Three Maldivian men have been arrested in Turkey while attempting to illegally cross over into Syria and join extremist militant groups in the war-torn country.
A police spokesperson told The Maldives Independent that the Turkish authorities extradited the three men earlier this month.
“The three individuals now remain in police custody on suspicion of attempting to participate in a foreign civil war,” the media official said, declining to provide further details.
The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act criminalises the act of leaving the Maldives to fight in a foreign war. The offence is punishable by a jail term of between 10 to 20 years.
Local media has identified the three extradited men as Munnawar Abdulla from Thaa atoll Gaadhiffushi, Ahmed Latheef from Laamu atoll Maamendhoo and Ahmed Suhail from Gaafu Dhaalu atoll Rathafandhoo.
The opposition-aligned station Raajje TV, reported yesterday that the men were arrested at the Turkish border while trying to cross a mud ditch dug between border fences as a buffer to prevent illegal crossings.
According to Raajje TV, the group comprised of five Maldivians, out of whom only one had successfully crossed the border while the others got stuck in the ditch.
Of the four men arrested by Turkish police, an individual identified as Anas remains incarcerated in Turkish prison.
The group had initially travelled to Colombo on February 14, after which they travelled to Turkey via Dubai.
The opposition claims as many as 200 Maldivians have left the country to fight in the Middle East – the highest per capita number of jihadis in the world – but the government disputes the figure, with various ministers offering estimates ranging from 35 to 100.
Last week, 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.
At the UN General Assembly debate on Global Counter Terrorism Strategy last month, the Maldives representative touted the anti-terror legislation and the 2014 Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act as “concrete actions [taken] to curb the stem of foreign terrorist fighters.”
But critics have said harsh penalties are not enough, and have called on the government to undertake awareness programs to address radicalization, and establish early intervention and rehabilitation programmes.
In a statement delivered at the opening of the ITB Berlin fair earlier this month, Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer lambasted “scare stories of religious extremists threatening tourists”.
Zameer acknowledged the problem of “home-grown terrorism,” but stressed that it is not unique to the Maldives.
When reports of Maldivians fighting and dying in the Middle East first surfaced in May 2014, President Abdulla Yameen downplayed the issue. The ruling party at the time accused the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party 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 the IS and calling for the enforcement of Islamic Shariah in the Maldives.
Home Minister Umar Naseer first acknowledged the problem in December 2014, saying only seven Maldivians was fighting abroad. In January last year, then-Commissioner of Police Hussein Waheed put the number at 50.
The Islamic Ministry in July 2014 urged young Maldivians to refrain from participating in foreign wars, with the Fiqh Academy issuing a fatwa (legal opinion) prohibiting the participation of Maldivians in foreign civil wars.
“Travelling to Islamic countries where groups belonging to Isla mic 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 issued last August read.
In May last 2015, 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 denied the claim in a subsequent press release.