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The Jihad in Paradise

Guest Writer: Praveen Swami
Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau, Frontline, New Delhi

“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, 2007, call, the families of teenagers Mohammed Faseehu, from the Laam atoll island of Dhanbidhoo, 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. There is no trace of Mohamed Niaz, a Lahore-based seminary student from the Maldives who called with news of their death.

After the September 29, 2007, Sultan Park bombing in Male, the first-ever Islamist terror strike in the Maldives, however, intelligence services across the world – those of India, USA and UK among them – have developed a new interest in the missing men. A rising tide of violent Islamism, the Sultan Park bombings suggest, has begun to surge across the Maldives. Dozens of local men who have fought in Islamist campaigns across the region are now preparing to bring home their war. Experts, and many Maldives residents, fear the gathering storm could tear apart the island paradise.

Faseehu and Wahid had travelled to Pakistan in March, 2005, to study at a seminary in Karachi. Soon, they moved to the Jamiya Salafia Islamia at Faisalabad – a seminary whose alumni include several al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) leaders. It is also a leading supplier of the Maldives’ large-scale import of Salafi neo-conservatism – and now, terrorism.

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 neo-conservative Salafism he had learned in Pakistan. He railed against the mainstream Sha’afi-Sunni traditions the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom propagated. Soon, Sheikh was banished from Male to the southern atolls. Out of sight, though, Sheikh continued to preach his faith. Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed, the Qatar-educated cleric now held for his links with the Sultan Park terrorists, was among those who were influenced by Ibrahim Shiekh. Salafi mosques operating without the legal permission required by Maldives law were set up in Male. On the remote southern island of Himandhoo, in the Alif Alif atoll, Fareed was eventually to build a tiny Shariah-bound mini-state modelled on the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the flow of students to Pakistan continued. Mohamed Halim, now vice-chief of administration for the 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 jihadi groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.” Among Halim’s contemporaries was Fonadhoo island resident Ali Shareef, who has now been held for his alleged role in the Sultan Park bombing. Along with Mohamed Mazeed of Male, as well as Ali Rashid and Mohammad Saleem, both residents of Kalaidhoo island in Laam atoll, Shareef plotted to establish a Shariah-based state in the Maldives. The plot failed, but President Gayoom sent an envoy to Jamia Salafia to insist the seminary watched its students more closely.

It was a futile enterprise: at the seminary, religious education and jihad were organically enmeshed. Shareef’s contemporaries included, for example, Faislabad resident Abdul Malik. As head of the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Umm-ul-Qura camp between 1998 and 2003, he trained thousands of LeT operatives for the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Operating under the code-name Abu Anas, Malik was eventually killed in a 2003 firefight with Indian troops near Sangrama, in northern J&K
Several Maldives students continued at LeT-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-e-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 which 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.
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, now held for their role in the terror cell, were arrested on charges of preparing to join the jihad in J&K. In April 2005, Ibrahim Asif was arrested in Kerala after attempting to source weapons from Thiruvanathapuram. And in 2006, Male residents Ali Jaleel, Fatimah Nasreen, and Aishath Raushan were arrested for preparing to go to Pakistan to receive jihad training. Although acquitted for want of evidence, Nasreen made little effort to veil her ideological leanings. In one recent interview, she said of Osama bin-Laden: “there are things I support, and things I can’t decide on”.

Across the road from the 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 learned to coexist: Nasreen’s views are those of a small minority. Just around the corner, though, stand the Zeenia Manzil apartments, until recently the centre of Islamist efforts to change the local balance. Inside a makeshift, one-room mosque in the building, Police investigators say, a group of local residents linked to the ultra-right Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis sect planned the Sultan Park bombing. Much of the funding for the Sultan Park bombing, investigators in the Maldives believe, came in from Islamist organisations based in Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Some USD 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, proselytization activism, and recruitment operations. Investigators are, in particular, seeking to identify a United Kingdom national of South Asian origin, who identified himself to members of the Sultan Park terror cell as ‘Abu Issa’. Believed to be of South Asian descent, ‘Abu Issa’ is thought to have arrived in the Maldives soon after the 2005 Tsunami, armed with several thousand dollars in cash for victims then sheltered in the premises of a factory in Gan.

Moosa Inas, who, Police say triggered the explosive device that went off at Sultan Park, was among several local Islamists involved in distributing 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. Fiyes magazine reporter Ahmed Abdulla, who covered the 2005 disaster, recalls: “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.” Interestingly, the charitable wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, claimed to have spent PKR 17.2 million on tsunami relief operations in the region.

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, a Maldives national arrested for seeking to procure weapons in Kerala in April 2005, may also have been financed by ‘Abu 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 2004 street protests against President 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 Salafiya Islamia, the Faislabad-based seminary that has long had close links with both al Qaeda and the Lashkar.

Eight members of the terror cell – Ibrahim Maslamath, Mohamed Ameen, Mohamed Imad, Hassan Yousuf, Mohamed Iqbal, Moosa Manik, Hassan Riyaz, Hussain Simad – left for Karachi through Colombo before the bombings. Two other suspects, computer engineer Abdul Latheef Ibrahim and Ali Shameem, were deported from Colombo before they could catch an onward flight to Karachi.

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 said, “Both the available intelligence and plain and simple prudence make this imperative.”

Just why did Islamism flourish in paradise – in islands apparently free from the deep social and political strains that drove its growth in Pakistan or India? Two sets of processes – cultural and political, need be examined.

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 spotlights, 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 hit compact discs thrown into the sea off Male, and invited his fans to follow the teachings of the islands’ best-known neoconservative Islamic theologian, Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed: the man who inspired the Sultan Park cell. Rameez’s journey represents an ongoing battle between religious neo-conservatism and liberalism: a battle Islamists seem to be winning. Maldives residents 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 number of men can be seen sporting full-length beards. On some islands, women have defied laws that prohibit the all-enveloping buruga, known in India as the burkha. Underpinning this shift is a deep cultural dislocation. Signs of the crisis aren’t 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. Machangolhi’s Buru gang has clashed with the BG (a street gang) in Maafannu and the Flats’ Bosnia gang, named after the jihad which stirred Islamists worldwide.
Narcotics use has also grown to disturbing levels. According to a 2006 United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) report, non-governmental organisations have estimated that there are some 8,000 drug users in 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 young men and women were using 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. Very few understand where this journey might end up taking their children.”

Bookstores selling the Islamist vision to new recruits have proliferated. One, until recently owned by Rameez’s brother, Ibrahim Fareed, 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.

President Gayoom’s complex, ever-changing relationship with Islamists in the Maldives has also driven the rightward-turn in 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. Islam, regulated and propagated by the state, was adroitly used to marginalise his increasingly-vocal democratic opponents.
Islamists, often educated at state expense in West Asia and Pakistan, were quick to cash in. The journalist Aishath Velazinee has recorded:

…a few islands even reverted to ‘the Prophet’s time,’ attempting to emulate the Arabian dress and lifestyles of the time of Prophet Muhammad. Men grew their beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas, and crowned their heads with Arab-style head-cloths. Women were wrapped up in black robes. Goats were imported, and fishermen gave up their vocation to become ‘shepherds.’ Young girls were taken out of school and married off in their early teens in religious ceremonies said to be sanctioned by Islam.

Two key social classes in the Maldives backed militant Islamists. Merchants and traders, the islands’ traditional elites, had seen their influence decline as the power and wealth of new elites rose. Gayoom’s regime had given birth to an affluent new group of entrepreneurs, often linked to the tourism trade, and the traditional bourgeoisie saw piety as a means with which to reassert power. Second, universal school education had created a generation of young people with skills, but few entrepreneurial opportunities. Disinherited and disenfranchised, some turned to drugs and street violence; others to militant Islam.

With democratic voices silenced, religious fundamentalism emerged as the principal language of dissent. In December 1999, Islamists launched incendiary attacks against the regime, arguing that planned millennium celebrations were part of plot to spread Christianity. In 2003, posters appeared on the walls of schools in Edhyafushi Island, praising Osama bin-Laden. A Male shop displaying a Santa Claus was attacked in 2005.

Militant Islam now threatened the regime which had nurtured it. But while the government sometimes used coercive means to punish Pakistan-trained Islamists involved in violence – some famously had their beards shaved off with chilli sauce instead of foam – for the most part, it chose accommodation. Islamists who accepted the established political order – a group who call themselves ‘super-Salafis,’ to distinguish themselves from the jihadi ‘Dots’ – were given considerable freedom.

Ali Shareef, for example, returned to the Maldives despite his abortive plan to over throw 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. Charges against Ibrahim Asif were dropped, after the Maldives Police chose not to secure witnesses or forensic evidence from India. Jaleel, Nasreen and Raushan, too, were set free.

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 the Islamists and Police fought a street battle in June after officials attempted to close down a Salafi mosque in Male, at least two others operated unhindered. One, investigators have now found, gave birth to the cell which carried out the Sultan Park bombing.

Now under pressure, the Maldives finally appears to be cracking down. Soon after the Sultan Park bombing, troops and Police moved to clear the mini-state in Himandhoo, while Salafi mosques have been closed down. Almost a hundred people have been arrested. Still, trouble could lie ahead. Elections are scheduled for next year, and some analysts believe jihadis will escalate operations to ensure their cadre are not won away by mainstream parties like the secular Maldivian Democratic Party or Islamist Adaalath. Intelligence officials are also concerned at the possible use of remote Maldives Islands by organisations like the LeT, as well as at the steady flow of funds to local Islamists from organisations in Pakistan, west Asia, and the United Kingdom.

Hell, it would appear, isn’t that far a journey from paradise.

Weekly Assessments & Briefings
Volume 6, No. 19, November 19, 2007

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