In tourist idyll of Maldives, radical Islam lures some towards very different …

For the million tourists who fly in each year to the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives, the Discount Holidays © holiday paradise of idyllic white sand beaches quickly embraces them. Speedboats or seaplanes ferry them to luxury resorts on otherwise uninhabited coral atolls, by-passing the rest of the country where local people live in an increasingly conservative Islamic society. In this tourist-free Maldives, amid the narrow teeming streets of the capital Male and on islands dotted with fishing villages, the siren call of radical Islamist clerics is luring some locals towards a very different paradise.

More than 200 island jihadists are now believed to fighting in Iraq and Syria, and at least seven have died for the cause, their martyrdoms hailed on social media aimed specifically at Maldivians. For a nation that only has a population of about 350,000, the numbers are strikingly high.They also reflect a reality at jarring odds with the country’s picture postcard reputation as a honeymoon and Discount Holidays © holiday idyll.

It s quite probable that in per capita terms, the Maldives has more jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq than any other country outside the region, said a Western security analyst. Helped by a sophisticated financial and support network, radicalised young Muslims pass incoming tourists as they fly out to transit points such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Colombo.

From there, they travel on to Turkey and then slip across border into Syria to join terror factions such as the Nusra Front, al Qaeda s local affiliate, and the Islamic State grouping. There has been a surge in departures in recent months, often husbands and wives with their children. Just last week, the media covered the case of another family of four who had left their island and were believed to be en route to Syria, but they later were reported to have abandoned their mission in Thailand. They are leaving behind a very different country from the tourist brochure image. In Male, where more than 100,000 people are packed into an island of just one-square mile, a ban on alcohol is strictly enforced, while in recent years most women have started wearing headscarves and even full black robes and many men have grown out their beards.

The nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands, cascading south across the equator, is economically-dependant on upmarket tourism. But there have been protests calling for the imposition of sharia law, the black flag of Islamic State waved by participants, just 15 minutes boat ride from the nearest resort serving alcohol and pork to skimpily-dressed Western guests. Its international image had already taken a blow in recent years due to prolonged political unrest, culminating in the jailing this year of Mohamed Nasheed, the country s first democratically-elected president.

That widely-condemned conviction brought Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer and wife of the actor George, to the islands in recent days in her role as international counsel for the former leader, a British-educated civil liberties and environmental champion.

In Tourist Idyll Of Maldives, Radical Islam Lures Some Towards Very Different ...Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, center, stands with former president Mohamed Nasheed’s lawyers at the High Court in Male, Maldives Photo: AP

Mr Nasheed was overthrown in a bloodless de facto during protests organised by supporters of the former dictator and religious groups under the banner of Defend Islam as hardline clerics accused him of trying to pollute the country with decadent liberal values. The Maldives is constitutionally an Islamic state, as declared by the nation s governing charter, but its population had long practiced a moderate island Islam . The surge in radicalism that has turned the country into such a fertile jihadist recruiting ground in recent years has its roots in many factors.

Some politicians have encouraged Islamic hardliners for domestic political benefit; an increasing number of young Maldivians have been sent to study in madrassas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and acquired more fundamentalist views during their time overseas; and an influx of Saudi money has funded Wahhabist groups in the Maldives. Male also has a gang and drugs culture and radical preachers have made inroads in prisons with jailed gang-members to whom they have offered salvation through religion. Indeed, there was already a long, if less-publicised, history of Maldivian fighters joining radical Islamic causes, with many receiving weapons and explosives training with Al Qaeda dating back to the 1990s and with extremist Pakistani factions.

A senior former Maldivian counter-terrorism official told The Telegraph that returnees from those earlier conflicts walked openly on the streets of Male.

In Tourist Idyll Of Maldives, Radical Islam Lures Some Towards Very Different ...Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney leaves the Maafushi Prison in Maafushi, near the capital Male, Maldives Photo: Getty Images

We know who these guys are, but there is not the evidence or the organisation for the state to pick them up, he said. So the police try to keep an eye on them and hope for the best. But there has also been an unspoken understanding in the Maldives that radicals will not cause serious trouble at home and will not attack the tourism industry that is by far the country s largest income-earner. The concern now, however, in the era of Islamic State and home-grown extremists, is that those old rules may no longer apply – especially in the wake of the murderous attack on Western tourists in Tunisia.

There is the chilling prospects that Maldivian extremists – either veterans of Syria or inspired by their compatriots there – could board a speedboat and stage a bloody soft target assault on one of the unguarded luxury resorts that line beaches throughout the archipelago.

Our assessment previously was that local radical groups would not strike on their home turf, not least as they did not want to attract the sort of attention that would come with it, said the former official.

But with the emergence of groups such as the Islamic State, that assessment is changing. We are facing a much more unpredictable and dangerous environment. For moderate Maldivians, the threat is already real. Moderators of secular Facebook groups and an openly gay blogger have been attacked, threatened and forced into exile.

And the first anni has just passed of the disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, a reporter for the independent news website Minivan News, who often criticised local politicians and Islamists in his work. Just before he went missing, Mr Rilwan published a report on death threats received by local journalists that warned them against reporting on local criminal gangs. He also wrote a story on Maldivian militants fighting in Syria. And Sean Paul, then Jamaican rapper who was to perform in the Maldives on New Year s Eve, cancelled his visit after online death threats. Disbelievers like Sean Paul, who are like the worst of devil s advocates, deserve nothing but death read one of a series of placards held up by a cloaked figure in one video.

Sean Paul, if you visit the Maldives, the world will see your burned and blood-drenched dead body, read another.

In Tourist Idyll Of Maldives, Radical Islam Lures Some Towards Very Different ...Rapper, Sean Paul was meant to be performing in the Maldives on New Year?s Eve, cancelled the gig after online death threats Photo: Rex

The current government has downplayed the dangers posed by Islamic fundamentalism as it seeks to reassure tourists of their safety. But it has also introduced tough anti-terror legislation that critics contend is simply another measure to stifle domestic dissent. When reports of Maldivians fighting and dying in the Middle East first began to surface, President Abdulla Yameen insisted that he was unaware of the issue. His ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives meanwhile accused Mr Nasheed s supporters of spreading false information to besmirch the country s name. That is not the perspective of the US state department.

In its annual terrorism report, it noted that links had been made between Maldivians and violent extremists throughout the world . And in the era of social media jihadism, it only takes an quick trawl of YouTube and social media to establish the reality. The Maldives Independent, a news website, traced much of the online propaganda from Iraq and Syria to Bilal Al Sham Media, which relayed material in the local Dhivehi language.

In one video titled The obligation of Jihad , a masked man dressed in black holding a rifle proclaimed in Dhivehi that Muslim lands are being occupied and ruled by unbelievers and warned that any Muslim man who refused to wage jihad in such a situation would be punished in hell.

The Maldives is even today being ruled by unbelievers, and if they are unbelievers we have to wage war against them, declared the preacher. It was messages such as that that lured one unemployed former gang-member from Male to travel to Syria, a cousin told The Telegraph.

He d been involved in the gang world, but then he told us he d put that life behind him after a friend took him to meetings after Friday prayers at the mosque, said the relative, who asked not be named.

We were relieved at first, but then he started to speak in increasingly extremist terms. He would say that the Maldives were being poisoned by Western values and that it would be better to fight and die for Islam in Syria than live here.

We tried to reason with him and approached some moderate clerics to talk to him. But then one day he was gone. Later we heard via his friends that he was in Syria.

That s the last thing we know.

His family are resigned that he will probably die there, seeking the paradise promised in a far-away land after leaving the islands where Western tourists pursue their Discount Holidays © holiday dreams.

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