Uneasy in paradise

Uneasy in paradise

 

PRAVEEN SWAMI

 

The Maldives sees a rising tide of violent Islamism as growing numbers of young men answer the jehadi call.

 

 

 

 


Security forces patrolling the waterfront in Male as part of stepped-up security measures following the Sultan Park bombing.

 

“CONGRATULATIONS,” said the voice on the crackling phone line from Lahore, “your sons have become martyrs for the faith in Kashmir.” Ever since that January 27 call, the families of teenagers Mohammed Faseehu of Dhanbidhoo Island in Laam atoll and Shifahu Abdul Wahid of Dhiffushi Island in Kaaf atoll have been engaged in a desperate search for their children. Despite petitioning both the Maldives government and the Pakistan High Commission in Male, both families have so far drawn a blank. Of Mohamed Niaz, the Lahore-based seminary student from the Maldives who called with news of the teenagers’ death, there is no trace.

But after the September 29 Sultan Park bombing in Male, the first-ever Islamist terror strike in the Maldives, intelligence services across the world – those of India, the United States and the United Kingdom among them – have developed a new interest in the missing men. Investigators have found that the terror cell that carried out the attack had plans to execute more violent attacks in the Maldives and had a network of regional linkages supporting their project.

A rising tide of violent Islamism, the Sultan Park bombing has made clear, has begun to surge over the Maldives. Dozens of local men who fought with jehadi groups across the region have brought their wars home. Faseehu and Wahid travelled to Pakistan in March 2005 to study at a seminary in Karachi. Soon, they moved to the Jamia Salafia Islamia at Faisalabad – a seminary whose alumni include several Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders. It is a leading supplier of Salafi-sect neoconservatism to the Maldives. It now supplies terrorism too.

More than two decades ago, a young seminary student from the Maldives made the same journey as Faseehu and Wahid. Mohamed Ibrahim Sheikh returned to the islands in 1983 armed with the neoconservative traditions he had learned in Pakistan. He railed against the mainstream Shaafi-Sunni traditions that the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom propagates. Soon, Sheikh was banished from Male to the southern atolls.

Though out of sight, Sheikh continued to preach his faith. Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed, a Qatar-educated cleric who was recently arrested for his links with the Sultan Park terrorists, was among his students. Salafi mosques operating without the legal permissions required by Maldives law were set up in Male. On the remote southern island of Himandhoo, in the Alif Alif atoll, Fareed eventually succeeded in building a tiny Sharia-bound mini-state modelled on the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the flow of students to Pakistan continued. Mohamed Halim, who is now vice-chief of administration for Laam atoll, was among the first from the Maldives to study at Jamia Salafia. “There were 23 students from the Maldives there in 1989,” he recalls, in perfect Urdu, “and dozens of others at other seminaries across Pakistan. Some used to go off for training with jehadi groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”

Among Halim’s contemporaries was Fonadhoo Island resident Ali Shareef, who the Maldives police say was among the key figures in the Sultan Park terror cell. Along with Mohamed Mazeed of Male and Ali Rashid and Mohammad Saleem, both residents of Kalaidhoo Island in Laam atoll, Shareef plotted to establish a Sharia-based state in the Maldives. The plot failed, and Gayoom sent an envoy to Jamia Salafia to insist that the seminary watch its students more closely.

It was a futile enterprise: at Jamia Salafia religious education and jehad were organically enmeshed. Shareef’s contemporaries included, for instance, Faisalabad resident Abdul Malik. As head of the Lashkar’s Umm ul-Qura camp between 1998 and 2003, he trained thousands of Lashkar operatives for the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. Operating under the code name Abu Anas, Malik was eventually killed in a 2003 firefight with Indian troops near Sangrama, in northern Jammu and Kashmir.

Several Maldives students continued at Lashkar-run facilities in Pakistan, some during Malik’s tenure as head of Umm ul-Qura. Ahmad Shah, a Male resident now battling a heroin addiction, was put through the daura aam, or basic combat course, at a Lashkar-run camp in the late 1990s. “Many students from the Maldives were there,” he recalls. Others were recruited from the Binori Masjid seminary in Karachi, the institution that gave birth to the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Maulana Masood Azhar. One Maldives national, Ibrahim Fauzee, spent time in Guantanamo Bay after intelligence officials learned of his association with Al Qaeda operatives based in Karachi.

In the run-up to the Sultan Park bombing, evidence emerged that these networks were preparing for more aggressive operations. Ali Shameem and Abdul Latheef Ibrahim, held for their role in the Sultan Park cell, were arrested on charges of preparing to join the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. Soon after, in April 2005, Ibrahim Asif was arrested in Kerala after attempting to source weapons from Thiruvananthapuram. And last year, Male residents Ali Jaleel, Fatimah Nasreen and Aishath Raushan were arrested for preparing to go to Pakistan to receive jehad training.

Although acquitted for want of evidence, Nasreen made little effort to veil her ideological leanings. In a recent interview, she said of Osama bin Laden: “There are things I support, and things I can’t decide on.”

Across the road from Male’s Zikura Masjid, loud Hindi film music blasts out of a store selling high-end audio equipment. No one seems to object: in the Maldives, the sacred and the profane have, for the most part, learned to coexist.

Just around the corner, though, stand the Zeenia Manzil apartments. The Sultan Park cell, police believe, first formed as a prayer group led by Sheikh Fareed, which turned a room inside the building into a makeshift Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith mosque.

Much of the funding for the Sultan Park bombing, investigators in the Maldives believe, came in from Islamist organisations based in Pakistan and the U.K. Some $1,000 was recovered from Sultan Park-accused Moosa Inas, but police say thousands more would have been needed to pay for the terror cell’s frequent international movements, proselytisation activities and recruitment operations.

Investigators are, in particular, seeking to identify a U.K. national of South Asian origin who identified himself to members of the terror cell as “Abu Issa”. Issa is thought to have arrived in the Maldives soon after the tsunami in 2004 armed with several thousand dollars in cash for victims then sheltered on the premises of a textiles factory in Gan.

Moosa Inas, who police say triggered the explosive device that went off at Sultan Park, was among several local Islamists who distributed the relief. Ali Shareef and Mohammad Mazeed, arrested after the Maldives Defence Forces moved against the Islamist base at Himandhoo, also participated in the relief operations. Both men are believed to have earlier participated in an abortive plot to bring about an Islamic revolution.

Recalls Fiyes magazine reporter Ahmed Abdulla, who covered the 2004 disaster: “Basically, Inas and the others made it clear that they would only help those who converted to their particular form of Islam. People were desperate, so many agreed.” Apart from distributing funds to Islamists in the Maldives, intelligence sources said Abu Issa also travelled to Mumbai and Thiruvananthapuram. One meeting between the terror financier and operatives in India is thought to have been held six months ago. Indian intelligence services believe Ibrahim Asif, the Maldives national arrested for seeking to procure weapons in Kerala, may have also been financed by Issa.

Much of the Islamist infrastructure built with these funds is thought to have been controlled by Saeed Ahmed, the Zeenia Manzil Masjid’s leading ideologue. Ahmed, who was a key participant in the 2004 street protests against Gayoom’s regime, left for Pakistan several months ago. His family claims to have no knowledge of his current whereabouts. Like several other Maldives Islamists, Ahmed is thought to have been linked to the Jamia Salafia.

Despite large-scale operations against Islamists and over a hundred arrests linked to the Sultan Park bombing, officials in the Maldives say the terror threat has yet to recede. “I think we still need to be alert,” Maldives Home Minister Abdullah Kamaludeen told Frontline.

Nothing illustrates the changing cultural climate in the Maldives as well as the story of its top rock star, Ali Rameez. Three years ago, Rameez abandoned his place under the spotlight and chose a new life guided by the light of Islam. In a public demonstration of his new convictions, the rock star had thousands of his hit compact discs thrown into the sea off Male and invited his fans to follow Sheikh Fareed’s teachings.

Rameez’s journey represents an ongoing battle between religious neoconservatism and liberalism, a battle Islamists seem to be winning. Residents of the Maldives say the cultural influence of Islamists has become increasingly visible in what used to be an almost ostentatiously westernised society. There are more women wearing headscarves than short skirts or jeans now, while growing numbers of men can be seen sporting full-length beards.

Underpinning this shift is a deep cultural dislocation. Signs of the crisis are not hard to come by. Just three kilometres by two kilometres, Male is home to a welter of street gangs engaging in violent crime and competing to sell drugs. Narcotics use has also grown to disturbing levels. According to a 2006 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, non-governmental organisations have estimated that there are some 8,000 drug users on the islands – an astounding figure, given that their total population is just some 300,000. In the southern-most atoll of Addu, informants told UNICEF that up to 70 per cent of the young men and women used drugs. “Many parents,” says Male journalist Ahmed Nazim Sattar, “are delighted when their children turn to religious groups since it keeps them away from drugs and gangs.”

Bookstores selling the Islamist vision to new recruits have proliferated. One, until recently owned by Rameez’s brother, Ibrahim Rameez, stocks a wide range of Salafi sect literature. Zakir Naik, a controversial Mumbai-based television evangelist whose admirers included 2005 Mumbai serial bombing-accused Feroze Deshmukh and Glasgow suicide bomber Kafeel Ahmed, occupies a place of honour on the shelves.

Gayoom’s complex, ever-changing relationship with Islamists has also driven the rightward turn on the islands. Having risen to power three decades ago on his religious credentials from the famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Gayoom used Islam as a tool of social control, often characterising his critics as apostates or, even worse, Christians. Islamists, often educated at state expense in West Asia and Pakistan, were quick to cash in on the situation. With democratic voices silenced, religious fundamentalism emerged as the principal language of dissent. In December 1999, Islamists launched incendiary attacks on the regime, arguing that the planned millennium celebrations were part of a plot to spread Christianity. In 2003, posters appeared on the walls of a school on Edhyafushi Island praising Osama bin Laden. A Male shop displaying a Santa Claus was attacked in 2005.

Militant Islam now threatened the regime that had nurtured it. But while the government sometimes used coercive means to punish Pakistan-trained Islamists involved in violence, it for the most part chose accommodation. Islamists who accepted the established political order – a group that calls itself “super-Salafis” to distinguish itself from the jehadi “Dots” – were given considerable freedom.

Sultan Park-accused Ali Shareef, for instance, returned to the Maldives despite his abortive plan to overthrow the government and secured an appointment in the judicial service. He used his influence to help build the Islamist mini-state on Himandhoo, which among other things ran a Salafi mosque that rejected state-approved liturgical practices. Police shut down the Himandhoo mosque in 2006, but it was allowed to resume operations within weeks. Ibrahim Shameem, a government supporter on the island who resisted the Islamists, was assassinated two months later in a reprisal killing that went unpunished. And while Islamists and police fought a street battle in June after officials attempted to close down a Salafi mosque in Male, at least two others were operating unhindered. One, investigators have now found, gave birth to the cell that carried out the Sultan Park bombing.

Now under pressure, the Maldives finally appears to be cracking down on the Islamists. Soon after the bombing, troops and the police moved in to clear the mini-state in Himandhoo, and Salafi mosques have been closed down.

Still, trouble could lie ahead. Elections are scheduled for next year, and some analysts believe jehadists will escalate operations to ensure their cadre are not won away by mainstream parties such as the secular Maldivian Democratic Party or the Islamist Adaalath. Intelligence officials are also concerned about the possible use of remote Maldives islands by organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and about the steady flow of funds to local Islamists from organisations in Pakistan, West Asia and the U.K.

Hell, it would appear, is not that far a journey from paradise.•

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