For more than an hour, the villagers had stared out into the endless wash of cerulean that surrounded their island, watching as the police boat negotiated the great coral reefs of the northern Alif atoll. The boat had come to take home the neoconservative cleric Ibrahim Fareed, banished to the remote island years earlier from the Maldives capital Male for preaching jihad — after, the story has it, being tortured by having his beard shaved off with chilli sauce.
Except, Fareed didn’t want to be set free — and the villagers had armed themselves to make sure his wishes were respected.
In Fareed’s time on Himandhoo, unknown to authorities in Malé, he had succeeded in transforming it into a Shari’a-governed independent state. The scholar Aishath Velizinee has recorded: The “men grew beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas, and crowned their heads with Arab-style cloth. Women were wrapped in black robes”.
The villagers were determined to remake their island paradise into a new utopia, modelled on medieval rural Arabia. “Goats were imported,” Velizinee wrote, “and fishermen gave up their vocation to become shepherds.” Indian ocean islands are not kind to goats — but when they died, Fareed’s West Asian financiers simply sent more.
Last month, the Maldives government placed security forces on alert across the island — based, according to Indian intelligence officials, on credible information jihadists returning home from Syria are plotting attacks.
In New Delhi, that news has set off alarm bells across the intelligence community. Islamist groups in the near neighbourhood don’t just destabilise their national governments, but are also known to have provided logistical support for jihadists in India.
Fourteen hundred Maldivians, police commissioner Mohamed Hameed
said last month, are estimated to be committed to jihadist ideology —“to the point where they would not hesitate to take the life of the person next to them”. According to Hameed, some 423 Maldivians sought to join the Islamic State’s forces in Syria and Iraq, with 173 succeeding in doing so. In addition, Hameed said, hundreds more travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In population-adjusted terms — the Maldives has just 425,000 citizens — this makes the country the highest single provider of foreign fighters to the Islamic State.
Perhaps over a hundred of these trained fighters and their families have returned home —providing a hard core for a jihadist movement that, the Himandhoo story demonstrates, is near-impossible to police. In 2017, Maldives authorities allege, jihadists even plotted to bomb an airliner — mirroring similar operations in Australia and elsewhere.
Local Islamist communities, the government says, illegally marry underage girls out of court, refuse to vaccinate their children or send them to school as “they consider education to be a Western ideology.” More than 250 cases of parents refusing to send children to school have been reported to the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services.
Long a crossroads for trade across the Indian ocean, Maldives’ traditional culture had relatively relaxed attitudes to personal freedoms. In the 14th century, the great traveller and cleric Muhammad Ibn Battutah recorded his frustration at the disinclination shown by local women to cover up. “I strove to put an end to this practice and commanded the women to wear clothes, but I could not get it done,” Ibn Battutah wrote.
Islamism began to gather force in the Maldives after 2004, after the Indian Ocean tsunami claimed hundreds of lives on the islands, and destroyed entire communities
“Preachers began touring the islands, armed with cash from Islamic charities who had arrived from Pakistan and the Middle East,” said writer and analyst Yameen Rasheed, himself later assassinated by jihadists. “Their message was simple: Maldivians were paying for their sins, and must atone to avoid Allah’s wrath.”
Fareed’s Himandhoo circle soon expanded its ambitions. Along with Mohamed Mazeed of Male, as well as Ali Rashid and Mohammad Saleem, both residents of the Kalaidhoo island in the Laam atoll, Fareed’s student, Ali Shareef plotted to re-establish a Shariah-based state in the Maldives. In 2009, they bombed Chinese tourists visiting Malé’s Sultan Park — mistaking them to be Japanese, investigators later found.
The Maldives jihadist networks developed transnational links early on. In 2008, Maldives national Ali Assham, alleged to have been involved with the Lashkar-e-Taiba network and accused of attacking the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 2005, was deported from Sri Lanka to Maldives. Despite Indian demands, he was never prosecuted.
Ali Jaleel, who in 2008 became the first Maldives citizen to conduct a suicide bombing, had been imprisoned two years earlier on terrorism-related charges, but was released and allowed to leave for Pakistan. There, he killed himself in an attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Mohammed Faseehu, from the Laam atoll island of Dhanbidhoo, and Shifahu Abdul Wahid of the Dhiffushi island in the Kaaf atoll, were killed fighting Indian troops in Kashmir in 2007.
Behind the stories like a society torn by painful cultural conflicts, and fuelled by a toxic cocktail of drugs and crime.
Rise of political Islam Every night, for three nights in 2008, Hassan Shifazee had the same dream, of fighting alongside the Prophet of Islam. Then, his mother Saaba recalled, he “took all his music CDs to the garbage dump, and began learning to recite the Quran”. He stopped playing football, quit partying with friends on the fringes of Male’s drug culture, and married his long-standing girlfriend, Mariam — on condition she also accepted his new religious beliefs.
The young man’s parents were delighted. Then, in 2014, al-Qaeda-affiliated Bilad al-Shaam media reported that Shifazee had died fighting with Islamic State forces near Areeha, also known as Jericho. His wife Mariam and two sons, four-year-old Nuh bin Hassan and two-year-old Umar bin Hassan, are
suspected to have died in fighting early this year.
In early 2012, Shifazee participated in an Islamist mob which a priceless ancient head of Buddha. Ironically, the head was only part of the statue to survive terrified villagers on the island of Thodoo, who attacked it soon after it was discovered by archaeologists in 1959, believing it to be a demonic totem.
Forty-eight percent of the Maldivians who travelled to criminal records and 39 percent were members of Male’s criminal gangs — often linked to violent crime, and narcotics trafficking. Shifazee was among them.
Political Islam was, for many, a means of eradicating the shame associated with lives they came to see as sinful — and discovering a sense of community to replace the collapse of traditional ties of kinship in Male.
Ahmad Munsif, who died in combat in Syria, had multiple drug-related run-ins with police, and in 2012 spent time in prison for attempting to assault a police officer. His time with Islamic clerics, though, led him to clean up. In October 2014, he headed to the Islamic State with his wife, Suma Ali.
But Maldives jihadism has also been enmeshed with the state itself, with politicians often allying with Islamists to target their opponents. Photographs of former gang member Ismail Rahim travelling to Syria as part of a group organised by Adam Shameem — appointed to the country’s Islamic council by President Abdullah Yameen — have surfaced. Azlif Rauf, named as a suspect in writer Ahmad Rilwan’s assassination, fled to Pakistan with the connivance of authorities.
Education, ironically, contributes to the problem. A Class IX Islamic studies textbook, for example, tells students, “performing jihad against people that obstruct the religion” is an obligation. It promises that “Islam ruling over the world is very near.” Promising a caliphate, the textbook says, “this is something that the Jews and Christians do not want. It is why they collaborate against Islam even now”.
Throughout the city, as well as in some of the smaller islands, graffiti calling on young people to join the jihad in Syria is widespread.
Long having based their legitimacy on Islam, Maldives political leaders are beginning to grasp that their opportunistic relationship with jihadists has unleashed forces which threaten to engulf them all.President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government has taken important steps forward by acknowledging the problem, and has shown signs of being serious about cracking down on jihadist networks. The walk back from the abyss, though, will be a long and perilous one.