New Delhi: Authorities in the Maldives are actively working to repatriate families of Maldivian citizens who joined foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Anwar Naeem, the Director-general of the National Re-integration Centre (NRC), of Maldives, stated on Monday that efforts are underway to bring back a group of Maldivians from Syria, but withheld specific numbers until the conclusion of the operation on Wednesday.
The Maldives has witnessed over 100 of its citizens travel to Syria, with approximately 70 reported to have died in the conflict. The UN reports that over 50 Maldivian nationals, mostly widows and children of fighters, currently reside in Syrian camps, lacking access to essential services like food, water, healthcare, and education. Last year, the Maldives repatriated a family of five.
Those returning from conflict zones are rehabilitated and undergo deradicalization at the NRC in K. Himmafushi, with a mandatory stay of at least one year as per Maldivian law.
The issue of Maldivian "Foreign Fighters" first gained attention in 2015 with the death of Abu Turab, a 44-year-old Maldivian, reported by social media that he was representing Maldivians in Syria. This was soon followed by news of Abu Nuh's death, a young man from Male’. Since then, dozens of Maldivian citizens have been reported dead in Syria. Around 200 Maldivians, including families, were believed to have been influenced by extremist ideologies and left for Syria.
Researchers point to internet preaching as a key factor in radicalising Maldivian youth. Videos circulating between 2015 and 2018 depicted Maldivians seemingly content under Islamic rule in Syria, further influencing the ideology of these individuals.
Amid its picturesque scenery, the Maldives grapples with a growing extremist threat. This island paradise, once renowned for its tranquil beaches and coral reefs, now faces the challenges of repatriating Maldivian foreign fighters and their families, a task fraught with complexities and implications for both domestic and regional stability.
The shift towards extremism in the Maldives, a Sunni Muslim-majority nation, gained momentum under President Abdullah Yameen's rule from 2013 to 2018. His tenure saw a surge in radical activities, with several liberal bloggers becoming targets of violence. The abduction of Ahmad Rilwan in 2014 and the murder of Yameen Rasheed in 2017 highlighted the increasing influence of radical elements.
During this period, a significant number of Maldivian youths left for Syria, drawn by radical ideologies and the allure of fighting in foreign conflicts. Official figures suggest over 170 succeeded in joining groups like banned SIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, with many more attempting to leave.
At one time, the Maldives faced a critical point, recording the highest per capita number of ISIS radicals globally. The situation was exacerbated by Salafis holding government positions, raising concerns about the extent of extremist penetration into national institutions.
The current government that replaced a moderate government, realignment in foreign policy, particularly its closer ties with China and Pakistan, further complicates the religious and political landscape.
The growing influence of conservative forces, including those linked to former President Yameen and Now President Dr Mohamed Muizzu, reflects a shift towards more rigid interpretations of Sharia law.
The "India Out" campaign, advocating for reduced Indian influence, underscores the geopolitical dynamics at play. India has historically been vocal against ISIS and Al Qaeda in the region.
As the Maldives repatriates its citizens from foreign conflict zones, concerns mount over the potential influence of hardliners and the resurgence of fundamentalism in Maldives. This move, coupled with Muizzu's aim to pivot away from India and towards China, underscores the complex interplay of domestic and international factors shaping the Maldives' future.
The task of repatriating foreign fighters and their families presents a complex web of challenges for the Maldives and other nations. It is a process fraught with international, legal, and security considerations, reflecting a broader global concern.
Many countries in Asia have hesitated to repatriate their citizens who joined conflicts abroad, fearing the spread of radical ideologies and their influence on local communities.
International cooperation is crucial in this effort, ensuring the repatriation process is both secure and sensitive to the concerns of all involved nations. This collaboration is essential in mitigating potential security risks posed by returning fighters.
Returnees from extremist groups may have been indoctrinated with violent ideologies and exposed to conflict. The Maldives, along with countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and some coastal states of India, has seen an uptick in ISIS influence within its borders. The formation of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in South Asia epitomises ISIS's ongoing attempts to expand its reach.
The challenge of reintegrating Maldivian foreign fighters and their families is multifaceted. It requires a balance of humanitarian considerations and security concerns. President Maldives Dr Mohamed Muizzu faces the task of navigating this delicate situation, with a reliance on international intelligence networks, particularly those from neighbouring South Asian countries, being crucial.
The experience of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, where intelligence warnings were reportedly not adequately heeded, underscores the importance of vigilance. Effective rehabilitation, reintegration programs, regional cooperation, and understanding the drivers of radicalization are key components of a successful response.
Monitoring and countering extremist ideologies within the Maldives is vital to prevent the resurgence of fundamentalism in the region. The world watches as the Maldives confronts this intricate issue. The nation's approach will significantly impact the returnees, their families, and the broader trajectory of the Maldives as it strives to maintain its traditional values amidst extremist challenges. The government's decisions will shape the country's future and influence the region's stability and security.