The Maldives government has moved to tackle the rising threat of Islamist radicalism as 300 troops surrounded and then cleared an illegal mosque that had been accused of fomenting extremism on the paradise islands.
The move came a week after a British honeymoon couple were badly burned in the Maldives’s first ever terrorist bomb attack which has threatened to damage the international tourist industry on which the islands’ economy depends.
A soldier was taken seriously wounded and a policeman had his hand severed in the stand-off on the island of Himandhoo, which has been a known centre for the rising tide of Islamist extremism in the Maldives over last five years.
Terrorism experts and senior local politicians have expressed concern that a small number of Maldives nationals have been travelling to Pakistan where they have been radicalised and even trained in terrorist techniques.
More than 50 suspects were arrested at the Dhar-ul-Khair mosque on the island of Himandhoo which has been operating in defiance of Maldivian law which requires all mosques to be under government control.
Police moved in shortly after midnight seeking a number of men who they suspected of involvement in the bombing on September 29 in Male, the capital of the Maldives, which also injured ten other tourists.
The detonation of the home-made bomb – a remote controlled device constructed from a mobile phone and a gas canister – shocked ordinary Maldivians, many of whom sent messages of condolence to the British couple who returned home last week.
The threat from the Wahhabi brand of Islamist extremism, evidenced by a marked increase in Islamic dress, is causing growing concern in the Maldives, a Sunni Muslim nation which has a long tradition of moderate Islam.
A report written in the wake of the attack by a Maldives government advisor who is one of world’s leading experts on al-Qa’eda states that the Maldives government had detained 400 suspected extremists in 2006.
However Dr Rohan Gunaratna, of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, warned that ‘hard security’, like yesterday’s crackdown, would not provide a lasting solution to the Maldives’s problem with radicalism.
The mosque at the centre of yesterday’s confrontation had already been dismantled once by security forces a year ago, an act which islanders say served only to further radicalise and polarise the local community.
Dr Gunaratna also described “attempts by fundamentalists to enter Pakistan for ideological and perhaps other training,” and said that a Maldivian named Ibrahim Fauzee arrested in Pakistan had disclosed a link to al-Qa’eda.
“There is still time to implement a strategy that places community engagement and rehabilitation, the so-called soft approach, at the heart of the counter-radical efforts,” he said.
“The challenge for Maldives could be… to build Madrassas [Islamic schools] to groom and educate future scholars who could build a legacy of preserving Maldives Islam that has been a source of stability and a pillar of strength for the country.”