A Maldivian man has been arrested for hoisting the black flag of the extremist militant group Islamic State near the skating ground of the artificial beach in Malé.
Superintendent Ahmed Shifan told Maldives Independent that the suspect was arrested earlier this week and the criminal court has since remanded him to police custody for seven days.
The police spokesman declined to provide further details citing possible obstruction of the ongoing investigation.
The police have taken the flag down, Shifan said. He also declined to comment on whether IS has sympathisers or recruiters in the Maldives.
In September 2014, some 200 people staged a march in Malé carrying the black flags of IS and calling for the enforcement of Islamic Shariah in the Maldives.
A photo of the IS flag was posted on Facebook on Sunday morning by a newly formed profile under the name of Muhammed Adam.
Soldiers of the jihadist group are active in the Maldives, it said.
The person who reported the post to the authorities told the Maldives Independent on the condition of anonymity that repeated calls made to the National Counter Terrorism Centre went unanswered.
“I then called 119 and told them that I would like to report that there is a Facebook post showing the IS flag raised in the Maldives,” the concerned citizen said.
“The operator laughed and I asked if they find it funny, the operator said no. But it did not seem like the matter was taken seriously. However, I am glad an arrest has been made in connection with the matter and hope it is the right person.”
Shahinda Ismail, executive director of local human rights NGO Maldivian Democracy Network, said the group was also unable to reach the NCTC hotline, which was announced at a ceremony in early April along with a new website.
“Looking at how the IS operates globally, for them, official announcements or declarations of their presence are not made using conventional methods, like in a ceremony held after renting a hall in the convention centre so I believe it is concerning that the law enforcement did not take the matter seriously,” she said.
“Open-minded and liberal people are targeted, threatened and attacked very openly. So there should not be any law enforcement officer who does not understand or take this threat very seriously, from a hotline operator to a traffic police officer to senior high ranking officers. The law enforcement authorities also need to inform and reassure the public on this matter and the Maldives’ situation with the IS.”
The opposition claims as many as 250 Maldivians are fighting in Syria and Iraq – the highest per capita in the region. But the government says the opposition has been inflating the figure to lobby international support for its cause, offering various lower estimates and decrying damage to the economy due to “exaggerated” claims.
At least six Maldivians fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front – now known as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – are believed to have been killed in battle.
In late April, the group’s media wing reported that a Maldivian man with the alias Abu Yousif Al-Maldivi was killed during clashes with the Syrian Arab Army inside the town of Taybat Al-Imam in northern Hama.
Speaking to the press after launching the NCTC hotline last month, Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar insisted that the number of Maldivians fighting in Syria is 49.
A study conducted by the NCTC has identified islands where radical views are prevalent, he said, without offering details.
Government agencies have been taking measures based on the findings, Shareef said, including strengthening cooperation with the Turkish authorities to apprehend Maldivians who attempt to cross the border to Syria.
Shareef said “radical and extreme messages spread in the name of Islam” is the government’s biggest concern.
“Young people are falling victim to these messages. These religious messages incite anger and brutality,” he said.
“President [Abdulla] Yameen’s government is very aware of these efforts and is ready to combat them,” he said.
Azra Naseem, a research fellow at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction specialising in the global jihadist movement, questioned the accuracy of the government’s figure.
“It is very hard to believe numbers the government just pulls out of the air, with no explanation of the methods they used to arrive at them,” she told the Maldives Independent.
“Numbers were around 30 when newspapers were actually reporting on Maldivian fighters leaving for Syria, back in 2014, 2015. Now there seems to be a total information blackout, and the government wants us to believe the number of people going to Syria has come to a standstill during that period? If so, has it given any reasons?”
Azra also criticised the unavailability of the government-sponsored research and data on radicalisation.
“The counter-terrorism centre was supposed to publish an in-depth report on radicalisation in the Maldives a year ago,” she noted.
“Where is that report? In the absence of any kind of publication, with information journalists and other analysts can independently study, it’s hard to believe these random numbers,”
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has also criticised the government over its response to jihadi recruitment.
“Look at how the government is using the terrorism law to persecute opposing political leaders. To date, the only people serving jail sentences on terror charges are political leaders,” said MP Imthiyaz Fahmy, the MDP’s spokesman.
“They have called us traitors for talking about this issue. They accuse us of trying to harm the country because we have talked about the threats of radicalization. The defence minister has tried to make it sound less of an issue by claiming Maldivian fighters in Syria are school dropouts. The government has gone out of their way to put up a facade that organised radicalization does not take place in Maldives.”
The anti-terror law was passed after the current administration was accused of ignoring the threat posed by jihadi recruitment since the first reports of Maldivians joining terror groups emerged in 2014.
Three Maldivians arrested from the Turkey-Syria border are presently on trial and a fourth man was extradited earlier this year. Five men have been charged since travelling overseas to join a militant group was criminalised by the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act.