The Indian Express travels to Maldives and Bangladesh, at India’s two ends, to find out why young men — at a rate unprecedented — are joining the ranks of the Islamic State
Late last year, Fathullah Jamil decided he’d had enough — of days that began before dawn, calling believers to prayer at the mosque; evenings spent negotiating a taxi through the sweltering streets; and nights spent in an airless one-room home. The children had moved to West Asia, and had been calling their parents to join them. Jamil sold the taxi, and caught a flight to Thiruvananthapuram to pick up his ailing Indian-born wife, Shah Bano.
Had intelligence officials in Kerala not intervened, the elderly couple would by now have been spending their retirement in the Islamic State — home to their three half-Indian, Thiruvananthapuram-educated sons, along with their wives and children.
The Maldives advertises its stunning island resorts as an earthly paradise, but intelligence services are increasingly concerned at the number of its citizens who are seeking the afterlife marketed by Islamists.
Indian and Western services estimate up to 200 Maldives citizens, out of a tiny population of 359,000, may now be in Iraq and Syria — the highest by far, in population-adjusted terms, of any country in the world.
The Maldives government says it can confirm 57 people have made the journey, while the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda affiliated rival, al-Nusra, have released at least seven obituaries for Maldivians killed in combat.
Death threats, attacks
Inside the Maldives, too, secular writers and activists are facing a growing tide of death threats —- sometimes backed up by lethal attacks.
Former jihadist-turned-secular writer Ahmed Rilwan, who disappeared last year, is thought to have been murdered by Islamist-linked street gangs. Hilath Rasheed, another writer and democratic rights activsts, lives in exile in Sri Lanka after his throat was slashed in a near-fatal attack.
“There’s a growing culture of violence against dissidents from the religious right-wing and the perpetrators are enjoying complete impunity,” said writer Yameen Rasheed.
Male’s powerful street gangs — in turn, linked to heroin cartels and protection rackets — are providing soldiers for the new Islamist army. Photographs obtained by The Indian Express show Rasheed’s alleged attacker, former gang member Ismail Rahim, travelling to Syria as part of a group organised by leading Islamist ideologue Adam Shameem. Like dozens of other former gang members, Rahim embraced neo-fundamentalist Islam in prison, seeing jihad as atonement for his past sins.
Evidence also exists that Maldives’ jihadist networks are tied in with groups in Pakistan. Azlif Rauf, named as a suspect in the writer Rilwan’s disappearance, fled to Pakistan last year, where he is thought to be hiding out with contacts in the Tehreek-e-Taliban.
Through the city, as well as in some of the smaller islands, graffiti calling on young people to join the jihad in Syria is widespread — as are online Twitter handles and websites promoting the cause.
“This is the fastest-growing but least-understood security threat to the whole region. It’s just a matter of time before these people bring the killing home,” said former Maldives police intelligence chief Mohamed ‘MC’ Hameed.
For tourism-dependent Maldives, the prospect of attacks on Western tourists staying at isolated resorts scattered across the country’s more than 2,600 islands is a growing concern.
Indian intelligence sources say they are also concerned at the prospect that Maldives could become a staging post for attacks against India.
In 2008, Maldives national Ali Assham — alleged to have been involved with the Lashkar-e-Taiba network attacked the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore — was deported from Sri Lanka to Maldives. Despite Indian demands, he was never prosecuted, and now lives in Male. Assham did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Part of the problem, Hameed said, is the state’s lack of capacity to successfully investigate and prosecute jihadists. Ali Jaleel, who in 2008 became the first Maldives citizen to conduct a suicide bombing, was briefly jailed two years earlier — only to emerge within weeks.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed, similarly, pardoned the alleged perpetrators of a 2009 bombing in Male — some of whom are now believed to be fighting in Syria.
The state’s own textbooks, human rights activists in Maldives say, also contribute to the problem. The class IX Islamic studies textbook tells students “performing jihad against people that obstruct the religion” is an obligation. It promises that “Islam ruling over the world is very near”. Promising a caliphate, the textbook says “this is something that the Jews and Christians do not want. It is why they collaborate against Islam even now”.
From Fathullah Jameel’s telling of his children’s story, it is unclear precisely what led his children to the Islamic State. Educated as a cleric at the neo-fundamentalist Jamia Salafia in Pakistan’s Faisalabad — home also to the Lashkar’s Assham — Jameel chose a secular education for his children after they finished primary school in Male. The children moved to India with their mother, living and studying near Thiruvananthapuram.
“I know it is impossible to make a living from a mosque Imam’s wages in Male, and I wanted my children to have a better life,” said Jameel.
That’s not quite how it worked out, though: only the middle son, Aatifu Jameel, found a white-collar job, at immigration security. The oldest, Samihu Jameel, worked with a fishing crew. The youngest, Aataru Jameel, remained unemployed — part of the 25 per cent of Maldivians who do not have a job, even though the country employs over 100,000 migrant workers.
In 2013, Samihu Jameel left for Syria —- among the first Maldivians to head there. Police officials familiar with the case say he was drawn to the jihad online, and then made contact with an Islamist charity that made arrangements.
“Frankly, I don’t know. He said he was going to study in Cairo with a religious charity. Then, he disappeared,” said Jameel.
Last summer, Samihu’s wife, Nooha, along with the two brothers and their wives, Najuma and Izawa, also travelled to the Islamic State. They aren’t the only ones: couple Mohammad Zakman Adam Ismail and Marim Sanah are reported to have migrated to the Islamic State late last year.
In another recent case, Maldives government sources said, a young family who travelled to Syria lost their child to pneumonia in February.
Jameel speculates their decision may have, at least in part, been pragmatic. “It’s hard for young people in Male. After they married, the three boys had to take turns sharing the bedroom.”