By Muaz Mohamed Rasheed, MP
Ever since the attacks in New York on September 11th 2001, the 21st century has been defined by international security threats, either in the form of transnational terror groups, or extremist insurgencies destabilising nations and regions. This new security paradigm has often been characterised by increasingly sophisticated terror groups, recruiting dissatisfied youths, exploiting minds and broadcasting abhorrent propaganda through social media and online technology.
Unfortunately, the Maldives is not exempt from this trend. About 40 Maldivians have been lured to Syria through the ISIS international recruitment drive. It is a great tragedy that these individuals were seduced by this poisonous organisation. Families have been ripped apart and communities shattered by their departure.
While it is vital countries like the Maldives deal with any security issue, it is also key to identify both the threats and risks. So what is the actual level of risk in the Maldives?
Murmurs in the international media would have you believe that the Maldives is a breeding ground for terrorists and subsequently an ‘no-go’ area for tourists. This is patently ridiculous. Firstly, there has been misreporting that the number of recruits is around 200. This has never been substantiated with any empirical evidence, and the government estimates that a more realistic number is about 25% of this total.
On tourism safety, the facts speak for themselves: no tourist has ever been injured by a terrorist attack in the Maldives — let alone suffered a fatality. Not a single one. Just a glance at stories of attacks on tourists around the world in the last two decades, makes you realise what an incredible achievement this is.
Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation about security threats in the Maldives undermines the tourist sector; a bedrock of the Maldivian economy. Those who suffer from this often cynical political manoeuvring, are ordinary Maldivians whose livelihood depends on tourism. We have seen time and again how economic marginalisation fuels terrorist recruitment efforts. How ironic that, the falsities being spread by government detractors could lead to a downturn in the tourism sector, consequently creating a new pool of vulnerable and impressionable young people.
Tackling terrorism requires sober judgment and calculated policy making, not frenzied panic based on hearsay. Unfortunately, the febrile nature of reporting on terror threats in the Maldives obscures the situation on the ground and hinders attempts at finding real solutions. Domestic security should not be politicised, and requires unified and strategic thinking from all sides of the political divide.
Luckily, tangible progress is already being made by the Yameen government, which is focusing on a two pronged strategy. First, is to deal with terror domestically through robust institutions and targeted legislation. The government has established the National Counter Terrorism Centre with the explicit purpose of combatting radicalisation and extremism. In conjunction, an amendment was added to the Prevention of Terrorism Act which made it a crime to attempt to join or fight in any conflict abroad.
And action has not stopped there. Collaboration between various state bodies — from intelligence agencies to airport and tourism bodies — has been stepped up to tighten the net on potential terrorists and prevent attacks. Taken together, these measures have streamlined efforts to identify threats to national security.
The second step is the call for assistance and coordination from the international community. The Maldives government recently appealed to the UN to accelerate its work on the Convention on Terrorism. They also sought advice from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Convention on Suppression of Terrorism; and actively participated in the efforts of the Commonwealth’s Countering Violent Extremism Unit.
This international effort has been very important, because as we all know, terrorism is a transnational problem. Extremism respects no boundaries or borders. Resources, weapons and people can take advantage of the increasingly free movement of people in today's interconnected world, while the internet and mobile technology makes internal communication and recruitment far easier. You only have to look to the recent tragedies in France, Belgium and Turkey to appreciate this.
It is this combination of heightened communication and loose structures, that has allowed groups like ISIS to marshal followings across the globe. Developed and developing countries alike face the threat. In fact, despite greater resources at their disposal, developed countries have found themselves unable to prevent attacks. So, to criticise smaller nations like the Maldives whose resources pale in comparison, seems like an empty narrative.
Global terrorism is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. This is a time when nations need to pull together and present a unified front against terror groups. To single out the Maldives in the global fight against terror is deeply unhelpful - it damages the country's economy, creates division, misreads the reality of international terror and has zero basis in fact. The noises coming from the Maldivian opposition and its advocates about alleged homegrown terror is obvious political mudslinging. It is also profoundly irresponsible - driving a wedge between nations, preventing collaboration, and giving terrorists the upper-hand.
The Maldivian government has made a firm commitment to combatting terrorism. So far Maldivians and the millions of visitors to these islands have remained safe, in part because of the excellent work of successive governments on border control and domestic security. Every day, officials are working tirelessly in guarding our nation from threats internal and foreign. They are doing a superb job and the statistics speak for themselves. Let us hope those seeking office in the Maldivian opposition now realise their responsibilities and play a constructive part in continuing to keep these great islands safe for all.
Editor's Note: Muaz Mohamed Rasheed is a member of the People’s Majlis Committee on National Security and the MP (Independent) for the constituency of Madaveli.