Male, Maldives – The evening explosion was felt across Male, the island capital of the Maldives, a densely packed urban maze poles apart from the Indian Ocean archipelago’s fame for pristine beaches and turquoise waters. The target was one of the country’s most prominent politicians: Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected president and current speaker of parliament.
The blast came as residents braced on Thursday for a new 9pm curfew amid an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases, and at a time of the year when the Sunni Muslim populace traditionally devote to prayer – as the holy night when the Quran was first revealed is believed to be among the last 10 nights of Ramadan.
Photos taken by the crowd that soon gathered – including worshippers on their way home from mosques – showed the mangled wreckage of a blue motorbike. Blood stained the ground. The motorbike was parked in the corner of the road that leads to Nasheed’s family home in a small alley too narrow for cars. A device attached to it was set off remotely just as the 53-year-old was about to enter his car on the main street.
Nasheed was rushed to the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries for life-threatening wounds to his chest, head and abdomen, according to doctors. He regained consciousness on Saturday morning, while three bodyguards and two bystanders whose legs were hit by flying shrapnel were also treated for their wounds.
In a largely peaceful country where assassination attempts are rare but not unprecedented, the “deliberate act of terror” was met with shock, near universal condemnation and an outpouring of sadness.
But for many, the attack did not come as a surprise.
“This is clearly a well-planned attempt to assassinate Nasheed,” said Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who served as foreign minister in the former president’s cabinet. Describing Nasheed as the most “loved and loathed man in the Maldives”, Shaheed said the attack was far from a surprise “given the amount of rampant incitement to violence and dehumanisation against him”.
Police on Saturday afternoon announced the arrests of two suspects. There was no additional information and the motive remains unclear, but speculation has focused on two groups: religious “extremists” and political opponents allegedly complicit in a historic embezzlement scandal who feared exposure.
Legacy of impunity
A former political prisoner, Nasheed was elected president in the Maldives’ first multi-party elections in 2008, ending 30 years of autocratic rule. But he was forced to resign just three years into his term in the face of a police and military mutiny. The politician is beloved by fiercely loyal supporters as an indefatigable champion of democracy and free speech, but reviled by conservative opponents as an unscrupulous man with a hidden agenda to secularise the Maldives, a nation where citizenship is tied to being Sunni Muslim.
In and out of power, Nasheed clashed with religious leaders, who regularly denounce his alleged anti-Islamic agenda. In the aftermath of Thursday’s attack, supporters dug up instances of vilification by religious scholars and shared them on social media.
“While they have not claimed responsibility for the attack, some social media accounts sympathetic to violent extremist groups have made it clear that Nasheed is an apostate who deserved to be killed,” said Azim Zahir, a research fellow at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies in the University of Western Australia.
“Nasheed is perhaps the most vocal figure against extremist groups in the country,” Zahir said, noting the former president was among the first politicians in the country to highlight the outflow of hundreds of Maldivians to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIL (ISIS) fighters – up to 250 Maldivians are estimated to have made the journey.
In September 2019, the United States for the first time designated a Maldivian man, Ahmed Ameen, as a “key leader for ISIS in Syria, Afghanistan and the Maldives”, saying he was actively engaged in leading recruitment for ISIL in the Maldives, including from various criminal gangs.
Commenting on the timing of the blast targeting Nasheed, Zahir noted that the Maldives’ first “terrorist” attack – which wounded several tourists – also took place in Ramadan of 2007. He said ISIL has encouraged sympathisers in the Maldives to carry out attacks during the fasting month – most recently in the April issue of the Sawt al-Hind magazine, published by ISIL’s regional chapter for South Asia or the Islamic State in the Hind Province, to which Zahir said Maldivians regularly contributed to.
“Maldivian ISIL actors are certainly capable of carrying out an attack like this,” said Zahir, pointing to past incidents that suggested some of them were trained in making improvised explosive devices, including in the case of a foiled plot to bomb a school laboratory last year.
Indeed, at a press briefing on Friday afternoon, police commissioner Mohamed Hameed acknowledged the presence of suspected “extremists” with the know-how to carry out attacks such as the one that targeted Nasheed.
“Some are in jails, and others, many people, are free – in some cases due to failure to convict in court or they are active as free citizens because there is not sufficient evidence against them,” he said.
Hameed insisted the police had received no indication of an imminent attack on Nasheed, and when grilled by reporters over a possible intelligence failure, he said any lapses must be determined by a future inquiry.
For many, the attempt to assassinate Nasheed has also evoked a legacy of impunity left by unresolved murders linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated groups, such as in the targeted killings of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed, abducted journalist Ahmed Rilwan and contrarian religious scholar Afrasheem Ali.
“There are elements who are willing to resort to murder in our midst, be it for political or other ideological reasons,” said Dhiyana Said, a former Maldives attorney general.
“But the response of all administrations, current and former, have been far from satisfactory. In spite of all the systems we have in place – the police force, the defence force, anti-terrorism cells, presidential commissions – no government has yet been able to address the roots and uncover the masterminds and the financiers behind the cells that breed and train these saboteurs of peace. Or, if they have, certainly they have not been brought to justice,” added Said.
“Until we are able to deliver full and complete justice, the sense of impunity persists and it seems to me that it was this sense of impunity and invincibility that, in part, led to the attempt on the life of Nasheed.”
Said said the “easy conclusion” is that the attack against the former president was “religiously motivated”, but other motives – such as Nasheed’s campaign to prosecute politicians who benefited from the embezzlement of at least $79m from tourism funds – must not be excluded “until a full, impartial investigation uncovers all the facts”.
Former Maldives president and current speaker of parliament, Mohamed Nasheed has undergone life-saving surgery after being injured in a bomb blast outside his home ⤵️
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 8, 2021
‘A wake-up call’
Nasheed – just hours before the attack – had announced on Twitter that he has obtained a list of all the people who benefited from the embezzlement from the state-owned tourism firm, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC), in the period between 2014 and 2015. That scandal led to former President Abdulla Yameen’s election defeat in 2018 to Nasheed’s close ally and childhood friend, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
Within days of assuming office, the new president set up a commission to investigate the MMPRC corruption, and authorities have since revealed that more than 250 benefitted from the stolen funds, including sitting legislators and senior government officials. But three years into Solih’s term, only Yameen has so far been convicted on charges related to the MMPRC scandal.
In recent months, ruling party factions loyal to Nasheed have grown increasingly censorious towards Solih, partly over the delay in prosecuting those who have allegedly benefited from the stolen funds as well as a delay in accountability for ISIL and al-Qaeda-linked attacks and deaths in the Maldives.
Nasheed himself has publicly expressed frustration with presidential commissions set up to independently investigate the corruption scandal as well as the killings of Yameen, Rilwan and Afrasheem. A “deep state” of officials embedded in state institutions who were sympathetic to “extremist” ideology was blocking justice, he warned last year, a claim that was disputed by the police chief.
Following Thursday’s attack, Solih has once again promised a “swift and thorough investigation”, this time with assistance from the Australian federal police.
But Azra Naseem, analyst and writer at Dhivehi Sitee blog, expressed serious doubts if anyone would be brought to justice in Nasheed’s case.
“If the prosecution processes of other Salafi jihadists who attacked Maldivians are anything to go by, there will be obstacles every step of the way,” she said.
“The investigation will stall, or the prosecution will not find enough evidence to prosecute, or the defence lawyer may be prone to headaches … the list goes on of ways in which the result in this case will be the same as in other cases: the jihadists walk away free. Or they are allowed to leave the country safely for ‘more Muslim’ societies than the Maldives. Justice through rule of law cannot be achieved because ‘true justice’ is already considered to have been achieved by killing the infidel,” she said.
Shaheed, the UN rights expert, said the Maldivian public “do not have much faith in or reason to have much faith in the government’s ability to come down hard on gangs and violent extremists”.
“But in a small community such as the Maldives, everyone knows what everyone else is doing and so this should be an easy one to solve, given the will to do so. And I do think this is a wake-up call for the government that will be taken seriously,” he added.
“This event can be an inflection point in the Maldives; for the government to take incitement to violence, extremism, corruption and impunity seriously and achieve a step-change in defending the rule of law.”