Extremism strikes again in Maldives, former president critically hurt

Per capita, the Maldives has produced the highest number of extremists, some 300, to have fought alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group in Syria and Iraq.
Friday 07/05/2021
Police secure a site after a suspected bomb blast injured former Maldives president and current parliament speaker Mohamed Nasheed in Male on May 6, 2021. (AFP)
Police secure a site after a suspected bomb blast injured former Maldives president and current parliament speaker Mohamed Nasheed in Male on May 6, 2021. (AFP)

MALE, Maldives - Police in the Maldives said Friday an explosion that wounded the former president Mohamed Nasheed and four others including a British national was an act of terrorism and they are attempting to identify four possible suspects. Australian police said they are ready to assist the investigation.

Nasheed, 53, was wounded in the blast outside his home Thursday night as he was about to get into his car, police said. Local media reported the explosion was caused by a device planted on a motorcycle parked near his car.

Doctors operated to remove shrapnel from Nasheed, who was now in critical condition in intensive care, ADK hospital said.

“Over the course of the past 16 hours he had life-saving surgery on injuries to his head, chest, abdomen and limbs,” the hospital said in a statement.

Nasheed has been an outspoken critic of religious extremism in the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation, where preaching and practicing other faiths are banned by law.

Police Commissioner Mohamed Hameed said police are treating the blast as a terrorist attack and that 450 officers had been assigned to the investigation.

Two of Nasheed’s bodyguards and two apparent bystanders, including a British citizen, were also wounded, he said.

Police have not detected any military-grade components in the explosives used, Hameed added. They are trying to identify four possible suspects but no arrests have been made, he said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blast. Photos circulated on social media showed a ripped-up motorcycle at the scene.

Nasheed is the current parliamentary speaker and was the first democratically-elected president of the Indian Ocean archipelago, serving from 2008 to 2012.

Current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a close ally of Nasheed, characterised Thursday’s blast as an attack on the  nation’s democracy and its economy.

In a televised speech he said that the government is seeking technical help from foreign partners and that Australian Federal Police investigators will arrive on Saturday. The Australian police said they will assess what assistance they can provide the investigation.

The Maldives is known for its luxury resorts but has experienced occasional violent attacks. In 2007, a blast in a park in the capital wounded 12 foreign tourists. In 2015, former president Abdulla Yameen escaped unharmed after an explosion on his speedboat.

Trail of terror 

Violence has been blamed on a rise in religious extremism. Per capita, the Maldives has produced the highest number of militants, some 300, to have fought alongside the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Maldives authorities announced in January that eight people arrested in November were found to have been planning to attack a school and were in the process of building bombs in a boat at sea. Police said they had also conducted military training on uninhabited islands and recruited children.

A 2019 file photo of former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed. (AP)
A 2019 file photo of former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed. (AP)

Hameed said it was not known whether the attack on Nasheed was linked to that group.

Nasheed’s presidency ended 30 years of autocratic rule by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, but his own term was cut short when he resigned amid protests led by mutinous police and troops. He was defeated in the subsequent presidential election by Gayoom’s half brother, Abdulla Yameen and was later convicted of terrorism for having arrested a top judge while president and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

He was allowed to go to Britain for medical treatment and was given asylum there in 2016. His party colleague, Solih, beat Yameen in the 2018 presidential election and Nasheed was able to return home.

He has remained an influential figure and was elected the speaker of parliament in 2019. He has championed global efforts to fight climate change, particularly rising sea levels which are threatening the low-lying islands of his archipelago nation.

Neighbouring India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, in a tweet described the blast as an attack on Nasheed.

“Wish him a speedy recovery. Know that he will never be intimidated,” Jaishankar said.

Radicalisation  fears

The Maldives follows a moderate version of Islam. There are fears of radicalisation via websites. The country has banned foreign preachers yet some 300 Maldivians are known to have travelled to Syria to join jihadists at the height of the fighting.

Nasheed had expressed fears of religious extremists taking over the country. Attacks on independent journalists have been blamed on Islamic extremists.

The country is a collection of 26 atolls made up of 1,192 tiny islands scattered 800 kilometres (550 miles) across the equator and says it has five percent of the world’s coral reefs.

High-end tourism is the principal income earner, directly providing a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). However, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the tourism sector and the economy shrank 28 percent last year.

The archipelago’s secluded beaches and pristine lagoons drew more than 1.7 million tourists in 2019, but arrivals dropped to 555,000 last year.