Sri Lanka bombings evoke extremist threat to Maldives

Last Sunday, the comfortable early morning slumber of the citizens of Sri Lanka was rudely interrupted by the news of horrific attacks targeting packed churches and high-end hotels of the country. The people of the Maldives received the tragic news with shock. Maldives and Sri Lanka have always been close allies and neighbors; the relationship between the two countries is special. Like President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been quoted saying, Sri Lanka is a second home for Maldivians. Sri Lanka is currently home to around 15,000 Maldivians.

The attacks in Sri Lanka rings alarm bells for Maldives, as a country such as Sri Lanka, where extremist religious philosophies are comparatively less rooted into the society had suffered the consequences of such a heinous crime.

Islamic State (IS) link- A danger to Maldives

The biggest fears surrounding the well-coordinated and devastating attacks were confirmed, when a little-known Islamist extremist organization ‘National Tawheed Jamaat’ claiming responsibility for the attacks, having said to have executed the horrific blasts with the assistance of terrorist organization active in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (IS).

The alleged link to the notorious ISIS sets off alarm bells to the tiny island nation just a little over 400 miles away. Maldives reportedly contributes the highest number of Jihadist fighters to the IS caliphate per capita. While the possible threat of returning trained foreign fighters since the fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq remains a concern echoed by many countries around the globe. It is highly likely that these men and women may further spread their twisted ideologies back in their homelands upon their return.

While it has been revealed that perpetrators behind the Sri Lanka attacks supported the ideologies of IS, it has not been reported that the attackers was ever trained or combated in war zones like Syria alongside IS. However, the fact that we all have to accept is that a small, unknown organization had been successful in executing a well coordinated and dangerous attack of such caliber that not even the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, aka LTTE had been able to execute an attack close to its destructiveness during the 25-year civil war that took place in the country. It is dangerous that a small organization working from afar and with limited resources had risen to such power that they were able to execute such a devastating attack with such ease.

Another cause of concern is that fact that the attacks in Sri Lanka are said to be a retaliation for the attacks recently executed in Christchurch, New Zealand targeting a mosque and slaying many Muslims. Terrorist organizations usually carry out attacks in specific countries due to displeasure over certain actions of the government of that country, however, it is the beginning of a very dark chapter that a country far away from where the attack occurred, located on another continent, and completely unrelated to New Zealand carried out a revenge attack on the action of one person, killing over 250 people as retribution.

While twisted ‘true Muslims’ all over the world have been calling out to the IS to stand up against the New Zealand attacks, a group in a country such as Sri Lanka where extremist ideologies are not well-rooted have answered their call. Compared to Sri Lanka, Maldives has a higher number of experienced militants trained directly by IS living in the Maldives, and this itself is a highly concerning truth we are forced to accept.

Maldives is different

Since Maldives is a 100% Muslim country, there is some ground to say that the lack of churches and temples and places of worship of other religions in the Maldives makes it less likely that heinous terrorist attacks may take place in the Maldives. However, the attacks in Sri Lanka did not target churches only; it also targeted high-end hotels and tourists. Maldives is a country where a million tourists from all over the world visit throughout the year. The country was made aware that people who believe that ‘disbelievers’ should not visit the country existed within the small communities of Maldives, after the 2017 home-made bomb blast that took place at Sultan Park, a popular sight-seeing location in capital Male’. 12 years later, the extremist ideologies seemed to have escalated and further widespread, with two religiously conservative men planning a suicide attack two years ago. Fortunately, the men were apprehended by the authorities before they could execute their plot. The court recently dismissed an order to release the two men, taking both men back to jail.

In between then and now, several people have been charged with suspicion that they were involved with Islamist militants abroad, or were planning to join the armies in foreign countries. Each one of these individuals are people who agreed with and support IS ideologies, and were prepared to give up their family, country and even their life for their ideologies and perspective on ‘Jihad’.

Failure of Lanka’s defense authorities - a lesson for Maldives

Reports on Easter Sunday’s attacks have revealed that the Sri Lankan authorities were notified of plans to execute the attacks before it occurred. It has now been revealed that intelligence authorities in the United States and India had warned Sri Lanka’s authorities of the impending attack days ahead of the actual attack. Sri Lankan Muslims had complained of the mastermind involved in the attacks spreading his false ideologies to unsuspecting Muslims in the country in the name of religious sermons.

From whatever angle that we look at it, the attacks that occurred on Easter Sunday is a poor reflection on the intelligence and defense authorities of Sri Lanka. The successful execution of the attacks attest to the huge failure on the part of these authorities. The Sri Lankan government has acknowledged that the names of the people involved in the attack were known to the authorities well before the attack occurred. Even with several warnings of plots to attack churches given to the authorities, not a single official had been concerned enough to take the warnings seriously. Not one person had worked to prevent the attacks, and not a single official had thought the situation was serious enough to notify the country’s Prime Minister and President.

Now the authorities are looking for someone to take the blame for taking the lives of so many innocent bystanders. President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena has promised to dismiss and replace the current heads of defense authorities. With the opposition egging on the citizens, the people are even calling for the resignation of the whole government over the negligence of the country’s defense forces that paved the way for the successful execution of Sunday’s attacks.

Although the terrorist attacks took place in a neighboring country, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s statement that the attack is a danger on the whole region as a whole rings true. Following the attacks, President Solih has assured that the current situation and security of the Maldives will be assessed, and necessary steps will be identified and taken to ensure the safety of the country and its people. With the Sri Lanka attacks, we have witnessed the Maldivian defense forces being ‘activated’, with the police, armed forces and the authorities such as the Immigration conducting special efforts to ensure the country’s security and safety.

It is no secret that the Maldives has a large group of people who follow extremist ideologies, and our numbers are higher than that in neighboring Sri Lanka. Authorities have always been vigilant of dangers that may be posed by such groups, and have continued to monitor the actions of these people. No doubt, the incident in Sri Lanka is a lesson for Maldivian authorities. It is an unfortunate reminder that the police and the intelligence authorities should remain alert and watchful. It is a lesson on the importance of government authorities working together in a well-coordinated manner to share information and take preventive action. The happenings in Sri Lanka clearly shows the consequences of failure on the part of responsible authorities.

Sri Lanka estimates the attacks to cost the country's tourism USD1.5 billion which it says would take at least two years to recover from. Unlike its neighbors, tourism remains the linchpin of Maldives' economy. An incident of similar nature would be catastrophic to the luxury island destination pushing the country's fragile economy back decades.