The government unveiled Thursday a first state policy on combating terrorism and violent extremism, promising “swift measures” against Maldivians involved with terrorist organisations.
The seven-page policy paper broadly outlined plans to take “a central and active role” internationally, strengthen national security, and conduct de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes.
According to the paper, the government is in the process of formulating a national counter-terrorism strategy, developing a legislative framework on national security, and conducting programmes to safeguard the tourism industry and critical infrastructure.
Measures are also being taken to “understand and address social issues stemming from terrorism and violent extremism” and to “prevent conceivable threats to national security from foreign nationals entering the Maldives.”
President Abdulla Yameen submitted the paper for parliamentary debate last week.
Yameen has been accused of ignoring the threat posed by jihadi recruitment since the first reports of Maldivians joining militant groups emerged two years ago.
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.
Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar told the press on Thursday that only 49 radicalised Maldivians are fighting with extremist militant groups in Syria.
The recruits mostly include criminals and school dropouts, he said.
“It isn’t only people of extremist religious ideologies that go to war from Maldives,” Shareef said at a briefing of the national counter-terrorism centre.
“[They] include criminals who have committed serious offences, people without religious awareness, and people who grow up without finishing school.”
Government officials have previously offered estimates ranging from 30 to 70. But media reports suggest a steady stream of Maldivians leaving for Syria since early 2014.
In March, OGN Syria interviewed three young Maldivian men fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jahbath Al-Nusra Front.
Earlier this week, newspaper Mihaaru reported that three Maldivians have joined an extremist militant group in Syria.
The policy paper stated that “a limited number of Maldivian men have travelled to fight in various overseas conflicts.”
It suggested that identifying such individuals “is in its nature an arduous task” and acknowledged the need to strengthen investigation processes.
The paper also reiterated the stance that opposition leaders have “exaggerated” the problem in order to “encourage the international community to take actions against the country’s national interest, based on incorrect facts and false allegations.”
It added: “The government condemns such self-serving actions that are undertaken by a small number of individuals, such as appearing in interviews and participating in news and television shows, directed towards tourists travelling to Maldives, whereby adversely impacting an economy majorly based on tourism.”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed had first raised the alarm during an interview with The Independent newspaper in September 2014. The opposition leader claimed that 200 Maldivians were fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The vast majority of the jihadis were ex-military, he claimed.
Days before the interview, a protest march took place in Malé with participants bearing the Islamic State’s flag and calling for the implementation of Islamic Sharia.
Nasheed, who was granted political asylum in the UK last month, had also claimed that radicalised Maldivians occupy “strategic positions” within the police and military and use the security forces for training and recruitment.
But the defence minister said recruitment organisations or networks are not active in the country.
Individuals are suspected of recruitment, Shareef said, but none has been identified so far.
The policy paper meanwhile blamed the internet for enabling terrorist organisations to “easily infiltrate and spread their influence into the Maldives.”
The government also pledged to conduct a baseline study to determine the “scale and severity” of extremism in the Maldives.
Other plans include developing campaigns to raise public awareness, conducting security assessments for seaports, airports, and major infrastructure, and increasing the security of resorts and tourist establishments.
The government will also improve intelligence gathering, work with international partners, and join treaties preventing terrorism such as the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, the paper stated.
The paper stressed that the most vital issue it identified “relates to those financing terrorist activities, and those who facilitate, assist and finance others to travel overseas and travel overseas themselves to participate in conflicts and terrorist activities abroad.”
The new anti-terror law passed last October criminalised travelling abroad with the intent of joining an extremist group or fighting in a foreign war.
The first charges under the law were raised last month against three Maldivians arrested from the Turkey-Syria border.
At least six Maldivians fighting with the Al-Nusra Front are believed to have been killed in battle.
Their deaths were reported by a jihadist media group called Bilad Al Sham. Earlier this month, the group released a YouTube video described as “a small warning” to Maldivian leaders.