There is “no specific or imminent terrorist threat” facing the Maldives in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings in neighbouring Sri Lanka, Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi told Indian media on Thursday.
“However, in today’s world, we can never really entirely rule out the possibility of one,” she said in an interview with The Hindu.
The security forces conducted an emergency response exercise last week “in the interest of vigilance” and border security was heightened.
The terror attacks in Sri Lanka was “of extreme concern to the Maldives,” she added.
“The magnitude of the attacks, the level of coordination and the tactics chosen by the terrorists are alarming and indicate new levels of brutality to which terrorists may resort,” she said. “As a country predominantly dependent on tourism, we do not take these attacks within our neighbourhood lightly, and we are acting on these concerns with the urgent establishment of national-level, multi-agency security structures and measures.”
The suicide bombings in the neighbouring country – which have been linked to the Islamic State terror group – prompted growing concern over rising intolerance and extremism as well as the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from war zones in the Middle East.
The US-based Soufan Group estimates around 200 to 250 Maldivians are known to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, making the island nation the highest foreign fighter contributor based on per capita.
But the previous government disputed the figure.
“It is difficult to give an official figure. It is an offence punishable by several years of imprisonment to engage in a foreign war. Therefore, those who have travelled to join foreign wars have travelled under the guise of travelling to friendly countries,” said the defence minister.
“The National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) gets its numbers from relatives and others who come forward and report that someone they know have travelled abroad to join foreign wars. The NCTC puts the current figure at 69, excluding women and children.”
In February, the NCTC said widows of Maldivian jihadis who left to fight in Syria and Iraq are seeking to return to the Maldives.
Mariya said the government was working on “designing and implementing a rehabilitation programme for radicalised individuals,” adding that security agencies have also been enhancing operational capabilities.
“Two senior-level committees, the Counter Terrorism Steering Committee and the Counter Radicalisation Committee, ensure a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach to address this issue,” she said.
“This approach involves capacity building at the organisational level and conducting community empowerment programmes for vulnerable communities and other important social sectors such as the education sector, and the NGOs.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, former president Mohamed Nasheed suggested that the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka suicide bombings could have visited in 2016 to preach and deliver sermons.
Contrary to the immigration department denying claims that Zahran Hashim visited the Maldives, Nasheed said it was unclear whether he had travelled under an assumed name.
“It is unwise to issue visas to enter the Maldives without screening people who come in the guise of foreign sheikhs,” tweeted Nasheed, the presumptive majority leader of the incoming parliament.
“He [Zahran] might have travelled under another name, but the point is that we should be mindful in allowing preachers,” he told The Hindu.
— Maldives Immigration (@ImmigrationMV) April 25, 2019