Sanchita Bhattacharya

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

Maldives: Persistent Threat

Maldives recorded no terrorism-linked fatality in 2022, as in 2021. The abduction and killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed by a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda on April 23, 2017, was the last fatal incident of terrorism recorded in the country. There have, however, been at least nine terrorist attacks in the country since the Rasheed killing, including three in 2019, four in 2020 and one each in 2021 and 2022.

On August 22, 2022, Ali Solih, Maldivian Minister of State for Environment, Climate Change and Technology, was attacked with a knife and injured, when he was traveling on his scooter in the Hulhumalé area of capital Malé. The attacker, Mohamed Jameel, first stood in front of the Minister’s scooter, chanted some verses from the Quran and then launched the attack, in which a portion of the Minister’s left arm was slashed. However, the attackers repeated attempts to slit the Minister’s throat failed, as could be seen on videos of the incident that were shared over social media. The attacker was wearing a shirt bearing the logo of the Islamic State.

Earlier, on May 6, 2021, former President and present Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Nasheed, had been grievously injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast outside his home in Malé. Three of his bodyguards and two bystanders – a local and a British national – also received minor injuries in the explosion.

Moreover, Security Forces have arrested at least 72 terrorist suspects and sympathizers since 2019, including 26 in 2022, thwarting several plans to carry out attacks. The major arrests in 2022 included:

December 11: Maldives Police Services rearrested Mohamed Gais, who had first been arrested on November 11, 2022, for plotting to use an explosive device in Addu city, but was released on December 11. The Criminal Court ordered Gais’s remand until the end of his trial, citing the potential threat to the safety of the community.

November 14: 14 Maldivians, with suspected links to the Islamic State, were arrested in a joint counter-terrorism operation conducted by the Maldivian Police Service and the Maldives National Defence Force. A large quantity of explosives was also recovered from the homes of some of the arrested suspects. The suspects planned to target the National Police College and the Indian establishment in the Addu area. According to the Police, these suspects were plotting to carry out a mass casualty terrorist attack in the Maldives, using explosives in collaboration with the Islamic State.

On January 8, 2022, moreover, the Maldives Police Service revealed that they were probing a ‘last warning’ given to release the suspects arrested from Addu City. Posters of the warning, demanding the release of the suspects, had been put up in different areas of Addu City on January 8.

January 6: Hood Mohamed Zahir was arrested by the Maldivian Police in a joint operation with the United Sates’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and European investigative agencies in Malé. The Prosecutor General’s Office later filed five charges against him, including encouraging terrorism online and using different phones/social media accounts to encourage individuals to conduct terrorist acts by harming and killing others and damaging property, as well as sharing photos and videos related to the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the terrorist threat has become a real challenge for the tourism industry of Maldives, which accounts for the maximum proportion of remittances to the economy of the Island nation. In recent years, Sawt al Hind (Voice of India) magazine, an Islamic State publication targeting Indian Muslims, had called for attacks on Maldivian targets. Some analysts have also pointed out that the channel ‘TouristwatchMV’ set up on Telegram by Islamic State sympathisers, has also targeted tourists. Further, the US Department of State, in its advisories has put Maldives in its ‘Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution’ category. An October 5, 2022, update thus states,

Terrorist groups may conduct attacks with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. Attacks may occur on remote islands which could lengthen the response time of authorities.

Furthermore, the radical elements working within the social fabric of the Island nation are still going strong. On June 21, 2022, on the occasion of International Yoga Day, an angry mob barged into the Galolhu National Stadium in Malé and disrupted the yoga event organised by the Indian High Commission and Maldivian Ministry of Youth. “Perpetrators had sought to incite fear by forcefully entering, destroying property and attempting to assault participants of the event,” a Police statement asserted. Before the event, the protesters brandished placards proclaiming that yoga was against the tenets of Islam. Yoga is a burning issue in the Maldives for orthodox Muslims, who believe it is an ‘un-Islamic’ religious practice and not a physical discipline.

Inputs indicate, further, that the United Islamic Society is emerging as a significant organization suspected to be providing a platform to spread extremist ideologies, particularly over social media. Individuals linked to such organizations are suspected to be involved in establishing small extremist cells in remote islands of the country.

Criminal gangs are also actively involved in recruitment and radicalisation of young minds. According to a 2022 report, Prison Radicalisation in the Maldives, published by Transparency Maldives in collaboration with the Maldives Ministry of Home Affairs,

Gang involvement does not appear to be incompatible with radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives…There is a great deal of overlap between gangs and militant jihadist groups. Maldivian gang members may be told that they can continue most of their gang activities, as stealing from kafirs (unbelievers), especially in order to finance militant jihad, is halal (permissible). Thus, the criminal/terrorist nexus is forged and the two support each other’s activities. Other Maldivian laws prohibiting gang related activities may also be broken since the militant jihadists do not recognise the Maldivian government as legitimate.

Moreover, drug cartels operating with foreign support are creating additional security challenges. At least 45 incidents of major drug recoveries were reported in 2022, in which over 62 drug traffickers were arrested. In 2021, 22 such incidents were reported, with 51 persons arrested. Seven persons have already been arrested in six separate incidents in 2023. The role of Pakistan in the narcotics trade in Maldives is underlined by the April 3, 2022, incident, in which two Pakistani nationals who smuggled drugs into the Maldives were arrested at Velana International Airport. Ahmed Ali (32) and Moimina Gulfam (20), were arrested after drugs were found in their bags and hidden inside their bodies.

Despite persistent threats, the prosecution agencies are failing time and again. Thus, on July 4, 2022, the Maldives Criminal Court acquitted a Pakistani national, Mohamed Imran, who was apprehended by local authorities in 2017 for smuggling illicit narcotic substances concealed inside his luggage. The Court held that the evidence produced by the state prosecution was insufficient to confirm that the suspect held ‘reasonable knowledge’ of the narcotic substances in his baggage.

Further, on October 26, 2022, drug kingpin, Arshad Khalid, who was arrested a day earlier, on October 25, was again released over lack of evidence. Arshad was first arrested in January 2020 in a counter-drug operation in which police seized nine kilograms of Heroin and four grams of cocaine, along with MVR 4.6 million in drug money. Eight people were charged in the case. However, only two of them were convicted, and the remaining six, including Arshad, were acquitted for lack of evidence. However, an appeal was filed in the High Court with regard to which he was again arrested on October 25, 2022.

Similarly, the Islamic State affiliated terrorist Moosa Inas and two of his associates, Abdul Latheef Ibrahim and Ali Rasheed, arrested on May 5, 2020, for their alleged role in the April 15, 2020, arson attack, were let off by a Maldives court on June 18, 2020, as the Court conceded that the evidence submitted against them by the Police was not legally valid or sufficient for prosecution. He, and his associate Abdul Latheef Ibrahim, however, are still facing charges over the deliberate burning of a Police speedboat docked at the harbour of Gan, Laamu Atoll, on March 22, 2020.

On September 16, 2021, the High Court ruled in favour of Mohamed Ameen, who is believed to be the leader of Maldivian faction of the Islamic State, dismissing the charges against him and ordering his release. He, however, remains behind bar, as he was re-arrested on October 11, 2021, after the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s ruling on October 3, 2021.

Significantly, following the June 21, 2022, incident of anti-yoga violence, Sheikh Mohamed Fazloon, an Islamic scholar and one of the 20 suspects arrested in connection with the mob attack, was granted conditional release by the Criminal Court on July 21, 2022. He was held in Male City on June 22.

Disturbed by such developments, the courts in Maldives have now ordered that the accused in cases of extremism or terrorism be retained in custody till their trials end.

If the threats to security are to be met adequately, the enforcement agencies need further strengthening, as there have been several instances in the past where people released/acquitted by the courts have subsequently carried out attacks. Mohamed Jameel, who attacked Minister Ali Solih, for instance, had earlier been arrested for disrupting a Friday congregation at the King Salman Mosque in July 2022, but was released.

Crucially, Islamist radicalism also finds significant space in the mainstream political discourse, particularly of the Islamist parties, such as the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), headed by former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom’s Presidency had been marked by a surge in extremist mobilization in the country, as well as the migration of over 250 Maldivians to Iraq and Syria, to join the Islamic State. Significantly, on December 23, 2022, a prominent PPM politician, who had served as the Commissioner General of Customs during Gayoom’s rule, openly called for an attack on the Indian High Commission at Male, purportedly to ‘avenge’ an incident of arson on February 8, 2012, at Addu, for which he falsely blamed India. Riza was subsequently arrested, on December 25, on ‘hate speech’ charges, but was conditionally released by the Criminal Court on February 13, 2023.

The Maldives State Policy on Terrorism and Violent Extremism adopted in 2014, stresses that it has a “zero-tolerance policy on terrorism and violent extremism”. This policy document is complemented by the National Strategy on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, adopted by the National Counter-Terrorism Centre in November 2017; as well as the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism 2020-2024. This “zero-tolerance” policy appears to have succeeded in containing major acts of terrorism and violence, but the deep-rooted radicalism and fundamentalism that afflicts significant populations in the country need to be dealt with, if stability and security in the Island nation is to be preserved.

Bangladesh: A Promise of Hope

On January 8, 2023, Mohammad Salim, deputy leader of Block B, Rohingya Camp-8 West, in the Ukhiya Sub-District of Cox’s Bazar District, was killed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

On January 7, Mohammad Rashid, the leader of Block A, Rohingya Camp-15, in Teknaf Sub-District of Cox’s Bazar District, was killed by masked assailants.

On January 6, 2023, an insurgent, identified as Nurunnabi, was injured in a shootout that took place between two terrorist groups at Block B-39, Rohingya Camp-8 East, in Ukhiya. The members of the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) and law enforcement agencies recovered a grenade from the house of the injured insurgent.

Three terrorism-linked incidents of violence in quick succession, resulting in two fatalities, reported from Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar District. 

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), there were 18 fatal terrorism-linked incidents which had resulted in 22 fatalities in 2022. In 2021, there were five incidents which had resulted in 17 fatalities.

The prominent incidents in 2022 included: 

December 26: A group of 12 armed militants of ARSA shot dead a Rohingya leader in Block 16, Rohingya Camp-8 West in Ukhiya. The dead person was identified as Mohammad Hossain alias Shafique who was the leader of Block B.

November 29: Unidentified assailants shot at and stabbed to death a Rohingya community leader, Shahab Uddin. Uddin was a deputy leader in H-14 Block Rohingya Camp-12 in Ukhiya.

October 18: Unidentified men killed a Rohingya youth, Syed Hossain, at Rohingya Camp-19 in Ukhiya.

ARSA, a lethal insurgent group based in Myanmar, is escalating activities in Bangladesh. Investigations against ARSA ‘commander-in-chief’ Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi and 65 others were launched on November 23, 2022, in the case of the killing of a Directorate General of Forces Intelligence officer, Rizwan Rushdee, and the injuring of a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) trooper, during an anti-smuggling operation in the Bandarban District on November 14, 2022.In October 2022, ARSA was responsible for multiple incidents of killing, attacks and threats in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. In 30 attacks just between August and October 2022, ARSA killed or injured Rohingyas by shooting, hacking and separating organs, to create a reign of terror among the refugees. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), in the year 2022, nine ARSA-linked incidents of violence have been reported in Bangladesh, in which five persons (three civilians and two militants) were killed and another six (all civilians) were injured.

Moreover, there has been a marked increase in unlawful activities in the Rohingya refugee camps, through 2022, due to the growing and active presence of organized gangs. According to an August 11, 2022, report, Rohingyas had formed at least 20 organised armed gangs, presently active in the refugee camps, prominently including the ‘Salman Shah Group’, ‘Putia Group’, ‘Munna Group’, ‘Hakim Group’, and ‘Jokir Group’. The gangs were involved in serious crimes such as arms, drugs and human trafficking, gold smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and killing. They were also involved in robberies, burglaries, cybercrime, sexual violence and harassment, as well as illegal SIM card and the hundi (money laundering) trade. They have also been involved in grabbing land from Bangladeshi citizens and also run juvenile gangs.

As reported on August 11, 2022, some 101 Rohingyas have been killed in the last five years in internal conflicts among these gangs. In October, 2021, a report indicated that shoot-outs and clashes between these gangs in the Rohingya camp areas were motivated by efforts to establish supremacy and taking control of the illegal Yaba (a cocktail of methamphetamine and caffeine) and gold smuggling, money laundering, and extortion rackets that have proliferated there. As reported on October 3, 2021, the Officer-in-charge (OC) of Teknaf model Police Station in Cox’s Bazar District, Hafizur Rahman disclosed that a total of 27 cases have been filed against just one such group – the Hakim Group.

Moreover, some 100 armed groups, prominently including ARSA, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), the Arakan Rohingya Army (ARA), and Jamaat-e-Arakan, are engaged in a turf war to control the camps. The conflict is most violent between ARSA and RSO. ARSA and ARA, led by Nabi Hossain, who was part of ARSA, but left the groups in 2020, are also violently engaged in their efforts to dominate the region. Though no authoritative data is available about the losses faced by these groups, Fawz-ul-Kabir alias Moulavi Abu Anas, ARSA ‘second-in-command’, who reportedly resigned from the outfit in June 2022, has publicly criticized the ARSA leadership for recent casualties suffered by the group at the hands of RSO.

Meanwhile, ARSA has targeted members of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR), a group that represents parts of the refugee community. Chairman of the ARSPHR and a prominent Rohingya leader, Master Mohibullah, was shot dead by suspected ARSA militants at his office in Kutupalong, Cox’s Bazar District, on September 29, 2021. Subsequently, several ARSPHR members have been killed by ARSA. In the most prominent incident, on October 22, 2021, at least six Rohingya refugees, who were followers of Master Mohibullah, were killed and eight were injured, inside a refugee camp in Ukhiya.

On September 19, 2022, reacting to the rising waves of crime and violence Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal declared that no more Rohingya would be allowed to enter the country. Those who had come earlier, fleeing persecution in Myanmar, have created many problems, he added.

On October 27, 2022, three battalions of APBn arrested at least 41 Rohingyas, including six murder accused, in a special operation, ‘Operation Root Out’, in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

In addition, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region, consisting of three hilly, forested southeastern Districts of Bandarban, Rangamati, and Khagracchari, is experiencing increasing ethnic violence even after 25 years of the signing of the CHT Accord of 1997. According to partial data collated by SATP, in 2022 incidents of violence have risen, with 15 fatalities recorded in 2022, as compared to 10 through 2021. The reasons for the increase are, the emergence of ethnicity based armed group, the Kuki-Chin National Front (KCNF) and the Marma National Party in CHT, which has challenged existing groups such as the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) and the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF). The KCNF, an armed organization led by erstwhile PCJSS member Nathan Loncheu Bawm, appeared in 2021. Although it was first announced as the Kuki-Chin National Development Organization (KNDO), its latest incarnation as KCNF was declared after KNDO’s head, Nathan Loncheu Bawm, failed to contest the 2018 elections. KCNF’s main demand is the formation of an autonomous state for the ‘greater Kuki-Chin race’, within the CHT. 

Moreover, as reported on January 4, 2023, there are concerns in the CHT that a vested quarter has been providing backing and shelter to armed terrorist groups, while meting out suppressive measures and imposing the responsibility for terrorist activities upon the Jumma people engaged in the movement demanding implementation of the CHT Accord. One such terrorist group is the KCNF, which is reportedly providing shelter and military training to an Islamist militant group, the Jamatul Ansar Fil Hind al Sharqiya (JAFHS), in their hideouts in the remote Ruma township in the southern part of CHT. On January 12, 2023, RAB disclosed that 12 operatives of JAFHS and 14 operatives of KCNF had been arrested, to that date, in the ongoing anti-militancy drive that started on October 10, 2022. On October 20, 2022, RAB arrested seven JAFHS operatives. The arrestees confessed that they had an agreement with KCNF to provide them shelter and training in exchange for money.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government continued to articulate and implement a zero-tolerance policy towards Islamist terrorism and the use of its territory as a terrorist safe haven. Through 2022, there was not a single case of a fatality related to proscribed Islamist terrorist groups reported in the country, continuing with the trend established in the previous year, 2021.

2022 witnessed a total of 263 arrests of Islamist terrorists/radicals belonging to various outfits, including 200 Jamaat-e-Islami-Islami Chhatra Shibir (JeI-ICS), 12 JAFHS, 10 Jamaatul Muslimeen, eight Ansar al-Islam, seven Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), among others. Also, as reported on June 30, 2022, the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) started a process of deradicalizing militants inside prisons under the “Construction of the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Prevention Centre of Bangladesh Police”. Under this process, social, clinical, and educational psychologists; religious clerics, and counterterrorism experts were expected to start deradicalizing jailed militants and also those on bail from June 2022 onwards, CTTC chief Mohammad Asaduzzaman disclosed. While reiterating the zero tolerance policy on November 17, 2022, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated,

Let us all hold peace, the message of Islam in our hearts and eradicate darkness, illiteracy, discord, violence, terrorism and militancy from the society; resist the evil forces which are making misinterpretation of Islam. We’ve adopted zero tolerance towards militancy to uphold the peaceful glory of holy Islam by keeping the country free from militancy.

Meanwhile, the last quarter of 2022 recorded some violent incidents and clashes involving members of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League (AL), including:

November 28: Multiple cocktail bomb explosions occurred in the AL office in the Chanda area of the Kaliakoir Sub-District in Gazipur District. Two cases have been filed against 27 leaders and activists of BNP and more than 200 others for their alleged involvement in the explosions. On the same day, two bombs exploded at a fish farm on the Trimoni intersection in Gangni city in Meherpur District. Police later recovered another three bombs from the site of the explosion. However, no casualty was reported. A case was registered against 11 leaders and activists of BNP and its allied organizations in connection with the blasts.

November 29: Two AL members were injured as a crude bomb exploded in the AL party office in the Dhangora Junction area in Raiganj Sub-District, Sirajganj District. Later, BNP activists and two party leaders were charged. Raiganj BNP municipality unit convener Ainul Haque, its secretary Khairul Islam, and 20 named and 150 unnamed BNP men were accused in the case. Apart from direct violence, BNP and its allies are also working at the international level with various lobbies, to target the AL Government.

Meanwhile, on December 7, 2022, Sheikh Hasina declared that Bangladesh’s next general elections will be held during the first week of January 2024.

With elections in the coming year, and the increased activities of BNP and its cohorts, the situation in Bangladesh is likely to become precarious. Security Forces’ successes against the Islamists are, certainly, a signal achievement, but Islamist radicalization remains widespread, and the disruptive efforts of terrorist formations – some old and some new – persist. Moreover, the troubles in the Rohingya refugee camps have created new and serious threats to the internal peace and security of Bangladesh in general, and the Cox’s Bazar District and Bhashan Char, in particular. The escalating violence in CHT, is another flashpoint of concern.  A relatively peaceful for Bangladesh could find itself abruptly destabilized as the General Elections approach.