Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla was abducted and killed five years ago by a local extremist group linked to al-Qaeda, the presidential commission on deaths and disappearances has concluded, confirming long-held suspicions about the involvement of radicalised gangs and a cover-up by the former administration.
The Maldives Independent journalist was murdered at sea in the early hours of August 8, 2014, the inquiry commission’s chair Husnu Suood told the press on Sunday, three weeks after declaring that suspects have been identified with enough evidence for prosecution and pledging to disclose findings.
But statements from three witnesses were “not conclusive” to establish death as there were discrepancies in descriptions of how the murder was committed, he stressed.
After he was abducted at knife-point and forced into a car outside his apartment building in the capital suburb’s Hulhumalé, Rilwan was put on a dinghy and transferred to another vessel, Suood said.
The 28-year-old was covered with a net and killed after he was made to recite the shahada, the Islamic declaration of belief in the oneness of God, witnesses told the commission. There were disagreements among the group about killing him after the profession of faith but some believed he deserved death as a punishment, Suood said, declining to reveal further details as the probe was ongoing.
The owner of the boat as well as the person who was “directing the vessel” have been identified and other suspects have been barred from leaving the country.
In light of new evidence, the commission has asked the Prosecutor General’s office to appeal the acquittal of two suspects charged over the abduction, said Suood, a former judge and attorney general. A meeting will also take place on Monday to determine whether evidence collected by the commission over the past nine months was sufficient to prosecute more people suspected of involvement.
– Recruitment network –
The roots of Rilwan’s abduction – as well as the attempted murder of blogger Ismail Khilath Rasheed in June 2012, the assassination of lawmaker Dr Afrasheem Ali in October 2012 and the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed in April 2017, which were all “connected” and carried out by the same extremist group – could be traced to an “ideological dispute” that started between Maldivian freethinkers and extremists on social media in 2010, Suood explained.
In December 2011, Rilwan took part in a silent protest calling for religious freedom, where a group of men threw rocks and attacked the demonstrators. The extremist group then compiled a list of secularists and started issuing death threats.
On the morning after MP Afrasheem was murdered, members of the group left for Qatar and later travelled to Syria, Suood noted. The same extremist group also destroyed pre-Islamic relics at the National Museum amid the transfer of power on February 7, 2012.
In June 2014, the group abducted several young men in a push to identify online activists advocating secularism or professing atheism, including the admins of Facebook groups. Ahead of Ramadan that year, the group’s ‘Shariah for Maldives’ Twitter account declared that they would resume the activities after the holy month in July 2014.
In September 2014, they marched in the streets of Malé with the flag of the militant organisation Islamic State.
Suood also referred to a Facebook interaction between Rilwan and Bilad Al Sham, a media group operated by Maldivians fighting in Syria with the al-Qaeda-affiliated a-Nusra Front. Weeks before the abduction, the group’s admin Abu Dhujana – the alias of a Maldivian named Yameen Naeem who was killed in September 2014 – warned Rilwan that his “days were short.”
Naeem accused Rilwan of apostasy and providing information to police about Maldivian jihadis in Syria and their associates in the Maldives, Suood revealed. The group was upset about articles Rilwan wrote about jihadi fighters in May 2014, he noted.
Ties with the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda were established around 2008, after which the Maldivians began operating under their instructions. In June 2014, the Maldivian organisation’s leadership split into rival groups that supported al-Qaeda and the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Suood revealed.
Using the Furqan and Noor mosques in the capital as hubs, both groups recruit locals to send as jihadi fighters to Syria. Leaders have been identified and witness statements have been obtained against them, Suood added, naming Mohamed Ameen as the leader of the IS-affiliated group and Mohamed Mazeed as the leader of the al-Qaeda group.
The group affiliated with IS was behind recent robberies in the capital, including the theft of MVR2.3 million (US$149,000) in March, he alleged.
It was the al-Qaeda group that carried out the murders. Its leader was known to have travelled to Pakistan for training by al-Qaeda, Suood said.
The organisation is divided into subgroups tasked with proselytising, managing finances and other matters. Shops that sell textiles and vegetables as well as cafés and fishing vessels operate in the Maldives to raise funds, Suood said.
“Missions” are handed to cells of six to eight people, who would not be able to identify members of other cells. An “emir” in charge of the cell recruits young people from mosques and radicalises them with videos, sermons and jihadi literature.
Inspired by a sermon called ‘The Dust Will Never Settle’ by Anwar al-Awlaki, the extremists believes that apostates, blasphemers, atheists and homosexuals must be killed if the state fails to punish them.
Suood’s revelations marked the first time the presence of groups affiliated with terrorist organisations was publicly acknowledged despite reports of Maldivians travelling to fight in Syria and Iraq since 2014. The former administration denied the existence of recruitment networks and accused the opposition of exaggerating claims of Maldivian jihadis.
Suood said former vice president Ahmed Adeeb could be charged with obstruction of justice.
In November 2014, then-tourism minister Adeeb secured the release of two suspects who were in custody over the abduction.
A man identified as Munaz Abdulla from the TC group in Malé messaged Adeeb before the suspects were due to appear in court for a remand hearing. On the same day, Adeeb messaged criminal court judge Abdulla Didi with instructions to release the pair. One of the suspects, Mohamed Suaid – who was arrested with security camera footage showing him tailing Rilwan – was allowed to leave the country in January 2015.
Adeeb also sent two police intelligence officers to the former immigration controller Hassan Ali to seek a copy of Rilwan’s passport in a bid to create false news suggesting that Rilwan had left the country and died in Syria, Suood said.
Citing a blog that later turned out to be fake, several pro-government websites had reported the false claims at the time.
Hassan Ali, now a High Court judge, confirmed the attempt to the commission. Adeeb also called a senior military officer and tried to obtain Rilwan’s passport, the commission found.
Suood revealed that police intelligence had followed Rilwan and listened to his phone calls from April to June 2014. The surveillance was conducted at first by the counter-terrorism department but it was “later changed to the political side.”
According to the request made by the police to obtain a court order to intercept Rilwan’s communications, the journalist was accused of carrying out “activities against the state.”
In June 2014, police intelligence also learned of a plot to kidnap two secularists from Hulhumalé. “A speedboat had been readied for that,” Suood said, noting the failure to take any action.
There was evidence of former president Abdulla Yameen’s attempts to “divert” the police investigation into Rilwan’s abduction. Yameen used a practitioner of black magic or sorcery and instructed the police commissioner to send investigators “all over the place,” Suood alleged.
But Yameen could not be directly charged over the abduction, Suood said.
As promised during his campaign, the inquiry commission was set by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his first day in office to probe unresolved murders and Rilwan’s enforced disappearance. In a statement after Suood’s revelations, Rilwan’s family expressed “deep sorrow” and called for the prosecution of politicians who obstructed the investigation and those who “organised and financed” the murder.