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Prison-Based Radicalization to Militant Jihadism in the Maldives

In Maafushi Prison, an overarching emir leads all of the militant jihadists in the prison, and each prison unit also has its own emir.

With fewer than 400,000 people living on approximately 200 islands, the Maldives has tended to be overlooked in terrorism research, often overshadowed by its neighbors like Pakistan and Indonesia. In recent years, however, the Maldives has garnered increased focus. According to some measures, the Maldives was the nation with the highest per capita number of foreign terrorist fighters [FTF] joining ISIS and al Qaeda in recent years. On the islands, there have also been several high-profile terrorist attacks, including the Sultan Park bombing in 2007 and the 2021 attempted bombing assassination of former President Mohamed Nasheed, alongside ISIS-claimed attacks on tourists. With the apparently increasing rate of terrorist attacks in the Maldives, as well as the anticipated return of those who traveled to join terrorist groups abroad, it is critical to understand the risk factors for radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives, particularly in prisons.

This article explores prison-based radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives. The results are based on in-depth psychological interviews with 20 current and one former prisoner of Maafushi Prison, as well as consultations with 22 governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. The findings suggest that guilt and shame over drug abuse, punitive versus rehabilitative state practices, and a lack of Islamic education countering militant jihadist ideologies can lead Maldivian inmates to join militant jihadists in prison for the sake of belonging, positive identity, drug rehabilitation, and religious redemption. In the face of long sentences, lack of state-sponsored rehabilitation programs, perceived unfair treatment in the justice system, and poor conditions in prisons, the extremist cell operating out of Maafushi Prison provides new members with benefits including internet access, jihadist propaganda, a strong sense of belonging and positive identity, and divine forgiveness for crimes, while simultaneously meting out violent punishments for their opponents. The implications of the study extend beyond the prison setting, as those who are radicalized in prison became vulnerable to radicalization long before being arrested, and due to their internet access within prison and ability to connect with like-minded cadres in the Maldives and beyond, this cell reaches far into Maldivian society.

The stakeholders interviewed for this project came from the following offices and agencies in the Maldives: Maldives Correctional Services including officials from Asseyri Prison; Male’ and Hulhumale Prisons and Maafushi Prison; Department of Juvenile Justice; National Counter Terrorism Center; National Drug Agency; Drug Rehabilitation Center (K. Himmafushi); Ministry of Education; Ministry of Islamic Affairs; Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services (including staff participation from Kudakudinge Hiya Children’s Shelter in K. Villingili, Safe Homes established in Family and Children’s Service Centres, Amaan Hiya in K. Villingili, and Fiyavathi Children’s Shelter in Hulhumale’); President’s Office; Human Rights Commission of the Maldives; Juvenile Court; Inspectorate of Prisons; United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] in the Maldives; Journey; Advocating for the Rights of Children. The Ministry of Health, Prosecutor General’s Office, Attorney General’s Office, UNICEF in the Maldives, and Child Rights Ombudsperson were also invited to participate but declined or were unavailable.

The sample of prisoner interviewees includes 20 prisoners currently held in Maafushi high-security prison, 17 men and three women. One former prisoner currently in drug rehabilitation was also interviewed. The Maafushi prison inmate interviews started with a life history, leading to experiences in adolescence and any experiences of drug abuse, drug peddling, other criminality and extremism including extremist contacts in the prison and pathways out of drug addiction, which can be replaced by adherence to an extremist ideology and group in the prison. Beliefs throughout the lifespan were probed as well as plans, hopes, and expectations for release. Prisoners were asked about the prison units in which they had experiences and were currently housed, educational opportunities, prison experiences with staff and other prisoners, desires and concerns, and their experiences under interrogation during their time in investigation and prison. They were also asked about their view of the legitimacy of the Maldivian government as well as their views on various topics espoused by extremists in support of militant jihadist ideologies (i.e., ideologies put forward by groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabaab, and others that promote the concept of suicide terrorism, violent jihad, overthrow of governments, and establishment of shariah states via violence). The interview was run by Dr. Speckhard, who uses a nonjudgmental, open approach to psychological interviewing. Because questions regarding Islamic topics arose during the interviews, Sheikh Ali, an Islamic scholar, was available to answer questions and discuss the topics further with the interviewees. None of the women interviewed appeared to be involved in the militant jihadist sphere in the Maldives. Thus, all of the following analysis concerns the 17 male prisoners.

General Findings

All but three of the prisoners referenced adherence to militant jihadist views such as takfir (believing only they have the correct interpretation of Islam and could excommunicate and/or declare other Muslims to be apostates who can be killed), a strict militant jihadist view of how shariah (Islamic law) and hokum (Islamic penalties for crimes) must be applied, the illegitimacy of the Maldivian government for failing to adhere to their interpretations of Islam, taghuts (infidel and polytheist leaders), the need for militant jihad, the legitimacy of suicide terrorism as Islamic martyrdom, and others. These statements were usually made upon probing and only once rapport had been established. It was also clear from their carefully worded speech that the interviewees did not reveal all of their violent beliefs. One prisoner who did not appear currently radicalized implied that he had previously associated with the radicalized prisoners but disengaged, and he spoke about his previous beliefs. The other two prisoners who did not appear radicalized spoke openly about what they had witnessed from radicalized fellow inmates.

In Maafushi Prison, an overarching emir leads all of the militant jihadists in the prison, and each prison unit also has its own emir. The extremist cell also has a shura council (a self-styled panel of Islamic judges) which metes out punishments. The extremists in the prison claim to be at war with the Maldivian government, whose leaders they believe to be taghut. For that reason, they see themselves as asirs, prisoners of war held unjustly by the state. They aim to establish what they see as a true Islamic State in the Maldives, which is governed by shariah and applies hokum as they believe it should be applied. As one interviewee, Daoud,[1] said about the Maldives, “If a nation is considering itself an Islamic nation and has an Islamic constitution, if a man’s hand is not cut [when he steals], is it really an Islamic nation? […] The Prophet said even if my daughter stole, I would cut her hand.” Other interviewees referred to the need to fight jihad to bring about an Islamic State. Najib described militant jihad as the “same as prayer. It’s fard al-‘ayn in this time. It’s an obligation individually. It’s jihad against kafirs, munafiqs, and murtads [disbelievers, hypocrites, and those who leave Islam].” They exploit the sense of injustice among prisoners who have long sentences, harsh conditions, and a feeling of hopelessness by telling them that in a true Islamic State, no Muslim would ever be held prisoner.

The extremist cell in Maafushi appears well-funded and offers new members a great deal of benefits. They appear to offer the best, if not only, in-prison drug rehabilitation program in Maafushi, albeit one that is informally arranged by the extremist prisoners themselves. Additionally, the extremists offer religious education, which many prisoners crave as a result of their lack of schooling and shame over sins such as criminality and substance abuse. The extremists also have mobile phones, money, and other material assets that are offered to new prisoners who are struggling. Finally, while ISIS and al Nusra were holding territory, if members with shorter sentences agreed to travel to Syria to join the jihad there, the cell offered and may still offer financial support for their families. Family members of committed prisoners who do not travel also appear to be supported.

The interviews, particularly those with non-radicalized prisoners (including the women), also revealed information about the broader Maldivian militant jihadist landscape. The cells run training camps in Male’ and uninhabited islands. Many of the individuals in the cells are linked to an initial group of militant jihadists who trained in Pakistan, created an isolated extremist enclave in Himandhoo, and recruited other inmates when imprisoned. Maldivian extremists work closely with the gangs, organizing murders to silence their opponents and violent robberies to fund their activities.

Prison-Based Challenges

Many concerns voiced by the stakeholders were about understaffing and lack of trained staff. Those who work in prison settings expressed concern that they were not able to monitor radicalized prisoners and collect intelligence as much as they would like, because they did not have the number of staff required to oversee daily happenings in the prisons as well as ensure that prisoners were not being radicalized to militant jihadism. As a result, another contributing factor to radicalization in prisons is the spread of propaganda materials. These materials include copies of written al-Qaeda ideological literature promoting militant jihad and “martyrdom” operations, mostly in English and Dhivehi but occasionally in Arabic as well, and audio and video recordings from notorious ISIS and al-Qaeda ideologues, particularly Anwar al-Awlaki, sometimes translated or subtitled in Dhivehi, as well as widespread access to the internet via illicit cell phones.

Additionally, many stakeholders stated that their agencies lacked sufficient psychological staff who could appropriately assess prisoners’ needs and risk factors and provide therapeutic services, though since the completion of the present project, a comprehensive risk assessment of current prisoners has been completed. Finally, nearly all of the stakeholders stated that there is a lack of Islamic scholarly staff to interact with radicalized prisoners. Representatives from the Islamic Ministry stated that there were programs in place to train Islamic scholars to refute militant jihadists’ claims, but prison representatives were nevertheless concerned that the scholars who interact with the prisoners were not able to adequately challenge their beliefs. Stakeholders and prisoners alike lamented the lack of rehabilitation programs for offenders convicted on terrorism charges. These programs would require both Islamic and psychological staff and education efforts. Rather, it is the extremist cell operating in Maafushi prison that appears to be offering counseling services. Eight of 17 male incarcerated interviewees were motivated to join the militant jihadists by the idea that becoming involved in militant jihadism would redeem them in the eyes of Allah and offer them the chance to truly atone for the crimes and sins that they committed in their lives.

Abbas, age 31, unintentionally incriminated another interviewee, 35-year-old Daoud, when he explained, “[Daoud] taught me tawheed. He’s a teacher. If someone wants to become good and start praying, they become a source of information and mentor him […] I was taught [that] taghut [is those] who makes a non-Islamic constitution and tries to get people to obey it. These institutions are taghut. Prison officials are part of this […] He taught me that the sentence I got was not Islamic. In Islam, if you commit a murder, if the inheritors forgive you, then you are forgiven, but you are still here in jail. You are serving an unjust Islamic sentence.”

Challenges Outside of Prison

Many of the stakeholders’ concerns extend beyond the prison walls. A number of stakeholders expressed that there is a high rate of recidivism among offenders, which they attributed to difficulties with reintegration and stigma, particularly when drugs are involved. Indeed, drug use in general was an incredibly salient feature of most of the interviews and stakeholder meetings. The stakeholders stated that drug use is alarmingly common in the Maldives, with primarily young men using heroin, methamphetamines, and benzodiazepines, among other substances. The UNDP reported in 2011 that 60 percent of all prisoners had been convicted of drug offenses, primarily usage or possession of small quantities. Prison officials noted that drugs abound in the prisons and that there are no formal drug rehabilitation programs inside the prisons, including methadone or other substitute medications for heroin addiction, available to inmates. Rampant drug use in the Maldives thus contributes to radicalization in prison in two ways. First, drug use leads to imprisonment, which simply puts vulnerable people in contact with militant jihadists as will be further elaborated from the prisoner interviews. Second, militant jihadists may offer drug-addicted prisoners their best possible option for rehabilitation – a distorted interpretation of religion delivered within the context of accountability, belonging and group support. Without access to other means of detoxification and achieving sobriety, prisoners may be taken in by the idea that by committing themselves to a noble cause, that of militant jihad, they can get clean and redeem themselves in the eyes of God. Indeed, all but two interviewees reported struggling with substance abuse and in deciding to join the militant jihadists in prison, 10 interviewees (58.8 percent) were motivated by the idea that joining such groups would help them be rehabilitated from their substance abuse problems. Although some prisoners did report relapsing and none spoke explicitly about any aftercare following release from prison, it was evident that many who joined the extremists for this purpose did become and remain sober.

Najib, who was motivated to join the militant jihadists by the informal extremist drug rehabilitation program, explained, “I was clean for six years. I was with people who followed the Sunnah for six years.” He recalled reading illegal, censored religious books that his group in Himandhoo printed themselves, which taught him about the extremist interpretation of tawheed and convinced him that the Maldivian government was illegitimate.

Said Bilal, age 28, “After I stopped using, [I] started praying and learning about religion. I felt a lot of satisfaction that I could stop, and not use again […] My hope is that my sins are forgiven. I get really good feelings when I pray and fast.” Said Hakim, age 34, “I realize the only way [to get clean] is leading a good religious life. I could only go 30 minutes [without using]; now I can go 48 hours. I know I need to do this.”

Another concern overlapping prison and the general society is a lack of education among prisoners.

Many stakeholders mentioned that prisoners were poorly educated and desired to have access to educational programs in prison. First, that prisoners who had dropped out of school had not necessarily done so due to lack of interest in their education. Rather, the high dropout rate appeared to be more so related to poverty. Although none of the prison interviewees completed secondary education, only three left school early due to a lack of interest. Second, many of the prisoners lack a thorough Islamic education. According to the stakeholders, although they understand the basic tenets of Islam, the prisoners are easily swayed by militant jihadist claims that they read in propaganda materials or that are told to them by recruiters in the prison. Essentially, they have enough knowledge to understand what a recruiter or ideologue means when he says that he is quoting directly from the Quran and/or Sunnah, but they do not have enough knowledge to identify when these people are misquoting or misinterpreting these scriptures, manipulating their meanings.

For example, Jabbar, 39, recounts how he was influenced by his cohorts in prison: “Before I came to prison, I literally didn’t know anything about religion. My mom told me to pray, so I did.” He thus had an extremely rudimentary respect for Islam and introduction into the idea that he should pray and obey but no idea how to evaluate Islamic teachings or scriptures. “I learned here the principles and tenets.” About becoming a shaheed, he says, “All I know is that in Islam one of the highest positions you can attain is to die a martyr in the way of jihad. Everyone wishes for this.” Asked about suicide bombers, he admits, “I don’t know if they would become a shaheed or not.”

Conclusion and Recommendations 

Violent extremism is a sizeable yet manageable problem in the Maldives generally and in Maldivian prisons specifically. This challenge can be linked, as in so many other countries, to economic, political, and social contextual factors. These factors can be addressed through a whole-of-society approach which could include better housing, increased employment opportunities, improved access to secondary-level education, sports and youth activities that compete with drug use, more comprehensive Islamic education which inoculates against violent extremist ideologies, and in-depth drug awareness and prevention programs.

The results of this study highlight the need for teachers, social workers, drug rehabilitation workers, prison staff, and law enforcement to be educated about the ideologies and processes of radicalization involved in violent extremism to understand the underlying psychosocial needs and drivers; the political, social, and economic context in which radicalization occurs; and the details and fallacies of the militant jihadist ideology. If age-appropriate prevention and countering violent extremism programs, including in-depth Islamic education, are instituted in schools, students can feel confident and prepared to reject the claims of militant jihadists and their twisted interpretations of Islam. Teachers of these programs should be able to confidently address and deconstruct militant jihadist claims. They should not shy away from provocative questions; if children feel that they cannot ask questions about the militant jihadist ideology or if they are shut down when they do ask these questions, they may be tempted to turn to other sources, whether online “scholars” or local extremists. One such question was asked by Khalid in his interview: “What I am confused about is, who are the true people who are fighting in wars? ISIS, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda. Among these groups, who are the people who are on the true path?” Given a thoughtful answer by a trusted teacher, he may be less likely to seek out an extremist who tells him that groups like ISIS are righteous, despite their slaughter of innocents. Similarly, those on the frontlines need to know where to turn for interventions with youth who are already radicalizing.

There are also steps that can be taken in prisons to alleviate some of the grievances that augment prisoners’ vulnerability to violent extremist radicalization. These include improving prisoners’ quality of life, increasing access to general and Islamic education programs, particularly for the high-security prisoners who interact with the extremists, providing effective drug rehabilitation that includes an Islamic component, segregating vulnerable prisoners from extremists, and decreasing the benefits that militant jihadists can offer to prisoners by blocking internet access and leaders’ ability to communicate. Likewise, deconstructing the militant jihadists’ claims and teaching the prisoners how to interpret Islam in ways that benefit their lives rather than making them a danger to themselves and society is crucial.

[1] All names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, and Sheikh Ali
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. Sheik Ali has a Masters degree in linguistics and is working through his Ph.D. in linguistics. He is also a globally certified Islamic scholar. In 2007 he helped to develop and lead what became known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq carrying out Islamic Challenge techniques with the 20,000 extremists in al-Qaeda and other extremist detainees held by the U.S. Forces in Camps Bucca and Cropper. He has also worked on analysis of ISIS cases and conducted research with ICSVE in the Maldives. Sheik Ali works as an Islamic scholar, analyst, translator and video editor at ICSVE.

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