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Murder attempt on Maldives ex-president reveals rising radicalism

Government probes attack as Islam extremists continue to sow strife in country

Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic former president of the Maldives, was the target of a failed assassination attempt on May 6.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The Maldives may be known for its string of idyllic islands and luxury resorts, but a bomb explosion early this month in the capital, Male, targeting former President Mohamed Nasheed has exposed a darker side of the South Asian nation: its deadly pact with Islamic extremism.

Police have arrested three men involved in the May 6 attack, with initial reports fingering a link in the nation's Islamic extremist networks. The suspected assailants had affixed the bomb to a motorbike parked near Nasheed's car, remotely detonating it when the 53-year-old politician was about to enter the vehicle parked at his home.

"He is fortunate to be alive. ... One ball bearing missed his heart by a centimeter," a still shocked longtime associate of Nasheed, a charismatic and popular politician, told Nikkei Asia. "He underwent multiple surgeries to his head, chest and liver for nearly 16 hours to remove the shrapnel and the ball bearings," said the associate.

On Thursday, Nasheed, who is the current speaker of parliament, was flown to Germany for more medical treatment.

But the government of President Ibrahim Solih, a close political ally of Nasheed, is not rushing to early judgment about the Islamic radical link, waiting until more information is provided by the local police and foreign investigators. "The police have so far arrested three individuals and the investigation is ongoing," a senior official within the president's office told Nikkei. "The police have not yet disclosed or made any conclusions about the motive for the attack."

The government's reticence stems from the toxic tide of Islamic extremism that has gripped the Muslim-majority country. The bomb targeting Nasheed -- an outspoken advocate of liberalism -- comes in the wake of a grisly death toll that extremists have exacted among the population of 400,000. Over the past decade, this has included the killings of Afrasheem Ali, a parliamentarian and religious scholar, Yameen Rasheed, a liberal blogger, and journalist Ahmed Rilwan.

Nasheed, according to Maldivian political observers, has long been a target of religious extremists ever since he emerged as the country's first democratically elected president in 2008. Political rivals from the Islamist camp raised tensions by calling him laa-dheenee ("irreligious" in Dhivehi) to whip up hate against him, said Azra Naseem, a Maldivian political scientist who has been tracking Islamic radicalization in the country.

"These messages have been circulating on the internet ceaselessly since 2010 and 2011," she said. When Nasheed was attacked for not being Muslim enough, his haters celebrated online that "he had it coming" via messages posted on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and the comments sections of newspapers. Many of them were average Maldivians who have "come to believe that killing someone for not being a Muslim -- or for not being the right kind of Muslim -- is justice," she said.

Worryingly, the roots of these extremist views have spread through Maldivian society, threatening to change the religious tolerance of the country, long known for being a moderate, Sunni Muslim nation. "For the last decade, Maldivian media and school curricula have been saturated with messages of hate against nonbelievers, be they Maldivians or not," according to Naseem. "Those who oppose this narrative and instead call for tolerance and human rights, and for the reduction of religious involvement in politics, are labeled enemies of Islam."

Consequently, the Maldives became a breeding ground for Islamic radicals that made them ideal foot soldiers for pan-Islamic networks of terror, such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, according to a South Asian intelligence source. "Some are still in Afghanistan, where IS has gained a foothold for South Asian operations."

The Maldivian link to IS raised eyebrows in regional intelligence circles a few years back when, during the height of IS operations in Syria and Iraq, between 250 to 450 Maldivians were identified to have left the islands to join Middle East terror network. By one estimate, the Maldives had emerged as the largest supplier of IS operatives per capita. The recruits included 61 men, who took their wives and children through Turkey to join IS camps in Syria.

In 2019, the U.S. government affirmed this link, earning the Maldives more notoriety. Washington identified Ahmed Ameen, a Maldivian, as the liaison between Maldivian fighters and IS operations in Syria and Afghanistan.

IS-inspired attacks in the Maldives have also gained notoriety. In February 2020, after three foreigners were stabbed, a video message surfaced featuring three masked men, who claimed to be members of a Maldivian Islamic extremist group linked to IS and who took responsibility for the attack.

But previous governments have chosen political expediency over threats to national security and have thwarted investigations into local Islamic extremist networks, enabling the radicals to flourish with relative impunity.

It is now the Solih government's turn to deal with the crisis, with the added pressure of Nasheed and Solih being main pillars of the governing Maldivian Democratic Party. "The perpetrators would face the full force of the law," a visibly upset Solih pledged during a nationwide television address soon after the bomb attack.

But the jury is still out whether the government will have the stomach to reveal how much of a national security threat Islamic extremists pose in the Maldives. "Because of the dangerous and sensitive nature of the issue, even if the government comes under pressure, I'm not sure if it would [pursue] this angle; that religious extremism is a threat to national security," said Rasheeda M. Didi, a political analyst based in Male. "People's sentiments and government's actions do not always coincide."

Until then, the government is taking no chances, placing the greater Male area under a tight security blanket manned by the police and the Maldives National Defense Force. "The alert level for the police and the MNDF have been raised following the incident in the greater Male area [for now], and not the entire Maldives," said the official in the president's office.

Over the weekend, the dragnet was spread to Addu, the southernmost atoll in the Maldives, in search of suspects. Police have arrested seven men in the ongoing terrorism investigation, local media reported.

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