Trouble in paradise? Maldives facing mounting terrorist threat

It's supposed to be a rich tourist’s perfect paradise, but increasingly, the Maldives’ credibility as a tropical dream is being overshadowed by the spectre of a terrorist nightmare.

The country famed for white sands and laid back locals is teetering on the edge of a coup with unrest and the threat of Islamic State terrorism set to see paradise turn ugly.

The Maldives is painted as a picture-prefect haven for tourists — many of them rich Western Europeans escaping the winter.

But increasing internal political turmoil and hard line radicalisation has the country at tipping point. There is civil unrest as democratically-elected President Abdulla Yameen continues to lose support, and as more locals leave the Muslim country to fight in the Middle East with Islamic State and other militant outfits.

An estimated 200 Maldivians have fled to join these radical groups, which would make the Maldives the largest foreign contributor of fighters on a per-capita basis. It’s a figure disputed by Yameen, who says the number is closer to 50 — despite the fact his government last week asked India for help sharing intelligence in light of an increasing threat from ISIS.

Whatever the numbers, terrorism experts say the figure is concerning, given the small population.

The Australian reports that if there was to be a single terrorist attack on one of the luxury resorts, the billion dollar tourist industry would topple.

“It makes me very, very scared to see what is happening there,” Azra Naseem, who was born in the Maldives and now specialises in researching Islamist radicalism at Dublin University, told The Australian.

She told BenarNews the government was afraid if the number of people leaving to become foreign fighters became public, it would harm the country’s exclusive tourism industry.

“Rich Western Europeans, towards whom most of the Maldives’ tourism is geared, would not want to book expensive holidays in a country known for the production of jihad,” she said.

“If the tourism industry is damaged, the minuscule percentage of rich Maldivians who control it would suffer, and many of them bankroll the government. So the current regimen downplays the number of jihadists, pretends it is a problem that does not exist and labels anyone who speaks about it a traitor.”

In the past, she said the Maldives, which adopted Islam when Arab traders came to the islands in the 12th century, had never really distinguished between the Shia and Sunni sects of Isla, blending island traditions and Islam.

“And now the only Islam that is being accepted is Saudi Salafism,” she says.

Almost half the Maldivian population of 300,000 lives on the island capital of Male. But unemployment and drug use is high. Few Maldivians work in the resorts, which are on islands uninhabited by locals. They tend to be managed by Europeans and Australians and staffed mainly by tens of thousands of poorly-paid Bangladeshis.

While the government has been diligent in cracking down on political opponents, it has done little to halt the flow of Maldivians heading off to fight for the Islamic State.

There have been whole families who have gone over,” says Naseem. “There has been a Maldivian baby born in Syria.”

When ISIS first emerged, the stories of people going off to fight would be reported in local newspapers as their families proudly talked of their bravery. Naseem says the government seems to have cracked down on the publication of such reports, but “it doesn’t mean that people aren’t still going”.

Terrorism experts say the problem is what happens if some of these Maldivian jihadists-- trained and radicalised on the battlefields of Syria-- come home.

Maldivian jihadists recently posted a video on a website with the pictures of the three most recent Maldivian presidents — including Yameen — depicting the presidents being shot.

The video said it was a warning for the leadership of the Maldives to adopt strict sharia law.

Experts say the country’s 100-plus luxury resorts are ‘soft’ terrorism targets. Meanwhile Yameen is trying to pacify Islamic interests, safeguard his leadership, and protect than economy where 70 percent of the economy is directly reliant on tourism.

The result is building opposition towards him, and the growing threat of a coup.

The Maldives became a democracy in 2008 when Mohamed Nasheed became its first freely-elected leader, ending three decades of autocratic rule under Yameen’s half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Since Yameen came to power in 2013, he has enacted a series of increasingly draconian laws.

Under his rule, hundreds of political activists have faced charges and several senior figures have been given long jail sentences including Nasheed, who was painted as anti-Islamic, and now lives in self-imposed exile in the UK.

Last weekend, reports emerged that a group of exiled opposition leaders — including Nasheed — had met in Sri Lanka planning how to oust him.

Protests have become frequent in the past year amid fears Yameen will return the Maldives to its more repressive past.

Last month, strict defamation laws, with punishments for comments or actions considered insulting to Islam and tighter restrictions on demonstrations came into effect.

Yameen plans to bring back the death penalty — after a 60-year unofficial moratorium — and capital punishment as a way of proving his “Islamic credentials’, a move which has drawn criticism from the UN, the UK, the EU and the US.

While the Maldives relies heavily on its billion-dollar tourism industry, that same industry promotes a feeling of inequality. Some locals resent the wealthy foreigners. Even more resent the uneven distribution of the proceeds of tourism.

The internal power struggle, combined with the increased terrorism fears, haven't hit the tourist trade. Yet.

But on Aug. 25, the BBC announced it had received information that a move to oust the president is expected in the coming weeks.

Public observance of any religion other than Islam is prohibited in the Maldives and importation of non-Islamic religious material is illegal. In the past, foreigners have been expelled for allegedly engaging in religious preaching.

It’s at odds with the tourism brochure picture of tropical paradise perfection of year-round sun, an underwater wonderland, and rich tourists sipping cocktails on the country’s resort islands where alcohol and pork are allowed, bikinis are acceptable dress, and almost anything goes.