The government has identified some individuals suspected of recruiting Maldivians for militant extremist groups fighting in the Syrian civil war, Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar revealed today.
“They are under surveillance, their whereabouts are being monitored,” Shareef told The Maldives Independent.
But the government will not use the anti-terrorism law to electronically tag the suspects until “enough evidence” is gathered, he added.
No arrests have been made so far.
Last week, the government unveiled a first state policy on combating terrorism and violent extremism, promising “swift measures” against Maldivians involved with terror groups.
The current administration 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.
Shareef said intelligence gathered by the police and military suggests that only 49 Maldivians are fighting in Syria.
The defence minister also accused the opposition of “exaggerating the issue of jihadi recruitment,” and threatened to take action against opposition leaders.
“The police are working on taking action against them, and we will also try to confirm their allegations,” he said.
During the parliament’s debate on the counter-terrorism policy earlier this week, opposition MPs had questioned the government’s sincerity in tackling jihadi recruitment and criticised the lack of detail in the counter-terrorism policy.
Some MPs also implied the government’s involvement in recruitment and radicalisation, a claim the defence minister denied.
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.”
Shareef meanwhile went on to argue that anti-Islamic ideologies could also be considered radical or extreme.
“We define radicalism in two ways. Those who are laadheenee [secular or anti-Islam] is one of them,” he said.
Asked to elaborate on his use of the word laadheenee, Shareef said it refers to “people who go against Islam in a 100 percent Muslim country and mocks Islam and the Prophet.”
On the other end of the spectrum, he continued, Islamic radicals are “those who inflate small matters in religion and become extremist.”
Asked if the government fears Maldivians returning from Syria could commit acts of terrorism, Shareef said: “There has been no such threat yet, but the police and the MNDF [the Maldives National Defence Force] are being trained, in case something happens.”
He added: “As you know, we are doing a study on counter-terrorism, we will also be doing a research on how people become radicalised in the Maldives. Police and MNDF are being trained, in case something happens.”
Other plans outlined in the policy paper 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.
It 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-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat 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.