Exclusive: From the white sand beaches to the arid Syrian desert, young Maldivians swell the ranks of Islamist terrorists
A demonstration demanding Sharia in the Maldives. Photograph: (Others)
Maldivians are in the thick of action in the Syrian theatre of war. They swell the ranks of both the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
Yes, there are citizens leaving one of the most beautiful places on earth to fight and often die in the harsh deserts of West Asia, thousands of kilometres from home.
There are no official figures, but according to former Maldivian President Nasheed, now living in exile in London, there could be as many as 200 Maldivians fighting in Syria. The figure is also cited in a report that appeared on the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor. If this number is true, the Maldives turns out to be the largest per capita contributor of foreign fighters to the Syrian jihad.
The current government, after avoiding the issue for quite some time, was forced to admit during a parliament session in 2014 that there were surely more than seven Maldivians who are fighting in Syria of which strong proofs exist. Six of them have already died.
In April 2015, the Maldives' Counter-Terrorism Centre said the figure was most likely in double digits.
The contention over numbers could be attributed to political rivalries. But what is absolutely certain is that some Maldivians are fighting in foreign terrorist organisations and that these groups think that the archipelago is a land for recruitment and possible action in future. This is a threat the paradise islands have never experienced before.
A recent propaganda video, published by the Jabat al-Nusra's BiladAlSham media arm, shows flames burning prominent Maldivian statesmen and a man shooting at pictures of the last three presidents of the country.
Former Maldives' president is shown burning in a Jabat al-Nusra propaganda video. (Others)
Another BiladAlSham video shows a man in Syria's Idlib province who recalls the stories of fighters and thanks them for their contribution to jihad - the holy war.
"And from them particularly we will remember our brother Abdul Hassan al Maldifi (Rahimahullah)," shows the subtitle in English. The Maldivian terrorist is portrayed as a hero for blowing himself up in an explosive-laden vehicle. His action helped the terrorists enter Idlib.
Maldives national Abdul Hassan al Maldifi appearing in an al-Nusra propaganda video. (Others)
Abdul Hassan al Maldifi appears also in a second propaganda video in the company of other Maldivian nationals.
Both videos are translated into English and Dhivehi, the official Maldivian language.
On The Ground media, an organisation managed by controversial Syria-based American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, also shows the presence of Maldivians within the al-Nusra ranks. He was able to spend time with some Maldivians fighting in Syria, exploring their motivations and daily lives. One of the series of videos show Abu Younes with his one-year-old daughter.
Maldivian foreign fighter Abu Younes in Syria with his one-year-old daughter. (Others)
While the majority of Maldivian terrorists seems to be fighting for the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra), there are evidences of at least one of them fighting with the Islamic State. He appears on an obituary published by Haqqu media centre which describes him as "the first among the few Maldivian muhajideen (one who fights the holy war) to Dawlat Al-Islam (IS)."
Screenshot of Haqqu Media Center showing a young Maldivians fighting for the Islamic State. (Others)
The presence of young Maldivians within terrorist ranks is probably linked to a wave of radicalisation that the country is undergoing.
There is an increasing presence of small religious organisations and radical preachers, mostly educated in Saudi Arabia, who are spreading a Wahhabi version of Islam in the archipelago.
Wahhabism, a school of Sunni Islam, whether one shares its views or not, may not necessarily be a problem per se. It is one of the different interpretations of Islam and any Muslim is free to decide to embrace it. But while one can not say that Wahhabism is the source of terrorism, it is difficult to deny that all main terrorist Islamist organisations draw extensively from its doctrine, especially when it comes to justifying and legitimising violence in the name of jihad.
But what did pave the way for Wahabbism, a foreign import, in the traditionally tolerant and moderate Maldives?
"One of the main reasons behind radicalisation is that there is no religious alternative," says Azra Naseem, radicalisation expert and postdoctoral research fellow at Dublin City University.
The country does not have different Islamic schools debating and challenging each other's interpretations, there is no religious confrontation. This adds to the fact that the population follows Sunni Islam entirely, a common ground which helps the many Saudi or Saudi-educated Wahhabi preachers to gain ground.
Saudi Arabia is also the present Maldivian government's major ally in preserving the archipelago's Sunni identity: the Kingdom is funding mosques, distributing massive quantities of dates during Ramzan, sending scholars for conferences and providing scholarships to students from Maldives. It has also become the biggest economic partner and is pouring millions of dollars into Male's coffers.
All factors come together to help the Saudi Wahhabi doctrine to penetrate and become an authoritative voice in the Maldivian society.
This does not mean that the archipelago has suddenly become an intolerant, extremist and unsafe country. But it is surely going through a churn. A significant part of the population remains open and keeps practising a tolerant version of Islam.
The shift is clearly visible though. Walking on the street of Malé, one can nowadays see shops selling so called 'halal' perfumes, 'halal' literature, all sort of 'halal' goods which have never been there before. Speaking to WION, a Maldivian in his thirties, who prefers to remain anonimous for safety concerns, recalled how, during his school days, the word 'Wahhabi' was often used as an insult. Now it is used as a norm, as a common word which describes a category of believers.
The Maldivian government takes little action to tackle radicalisation. Neither does it encourage a culture of debate. For instance, inviting prominent Muslim scholars promoting other versions of Islam could be one of the many ways to counter the problem.
Instead, the government often dismisses radicalisation as a mere political accusation levelled at Male by foreign powers to discourage tourists from visiting. The real aim, apparently, is to topple current President Abdulla Yameen.
Living in denial means letting the problem grow. More young Maldivians risk the prospect of being lured by Islamist terrorist groups. This is not just a threat for Maldives but also the lands where these misguided young men may travel to.