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TA: Terrorist Threat in the Maldives following Mohamed Nasheed’s Attempted Assassination

Team: PACOM

Week of: May 10, 2021


Maldives Parliament Speaker and former President, Mohamed Nasheed[1]


Summary


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) PACOM Team assesses that there is a LIKELY risk of future Islamist-inspired terror attacks in the Maldives that target high-ranking political officials. The Maldives’ former president and current Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed was targeted on May 6, 2021, in a bomb explosion as he left his home in the capital Male. The attack is believed to be linked to Islamic extremism following the arrest of two suspects on May 9. A third man is still wanted by the police, but it is suspected that several other people were involved.[2] The Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) confirmed that an improvised explosive device was used, triggered by remote control.[3] The explosion also injured three bodyguards and two bystanders.[4] CTG believes that further attacks on key political figures in the Maldives and tourists visiting the islands are PROBABLE. CTG considers that the overall terrorist threat in the Maldives is HIGH. The quantity, validity, and cross-verification of the data used to come to this assessment lead to a high degree of confidence in our assessment. The two main assessed motives behind the attack are as follows:

  • First, Nasheed is most likely to have been targeted as a result of his recent counterterrorism efforts in the Maldives.

  • Second, Nasheed could have also been targeted as a result of an embezzlement investigation into previous presidents that he had just uncovered.

Alternatively, he may have been targeted as a result of a coordinated plot involving both Islamist terrorists and domestic politicians who oppose him and his policies. The likelihood of this explanation is lower, because of the specific timings of developments and the greater complexity such collaboration would have required. However, the possibility cannot be discounted entirely, particularly given the historically strong interactions between religious extremists and state officials in the past.[5] The battle between a minority of politicians who are pushing for a secularized, less extreme Maldives, and those who want to maintain the status quo of having an Islamic country, makes future attacks on domestic politicians and foreign tourists a continuing risk.


Assessments


Assassination attempt in response to Nasheed’s public criticism of Islamic extremism


The small size of the Maldives and its reliance on tourism makes terrorist activity a significant cause for concern. The level of terrorist activity in the Maldives is low, but relative to the small size of the islands it has a high rate. The Maldives had one terrorist attack for roughly every 135,000 citizens in 2020 - four attacks,[6] and a population of about 540,000 in 2020.[7] In comparison, India had one terrorist attack for every 2.1 million citizens in 2019 - 655 attacks[8] and a population of 1.38 billion in 2019.[9] Moreover, the Maldives has the highest number per capita globally of foreign fighters who have traveled to fight in Syria.[10] As of December 2019, 173 radicalized Maldivians had traveled to Syria to fight for Al-Qaeda and IS, and another 432 reportedly had attempted to reach Syria.[11] In April 2020, IS published a letter calling on Maldivians to join the jihad and carry out acts of extremism in the Maldives and India.[12] One reason for the Maldives’ high rate of radicalization is the high level of unemployment and poverty. The Maldives has the largest GDP in South Asia, but 95 percent of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 5 percent of the population.[13] As a result, street crime is rampant, and many financially struggling Maldivians may romanticize the idea of a religious state advertised by IS and other Islamist groups that seemingly promises an income, safety, and a duty to serve their religious beliefs. Therefore, the recent attack on Nasheed is likely linked to his public criticism of Islamic extremism as many Maldivians are vulnerable to radicalization due to socio-economic reasons.


However, Nasheed has also been campaigning to prosecute politicians who benefited from the embezzlement of more than USD $79 million from tourism funds in 2014 and 2015, including former President Abdulla Yameen.[14] The uncovered embezzlement led to the defeat of Yameen in the 2018 election, which saw the victory of Nasheed’s close ally Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.[15] Just hours before the attack, Nasheed had posted on Twitter that he had obtained a list of all the people who had benefited from the embezzlement scandal, which may have prompted the attackers to strike. However, it is more likely that the attack was premeditated by Islamic extremists.[16] It is possible that the attack was a collaboration between the Islamists and the politicians implicated in the embezzlement scandal. Although both groups have a motive for the attack, it is unlikely that they could have collaborated considering Nasheed’s Twitter post was made only hours before the attack, as its logistical organization would have required more time than they had.


Previous terrorist attacks in the Maldives


Islamic extremism proliferated following a tsunami in the Maldives in 2004, which attracted Pakistan-based organizations in the recovery period that also resulted in the importation of Islamic fundamentalism.[17] Rehabilitation and relief programs were provided by organizations, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) affiliated Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, and subsequently recruited Maldivians to travel to Pakistan to study in madrassas.[18] Radicalization has since continued to develop in the Maldives, ingraining such sentiments in its society. This has become evident with the recent IS-claimed attacks. In February 2020, three attackers, reportedly connected to IS, stabbed and injured three people in Hulhumalé, Maldives.[19] In March 2020, a luxury villa was set on fire in Noonu Atoll, again suspected to have been perpetrated by IS extremists.[20] In April 2020, a terrorist attack occurred on boats off the coast of Mahibadhoo, a small town in central Maldives.[21] It is believed that almost 300 Maldivians have joined various terrorist groups, making about 1 in every 1,500 Maldivians a terrorist fighter.[22] The large number of radicalized citizens in the Maldives makes the attack on Nasheed likely to be the result of his public criticism of Islamic extremism. This landscape also points directly towards likely future Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks hitting the islands in the short and medium term.


Prior to 2020, the first significant terrorist attack occurred in 2007 when an IED exploded at Sultan Park in Malé, injuring 12 tourists.[23] Violent extremism has since been evident with the murders of prominent figures. These include Ibrahim Shaheem, an official of the Island Office Himandhoo, in 2006; Afrasheem Ali, a religious scholar, in 2013; Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist, in 2014; and Yameen Rasheed, a blogger, in 2017.[24] This pattern of targeting prominent public figures for seemingly domestic policy purposes mirrors the recent attack on Nasheed, therefore supporting the argument that he was targeted for domestic political reasons. Other prominent political figures are likely to be targeted in assassination-style terror attacks in the future.


Counterterrorism efforts in the Maldives


Prior to 2015, the Maldives’ counter-terrorism efforts were largely disjointed and arguably unorganized. This was until the 'Prevention of Terrorism Act' was passed and ratified in that year. The new act marked a major update and enabled more robust and unified efforts against terrorism and violent extremism. The primary body responsible for counterterrorism efforts in the Maldives is the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC). The organization has been active since 2016 after former President Abdulla Yameen decided to unify all of the nation’s counterterrorism operations under one banner. While the NCTC acts as the primary agency for integrating and analyzing all intelligence pertaining to terrorism and violent extremism acquired by all partner agencies and organizations, it is the responsibility of “line agencies” to act on the NCTC’s intelligence and carry out arrests. The NCTC also helps coordinate collaboration with international partners. The Maldives have collaborated closely with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) and is a member of the Asia Pacific Group (APG). It also holds regional partnerships with the American, Australian, Indian and Japanese Governments who provide financial assistance and/or policing and intelligence resources. In fact, Australia’s Federal Police has already dispatched a specialist team to assist in the investigation of the attack. All of these policy developments contextualize a wider recent crackdown on terrorism in the Maldives. Whereas radical Salafist preachers were free to preach on the islands in previous years, the government, including Nasheed, has since taken considerable steps to transform the Maldives’ counterterrorism landscape and respond to the terrorist threat. Therefore, the likelihood of future Islamist attacks targeting the islands in retaliation to counterterrorism measures is elevated.

Nasheed’s Political Life


There are also several events in Nasheed’s political life and career that could be linked to the attack and provide explanations for why he specifically was targeted. Mohamad Nasheed has been described by former foreign minister, Ahmed Shaheed, as “the most loved and loathed man in the Maldives.” This is mainly due to his polarizing political life and career. Therefore, despite no motive being established with certainty, numerous reasons could be behind the motivation for the attack. Nasheed was the country's first-ever democratically elected president but was forced to resign due to a coup d'etat led by the Maldivan military and police force. However, it is specifically his staunch support of democracy, secular views, and his outspokenness on religious extremism that has caused controversy and backlash within some circles. During his career, he often drew criticism from Islamist groups for his purportedly anti-Muslim agenda, and social media accounts known to be sympathetic to Islamist extremist groups have labeled Nasheed an apostate who deserves to be killed.[25] The attack also took place after the government announced restrictions to Ramadan rituals due to the growing concern over COVID-19 in the country. This could have provoked extremist groups to take action against a man already perceived as an enemy of Islam. Furthermore, Ramadan has been a precarious time in the Maldives before with the nation’s first official attack taking place during the Ramadan period in 2007. Although it is important to note, given Nasheed’s tenacity to fight against any threat to Maldivian democracy, it would be remiss to limit the potential motives to strictly religious causes. Nasheed has also been very active in increasing environmental regulation for industry and is currently heading an investigation into the corruption of several fellow politicians who are facing embezzlement charges. The threat of attack towards other outspoken political figures in the Maldives cannot be ruled out.


Future Implications


If more attacks take place, tourism in the Maldives will likely be negatively affected just as it was about to recover due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to negatively impact locals who are heavily reliant on the industry for their livelihoods, and who have already been hit hard economically as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Given the link between socio-economic marginalization among Maldivian young men and their turning to violent extremism, prolonged COVID-19 restrictions on foreign travel are likely to increase the risk of future attacks. This period of limited international travel may also aid the counterterrorism efforts by the Maldives law enforcement to reduce the number of people traveling to Syria to fight for IS. Moreover, parallel to the radicalization process driven by recovery organizations in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the COVID-19 pandemic may strain the Maldives’ socio-economic conditions and fuel radicalization. However, in the short term travel restrictions will make it harder for Maldivians to join Jihadi groups overseas and for foreign terrorist countries to return to the islands. Considering Nasheed’s reputation and political history, this attempt on his life is highly likely to only reaffirm his policy stance on cracking down on Islamist extremism in the Maldives. As a consequence, a greater number of attempted attacks will likely be foiled. However, given that many of the external environmental factors that have so far promoted ease of radicalization of many young Maldivian men remain in place, these counterterrorism efforts are expected to have only a limited degree of efficacy. Retaliatory future attacks can be expected in the short to medium term.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Nasheed inaugurates the People's Majlis 2021 by the President’s Office, Maldives, licensed under Public Domain

[2] ‘I’m good’, says former Maldives president Nasheed after surviving bomb blast, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/im-good-says-former-maldives-president-nasheed-after-surviving-bomb-blast-2021-05-08/

[3] Maldives steps up hunt for suspects after bomb attack on ex-president, Channel News Asia, May 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/maldives-former-president-mohamed-nasheed-bomb-attack-14768574

[4] Who tried to kill Maldives’ ex-president Mohamed Nasheed?, Al Jazeera, May 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/8/who-tried-to-kill-mohamed-nasheed

[5] Maldives: Trouble In Paradise, Al Jazeera, October 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/program/episode/2019/10/31/maldives-trouble-in-paradise

[6] Maldives: Assessment 2021, South Asia Terrorism Portal, April 2021, https://www.satp.org/terrorism-assessment/maldives

[7] Maldives Population, Worldometer, May 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/maldives-population/

[8] Number of terrorist attacks in 2019, by country, Statista, March 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/236983/terrorist-attacks-by-country/

[9] India Population, Worldometer, May 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/india-population/

[10] The Maldives – An Unlikely ISIS Haven, Global Risk Insights, March 2021, https://globalriskinsights.com/2021/03/the-maldives-an-unlikely-isis-haven/

[11] Islamic State-Inspired Knife Attack Exposes the Vulnerability of the Maldives, The Jamestown Foundation, February 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/islamic-state-inspired-knife-attack-exposes-the-vulnerability-of-the-maldives/

[12] Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism, Counter Extremism Project, May 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/maldives

[13] Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism, Counter Extremism Project, May 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/maldives

[14] Who tried to kill Maldives’ ex-president Mohamed Nasheed?, Al Jazeera, May 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/8/who-tried-to-kill-mohamed-nasheed

[15]Ibid.

[16]Ibid.

[17] Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism, Counter Extremism Project, May 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/maldives

[18] Ibid.

[19] Maldives: Assessment 2021, South Asia Terrorism Portal, April 2021, https://www.satp.org/terrorism-assessment/maldives

[20] Ibid.

[21] Islamic State Terror in the Maldives as COVID-19 Arrives, The Diplomat, April 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/islamic-state-terror-in-the-maldives-as-covid-19-arrives/

[22] Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism, Counter Extremism Project, May 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/maldives

[23] Islamic State Terror in the Maldives as COVID-19 Arrives, The Diplomat, April 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/islamic-state-terror-in-the-maldives-as-covid-19-arrives/

[24] Ibid.

[25] Who tried to kill Maldives’ ex-president Mohamed Nasheed?, Al Jazeera, May 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/8/who-tried-to-kill-mohamed-nasheed

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