The April 21 serial bombings in Sri Lanka not only shook the island, but also sparked considerable fear in South Asia, especially in neighbouring Maldives that is home to nearly 4,00,000 Muslims. Almost immediately after the Sri Lanka attacks, the island nation heightened security measures and began strengthening its response mechanisms to tackle a possible terror threat. Amid reports of dozens of Maldivians joining militant Islamist organisations abroad, the country is also taking steps to address radicalisation, which is a concern for the Maldivian government, says Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi in an email interview.
As a close neighbour, how does the Maldives view the terror attack in Sri Lanka? You had tweeted about its impact on the region…
The terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, carried out in multiple locations, are of extreme concern to the Maldives, and the entire region. The magnitude of the attacks, the level of coordination and the tactics chosen by the terrorists are alarming and indicate new levels of brutality to which terrorists may resort.
As a country predominantly dependent on tourism, we do not take these attacks within our neighbourhood lightly, and we are acting on these concerns with the urgent establishment of national-level, multi-agency security structures and measures.
Following the blasts, the Maldives appears to be gearing up for a possible security contingency. The National Defence Force and police have been holding special emergency response exercises. Is the Maldives sensing a potential terror threat?
There is no specific or imminent terrorist threat detected. However, in today’s world, we can never really entirely rule out the possibility of one. Therefore, in the interest of vigilance, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and Maldives Police Service have been holding joint, special emergency response exercises, testing various scenarios.
Similarly, other security organisations such as the Aviation Security Command, Maldives Customs Service, and Maldives Immigration have also heightened their security levels.
According to reports in the Maldivian media, over 60 Maldivian men, along with their wives and children, have travelled out of the country to join foreign wars, mostly in Syria. As per official records, how many Maldivians are believed to have joined Jihadist groups abroad?
It is difficult to give an official figure. It is an offence punishable by several years of imprisonment to engage in a foreign war. Therefore, those who have travelled to join foreign wars have travelled under the guise of travelling to friendly countries.
The National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) gets its numbers from relatives and others who come forward and report that someone they know have travelled abroad to join foreign wars. The NCTC puts the current figure at 69, excluding women and children.
Does your government view radicalisation as a cause of concern? If yes, how are you responding to it?
Radicalisation of any sort, including religious radicalisation, is a concern for the Maldivian government. Religious radicalisation is addressed under the Religious Unity Act. Terrorism and violent extremism are addressed under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Two senior-level committees, the Counter Terrorism Steering Committee and the Counter Radicalisation Committee, ensure a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach to address this issue. This approach involves capacity building at the organisational level and conducting community empowerment programmes for vulnerable communities and other important social sectors such as the education sector, and the NGOs.
The government is currently working on designing and implementing a rehabilitation programme for radicalised individuals. At the operational level, the armed forces and the security agencies have been making efforts to enhance readiness and further build their operational capabilities to deal with the threat.
What, in your view, could be an effective regional response to such a threat?
With violent extremism, and the consequent manifestation of terrorism, plaguing our region, there is a greater need for regional cooperation. This threat has a spill- over effect, given the entangled and symbolic nature of the threat with other menaces, such as illicit trafficking, gun-running, and other criminal activities by non-state actors.
Therefore, the demand for regional collaboration is even more pressing. At the helm of such collaboration should be intelligence and information sharing, joint response capacity building, and, defence and security assistance and support. In light of the stark reality, we must constitute robust mechanisms and regional infrastructure with haste to counter the primary threat of terrorism.