5 May 2020, Hotel/resort threat warning for the Maldives

May Tue, 2020 Hotel Attacks

Based on copious threat indicators compiled in late April 2020, Muir Analytics assesses that hotels and resorts in the Maldives are ripe for an ISIS/Islamist jihadist attack. The current threat indicators come from three specific areas:

1. Personnel: ISIS/Islamist jihadists have an unusually strong presence in the Maldives.

2. Violent rhetoric and warnings: ISIS/Islamist jihadists have claimed violence in the Maldives and have threatened more violence to come, including against hotels/resorts.

3. Recent acts of violence: ISIS/Islamist jihadists in the Maldives have attacked foreigners, the government, and a resort (a small attack, but an attack, nonetheless.)

The threat indicators per these three categories, 14 in all, are explained below, along with analyses. Eight takeaways conclude this brief.

As a side note, Giriraj Bhattacharjee’s article, “Maldives: Daesh Surge – Analysis,” in Eurasia Review, provided a springboard for this threat warning. It is an exceptionally well-done piece that deserves a thorough read. Among other things, Bhattacharjee is a contributor to the most excellent South Asia Terrorism Portal, a first-class resource for terrorism and political violence in South Asia.

Personnel

There are three main points here. Analyses are in italics.

1. Per capita, the Maldives have contributed more foreign fighters to ISIS in Syria than any other country in the world. The official number of Maldives citizens joining ISIS there is 173, but South Asian terrorist experts speculate the real number could be as high as 300.

These figures indicate that Islamist jihadist sentiment is exceptionally high in the Maldives. Additionally, Muir Analytics’ SecureHotel Threat Portal database demonstrates that Islamist jihadists attack hotels and resorts as a matter of policy. Globally, they have attacked over 200 hotels in the 2010-2017 timeframe. These have included both light and heavy attacks.

2. On 16 December 2019, Mohamed Hameed, the Maldives’ Commissioner of Police, said there were about 1,400 ISIS-supporting jihadists in the Maldives that “would not hesitate to kill their fellow man to defend their beliefs.” Commissioner Hameed also said there were 432 people from the Maldives that tried to travel to Syria, or successfully traveled to Syria, to join ISIS there.

This point corroborates point 1, above. Also, since the commissioner of police issued this statement publicly, it can be construed as a public warning indicating possible Islamist jihadist violence to come. After this statement, it did indeed come in March and April 2020, and unless authorities can contain the threat, more Islamist jihadist violence in the Maldives is likely.

3. Maldives police have arrested at least 13 domestic Islamist jihadist operatives in the past few years – ten in 2020, and three in 2019.

Since Islamist jihadism simply does not fade away based on a multitude of arrests, the indication is that there will be more Islamist jihadist cells forming in the Maldives. This is a typical global pattern that has been seen in Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Sri Lanka, India, the UK, and France, among other countries.

Violent rhetoric and warnings

According to Islamist jihadist law, operatives must issue a warning before an attack, so these threats are neither posturing nor idle talk. Theirs is a distinct method and an intentional telegraphing of violence.

There are six examples here. Analytical points are in italics.

1. On 22 April 2020, an article in the pro-ISIS newspaper, Voice of Hind, praised Maldives-based Islamist jihadists for burning a hotel villa and stabbing an Australian “kafir” (unbeliever.) The article also said, “Make it worse for the apostate democratic governments so that Allah punishes them by your hands…”

Here, ISIS sanctioned violence against specific targets in the Maldives: a) the government, b) foreigners, and, c) hotels/resorts. ISIS also urged more violence against these targets by telling its followers to “make it worse.”

ISIS also said these violent operations were directly carrying out God’s will, which, a) justifies this violence, b) relieves the perpetrator of any punishment or guilt, and, c) guarantees them a place in heaven.

2. In March 2020, Maldives counter-terrorism expert, Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Naeem, wrote in the National Counter Terrorism Centre Newsletter that ISIS had increased its propaganda and recruiting efforts in the Maldives during the Covid-19 pandemic. Specifically, ISIS had encouraged its followers to use violence “against [the] existing system, cultural norms, and values, and [to] disrupt the Maldivian way of life…”

Here, ISIS is urging its followers to take advantage of societal shutdowns and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic to stage attacks to force an Islamist jihadist ideological shift in the Maldives. Such attacks were indeed carried out in March and April, and more attacks can be expected unless appropriate and professional protective measures are taken.

3. In February 2020, via an online video, an ISIS-linked group took responsibility for the stabbings of an Australian and two Chinese in the Maldives that same month, saying the attacks were designed to damage the Maldives’ tourist economy, and that infidels ran the Maldives government.

This claim of violence is a reiteration of point 1. Islamist jihadists have clearly defined and religiously justified these target sets for the Maldives (the government, foreigners, and hotels/resorts, the latter including the tourist economy.) It should be noted that “damaging the tourist economy” includes not just hotels/resorts, but restaurants, cafes, water sports outlets, means of transport and travel nodes, etc. Again, more such attacks can be expected unless appropriate and professional protective measures are taken.

4. On 25 March 2019, in the run-up to the Maldives’ April 2019 Parliamentary Elections, a key politician chastised a rival political party for being un-Islamic, and that if the rival party won the election, “They will build places of idol worship. They will build temples in the Maldives. They will allow residency to people of different faiths. And we would then have to wage war.”

Here, the politician in question legitimatized violence to keep the country sacred and protected from un-Islamic behavior, which is also an Islamist jihadist politico-religious plank. While some might say this was merely election-year rhetoric, ISIS/Islamist jihadist violence in the Maldives is based on the very sentiment this politician espoused. Accordingly, certain citizens in the Maldives might find inspiration in these words, especially when combined with current calls to violence by ISIS. In other words, if “pious” Maldives politicians are sanctioning violence, and if “righteous” ISIS is sanctioning violence, then it must be religiously proper.

And again, it should be reiterated here that ISIS, al Qaeda, and like groups, as a matter of policy, assert that foreigner-packed hotels/resorts are un-Islamic. Therefore, they are perceived as legitimate targets. Witness the ISIS hotel/resort attacks in Sri Lanka (also against churches, April/Easter, 2019,) the al Shabaab dusitD2 hotel and business complex attack in Kenya (January 2019,) the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb raid on several beach hotels in Ivory Coast (March 2016,) and the ISIS attack on the Riu Imperial Marhaba in Tunisia (June 2015,) just to name four.

5. In December 2019, Chief Superintendent of Police Mohamed Basheer said radicalized individuals in the Maldives assert the country is a “land of sin,” and they believe those in opposition to their ideology are “infidels whose life and property could be rightfully seized.”

Here, Islamist jihadists, or “radicalized individuals,” are issuing a threat warning on the lives and properties of people who are deemed “sinful.” Note that, while sharia law governs the Maldives, and the government can penalize lawbreakers with jail and fines, Chief Superintendent Basheer referred to the people who made these statements as “radicalized,” which separates them from the status quo. So, he is not referring to sharia law penalties in this reference.

Additionally, because Islamist jihadists frequently label hotels/resorts as “dens of immorality” – as demonstrated by trend analyses from the SecureHotel Threat Portal database – this threat should be construed to include the Maldives’ hotels/resorts. The statement on seizing “life and property” make this point even more evident.

6. On 22 January 2019, Islamist jihadist students called for the chairman of Mandhu College to be beheaded and/or hung for insulting Islam.[1] The college took it seriously enough to form a committee to address the threat.

Here, the indication is there is a vein of ISIS-like ideology in the Maldives’ student population – how big or small is not known, however. What is known, on the other hand, is that Islamist jihadist students have provided some of the world’s most notorious terrorists, such as the person that raided the Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, in June 2015, where he killed 38 and wounded 39.

Recent acts of violence

There have been five acts of violence in the Maldives in 2020 that indicate the Islamist jihadist threat. (There have been multiple acts of Islamist jihadist violence before 2020, but these recent actions best illustrate the issues at hand.) All but one of these were either, a) claimed by ISIS, or, b) attributed to a local Islamist jihadist terror cell linked to ISIS. In the other case, authorities “hinted” that an attack was linked to Islamist jihadism. Analyses are in italics.

1. On 21 April 2020, there was an arson attack on a sewage pump station on Hithadhoo Island, Addu Atoll, reportedly done by locals linked to ISIS.

Here, Islamist jihadist terrorists demonstrated they have the tactical capabilities to raid a facility and damage it. They were also aiming to negatively impact the population of the Maldives and show the government as impotent regarding security. These same tactics and targeting sentiment could apply to hotels/resorts.

2. On 15 April 2020, there was an arson attack by “incendiary bombs” (possibly Molotov cocktails) on seven boats on Mahibadhoo Island, Alifu Dhaalu Atoll. The seven boats included a sea ambulance, a police vessel, the atoll council’s speed boat, two other speed boats, and two dinghies. The culprits were reportedly locals linked to ISIS.

Here, like point 1 above, the attackers successfully demonstrated their raiding capabilities and their penchant to use fire as a weapon. It was a simple attack utilizing readily available resources, and the same could be applied to hotels/resorts with ease.

3. On 22 March 2020, there was an arson attack on a police boat on Gan Island, Laamu Atoll. The SITE Intelligence Group says police “hinted” the attack might have been by Islamist jihadists, and there might have been other arson attacks not openly published.

Here, the analyses for points 1 and 2 apply.

4. On 21 March 2020, there was an arson attack on Villa 47 at the Cheval Blanc Randheli luxury hotel on Noonu Atoll, reportedly done by locals linked to ISIS.

Here, the Islamists jihadists attacked a hotel/resort, clearly demonstrating they have the intent and capabilities to damage the Maldives’ hospitality sector. Terrorists could duplicate this attack on another property, and they could also achieve more significant destruction by applying more resources.

5. On 4 February 2020, there was a stabbing of three foreign nationals (all wounded, no deaths,) against two Chinese and an Australian, on Hulhumale Island, Kaffu Atoll (which also encompasses North Malé and South Malé Atolls.) The four culprits wore masks and conducted the attacks on motorcycles, reports The Edition. They were reportedly locals linked to ISIS. Authorities assess this attack was done in response to Operation Asseyri, a December 2019 counterterrorism operation that identified and arrested Islamist jihadist terrorists.

Here, and similar to point 4, Maldives Islamist jihadists demonstrated they have the intent and capability to carry out attacks on foreigners, one of their crucial target sets. Terrorists could duplicate this attack on other foreigners, wherever they are in the Maldives – such as at hotels/resorts – but with greater destruction if they applied additional resources.

They also demonstrated that arrests of their followers can result in retaliatory attacks.

Takeaways

There are eight takeaways here. First, the above personnel, ideological, and violence data points – 14 in all – indicate an Islamist jihadist threat to the Maldives. They specifically indicate a threat to hotels/resorts in the Maldives. The terrorists have issued their warning plainly and openly – they say they are targeting hotels/resorts (among other targets,) and they have already attacked a hotel/resort, albeit the attack was minor.

Second, Islamist jihadists in the Maldives say they will stage more attacks, including against hotels/resorts. History and Islamist jihadist jurisprudence say to take them at their word.

Third, current, demonstrated Islamist jihadist attack tactics in the Maldives are arson (via stealthy raids) and stabbings, so hotels/resorts (and other target sets) should be prepared for these kinds of attacks. It should be noted that, while the 2008 Taj Mahal hotel attackers in Mumbai mainly used AK-47s and grenades to kill hotel guests and staff, the attackers also set the hotel on fire, which caused cataclysmic damage to that structure. The threat of arson, then, should be taken seriously by the Maldives’ many hotels/resorts.

Fourth, in another tactical consideration, Muir Analytics’ SecureHotel Threat portal database has multiple examples of amphibious attacks on hotels/resorts. Some are by boat, and some are by “combat swimmer,” where a lone attacker swam up to a beach resort and stabbed hotel guests, injuring some and killing others. Because the Maldives is a nation of atolls, Islamist jihadists might very well use amphibious tactics to carry out their attacks. They suit the terrain/environment.

Fifth, Islamist jihadists in the Maldives are likely to secure – or try to secure – explosives, and/or firearms, to carry out more destructive attacks on hotels/resorts, and other targets.

Sixth, absent firearms, and explosives, but desperate to achieve shock and horror, Islamist jihadists in the Maldives might adopt other, more creative tactics such as drone attacks, a mass attack by a mob of people armed with edged weapons (knives, cleavers, etc., similar to the Holey Artisan Bakery massacre in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2016,) poisons, chemicals, or other, like tactics. Recruiting Islamist jihadist-sympathetic military or law enforcement personnel to provide weaponry or even help carry out attacks is not out of the question. Islamist jihadists have unsuccessfully attempted this in Malaysia, but they have succeeded in doing this in Somalia, southern Thailand, and Afghanistan, just to name three.

Seventh, regarding timing, Islamist jihadists are incredibly patient, and they could execute another hotel/resort attack in the immediate or near term, or they could delay until the Covid-19 virus pandemic subsides and tourists return to the Maldives in higher numbers. This would provide the opportunity to achieve casualty rates seen in hotel/resort attacks in Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

Also regarding timing, Maldives Islamist jihadists have demonstrated that they might stage attacks soon after government forces arrest their cohorts.

Eighth, in military planning, there is an old saying: “The enemy gets a vote.” This means that, despite an army’s best-laid plans for a particular battle, the enemy will try to disrupt those plans and win the battle for themselves. So, for the Islamist jihadists’ plans to stage more attacks in the Maldives, the enemy gets a vote, too. And their enemy is the Maldives government and hotels/resorts.

The Maldives government can, a) engage in intelligence-driven counter-terrorism operations, which it appears to be doing, and, b) it can engage in counter Islamist jihadist political warfare and aggressively weaken the ideology that calls for attacking hotels/resorts and murdering civilians. This last issue is critical to diminishing the threat for the long term.

Hotels/resorts in the Maldives can adopt an intelligence-driven risk mitigation approach to dramatically increase security to protect their guests, staff, buildings, and revenues.

Hotel threat intelligence tells hoteliers how terrorists and other belligerents around the world attack hotels. Knowing this, they can plan to mitigate specific attack tactics. Forewarned is forearmed.

More to the point, this kind of intelligence:

1. Feeds methodical and intelligent hotel security programs.

2. Aids in developing real-world crisis response and PR plans.

3. Helps hotel risk managers make sure their insurance policies actually cover specific types of violence, and that exclusions do not stealthily negate that coverage.

4. Provides hotel lawyers with case studies that illuminate potential negligence scenarios, which help them mitigate hotel violence lawsuits before they happen, thereby diminishing embarrassing, brand-harming, and lengthy litigation.

A public-private risk mitigation partnership between the Maldives’ government and its many hotels/resorts would bolster these efforts.

The current threat environment in the Maldives is real, as demonstrated by the above data points and analyses, and it demands an intelligence-driven approach for full-spectrum hotel/resort threat mitigation.

Sources and further reading

Hulhumalé attacks, an act of retaliation by terrorists: MPS,” The Edition, 30 April 2020.

Giriraj Bhattacharjee, “Maldives: Daesh Surge – Analysis,” Eurasia Review, 28 April 2020.

South Asia Terrorism Portal archives, April 2020.

Maldives stabbing: Australian and two Chinese injured in attack claimed by Isis sympathisers, The Guardian, 6 February 2020.

South Asia Terrorism Portal archives, February 2020.

South Asia Terrorism Portal archives, December 2019.

“College vandalised after protest against chairman accused of insulting Islam,” Maldives Independent, 22 January 2019, (this article was since taken down for reasons unknown.)

[1] “College vandalised after protest against chairman accused of insulting Islam,” Maldives Independent, 22 January 2019.

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