldives. We have to accept that people go to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to fight in the name of jihad. That is happening in the country and our government has accepted it. We are taking on a difficult challenge but the government’s policy is to face this and find a solution,” he said.