The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives has accused an Indian newspaper of defaming its leader and the Maldivian government in a story about a radicalised Maldivian family who evaded the authorities to join Islamic State.
The Mumbai Mirror reported Friday that a 100-hour Indo-US operation failed to stop the family of 12 from traveling to the Middle East last December after transiting in Bangalore.
The paper raised fears of the Maldives turning into “a hotbed of extremism” and “a jihadi outpost,” and suggested former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom made Maldivians “more conservative and vulnerable to religious extremism” during his 30-year reign.
Reacting furiously to the article – which was widely shared by Maldivians on social media – the PPM claimed it contained “factual inaccuracies and fabrications,” and called it “an attack on the country of Maldives, its peace-loving citizens, and its authorities.”
“The fact that it is also apparently intended to create hatred and fear towards our visitor-friendly country cannot be taken lightly,” the PPM said in an English statement on Saturday.
The article made “false allegations specifically targeted at defaming [Gayoom]” – which amounted to “an amateurish attempt at character assassination” – despite the former president’s efforts to promote a moderate form of Islam and fight “the global scourge of Islamic radicalisation.”
“President Gayoom is a globally recognised moderate Islamic scholar,” the statement continued, referring to a recent lecture at an Indian think tank where he “unequivocally branded ISIS and similar groups as un-Islamic.”
The Mumbai Mirror article accused Gayoom of introducing Salafi Islam to the Maldives and sending students to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
“Though Gayoom is no longer in power, Abdulla Yameen, his half-brother has continued in his footsteps,” it added.
The flow of Maldivian militants has been a sore topic for the government, which has downplayed the threat of extremism while accusing the opposition of endangering the economy with “exaggerated” claims.
In early February, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon told CNN that Maldivians leaving for the Middle East is “not a hugely growing issue” while Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer lambasted “scare stories of religious extremists threatening tourists” at the opening of the ITB Berlin fair last month.
The opposition claims as many as 200 Maldivians have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq – which would make the country the highest per capita supplier of jihadis – but government officials have offered various lower estimates.
The Mumbai Mirror cited an estimate of 150 Maldivians fighting with extremist organisations. Police Commissioner Ahmed Areef “refused to talk about the growing support for IS in his country,” it said.
News of the 12 Maldivians who fled to join IS first broke in late January.
Local media reported that the radicalised family was from the island of Kodey in Gaaf Alif atoll. They included seven siblings – three of whom traveled with their spouses – as well as a two-year-old and a six-month-old toddler.
According to the Mumbai Mirror, US intelligence agencies had alerted their Indian counterparts after the family entered India on medical visas.
The Maldivian recruits were of special interest to the US because they included a pilot certified by the Miami Federal Aviation Administration Department.
The family was last tracked to Istanbul on January 13, where they are believed to have dumped their phones before crossing the border to Syria.
The Mumbai Mirror claimed five young men from the family were radicalised by the Malé-based NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf.
“The radical Maldivians now look at us as kafir harbi (the warring infidel nation). Indian intelligence agencies feel that the radicals trained by ISIS will only return to harm us and inflict violence,” a senior official, who “works closely with US agencies,” was quoted as saying.
The PPM, however, went on to say that the Maldivian government under both Gayoom brothers “has always worked closely with Indian authorities in tackling what is now also a regional problem.”
The government has touted anti-terrorism legislation that criminalises leaving the Maldives to fight in foreign civil wars and the establishment of a counter-terrorism centre as steps taken to stem the flow of jihadis.
Last month, three Maldivians were arrested and extradited from Turkey while attempting to illegally cross the border into Syria.
But critics have said harsh penalties are not enough, calling on the government to undertake awareness programmes to address radicalisation, and establish early intervention and rehabilitation programmes.
In mid-March, OGN Syria interviewed three young Maldivian men fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra Front. At least six Maldivians fighting with the Al-Nusra Front are believed to have been killed in battle.