A family of four who reportedly left the Maldives last week to join the civil war in Syria has returned after their intentions were discovered.
Mohamed Sodiq, 28, from the island of Foakaidhoo in Shaviyani atoll, departed last week with his wife and two children, aged six and three. Their extended family reported the case to the police.
Sodiq flew to Sri Lanka and then Bangkok, where he was due to travel to Syria. However, he returned to the Maldives from Bangkok this week.
A member of the Foakaidhoo island council told The Maldives Independent that Sodiq abandoned his plans when his departure was reported in local media. Sodiq was also identified by name in the media reports.
“They are in Malé now. But they contacted family in Foakaidhoo. They said they returned because of media reports and denied ever intending to leave for Syria,” the island councillor said.
A police spokesperson said the case is under investigation. Sodiq has not been arrested.
Hundreds of Maldivians are thought to be fighting with militant groups in the Middle East, including the Jabhat al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS).
Home minister Umar Naseer first acknowledged the problem in December, claiming only seven Maldivians were fighting overseas. However, in January, commissioner of police Hussein Waheed said the figure was closer to 50.
Local media reports since then suggest a steady outflow of Maldivians traveling to Syria and Iraq for jihad, including entire families, immigration officers, members of Malé’s criminal gangs and hospital workers.
Some maintain regular contact with their families through social media. At least seven have reportedly been killed in battle.
The government recently submitted new anti-terrorism legislation to the parliament with jail terms of up to 20 years for attempting to leave the Maldives to fight in a foreign civil war.
But critics say harsh penalties will not be a sufficient deterrent, calling on the government to undertake awareness programmes to address radicalisation, and to establish early intervention and rehabilitation programmes.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has also criticised President Abdulla Yameen’s administration over its inaction to combat rising extremism in the country.
When reports of Maldivians fighting and dying in the Middle East surfaced in May last year, Yameen said he was unaware of the issue, while the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives accused the MDP of spreading false information to bring the Maldives into disrepute.
In September 2014, some 200 people staged a march in Malé carrying the black flags of IS and calling for the enforcement of Islamic Shariah in the Maldives.
In July 2014, the Islamic ministry urged young Maldivians to refrain from participating in foreign wars. Then-Islamic minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said Islam does not permit the shedding of a fellow Muslim’s blood, and called on Maldivians to serve their own parents, families and country.
The state’s Fiqh academy meanwhile issued a fatwa (legal opinion) last week reiterating that traveling overseas for jihad is not permissible in Islam.
“Travelling to Islamic countries where groups belonging to Islamic countries create havoc and instability in the name of jihad will open avenues for enemies of Muslims to interfere in the affairs of Muslim countries.” the fatwa read.
In May last year, the US State Department in the 2013 country report on terrorism said the Maldivian government believes that funds are being raised in the country to support terrorism abroad. However, the Maldives Monetary Authority subsequently denied the claims.