Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., Hawwa Abdul Raheem, Kate Strezishar, & Molly Ellenberg
Awareness of violent extremism and the process of radicalization has spread throughout the world in recent years, bringing to the table the importance of developing a methodology in order to identify, understand, and counteract individuals spreading ideologies and disinformation as well as for intervening in the radicalization process to prevent individuals from becoming violent actors and terrorists. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] along with many other organizations and state actors have taken steps in order to study and successfully intervene in the process of becoming violently extreme and to create innovative prevention campaigns as well. Successful prevention and intervention efforts to fight radicalization as well as rehabilitation and reintegration for those already involved in violent extremism and terrorism requires a whole of society and systems-based approach with many types of interventions occurring simultaneously on multiple levels of society, from social media take-downs, to kinetic take downs of terrorist groups that create violent propaganda and recruit in face to face and internet forums, to addressing systemic and individual vulnerabilities to those who are most vulnerable and responsive to radicalization efforts. For those already radicalized, a systems-based and community-wide approach appears most likely to lead to the smoothest and most successful transition from extremism back into society.
All over the world, when women’s perspectives are allowed into the security discourse, an all-encompassing prevention methodology tends to arise that focuses on the empowerment of women. Empowered women, particularly those who have been given the tools to understand violent extremism are then able to feel empowered to speak up when interacting with a relation or acquaintance who may be going down the path of extremism. Examples of how women can greatly improve the security sector abound. For example, Princess Aisha of Jordan advocated for women’s training in the special forces, arguing that women such as herself could not be accompanied into bathrooms and private spaces at many times by male guards, making women absolutely necessary in the security field. Not long after a female group of cadres was trained, one of them, while off duty, observed an imminent attack and saved the King of Jordan’s life.[i] In Kosovo, police told the authors of this article that female officers trained in security issues were often successful interrogators and useful in talking to other females when religious issues made it sensitive and precluded these women from being handled by men.
Research conducted by Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security indicates that women’s roles in the family structure can also play a vital role in the way in which their family members lean towards or against extremist ideology, with their research highlighting prior family involvement in extremism being a leading reason individuals may engage in extremism and potentially terrorism.[ii] Understanding that extremism can derive from a familial connection, those involved with prevention and countering violent extremism should also recognize that engaging women in the community can make a powerful prevention impact. ICSVE’s own research based on in-depth interviews with current and former terrorists, violent extremists, and their families found that a familial connection was but one reason for joining; there are a myriad of other reasons as well, from material desires of wanting better housing, jobs, and marriage, to less material reasons of wanting to feel a sense of significance, dignity, purpose, and positive sense of self. These reasons can best be explained as the “Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism.” Making a terrorist involves a group cause, an ideology that wrongly attempts to justify the action, social support that may come from family members or other networks, and individual vulnerabilities relating to their position within or outside of a conflict zone.[iii] For those living outside of a conflict zone, experiences of marginalization and discrimination, especially for Muslim minorities living in the West, can be powerful push factors in the decision to leave home and travel to join a terrorist group.[iv] Taking this into consideration, it is clear that those working in the P/CVE sphere must not only intervene with individual violent extremists, but also be powerful agents for change in communities themselves, such as by engaging in the development of anti-discrimination laws and policies, ensuring that they are enforced, and developing and executing trainings to develop empathy, mutual respect, and tolerance.
Case study: The Maldives
When preventing and countering violent extremism [P/CVE] approaches are considered, the unique potential of women taking powerful roles in prevention and intervention efforts are often overlooked. Women have been affected by all aspects of violent extremism; they have been the perpetrators, the victims, and also the ones to step up, preventing and countering violence, and as compromising half of all society, thus should be considered an important aspect in considering solutions to the problem.[v] In this research, we examined this issue in the Maldives, a country which had one of the highest per capita representations of those traveling to Syria to join militant jihadist groups. Maldives Independent released an article giving an estimate of 173 Maldivian citizens who successfully left to join terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; however, Maldivian officials have only confirmed that at least 59 Maldivian nationals are currently in Syria or Iraq, with 91% of those individuals being women and children. The article also revealed that almost half of the 173 individuals who went to Syria were women and children, indicating that women were also involved in traveling to join terrorist groups, and it is not a solely male activity. [vi]
The Maldives is an Islamic society where women often play the traditional roles in their homes, although many Maldivian women also have paid employment. According to a report from the World Bank in 2021, Maldivian women who are employed work mainly in the informal sector, making up 40% of the Maldivian informal workforce, including self-employment or working as contributing family workers within the community. According to the authors of the report, this type of work is appealing to many Maldivian women due to their time constraints from the demands of childcare and domestic workload.[vii] As integral players in their homes, communities, and small businesses, Maldivian women, both in and out of the workplace may have their fingers on the pulse of family and wider community members more so than their male counterparts. In that regard, we were interested to learn how Maldivian women working in various sectors of the security field may have awareness of radicalization to violent extremism within their social and professional spheres and if they have faced such cases, whether they felt equipped to competently deal with them and what they believe was needed to equip them better.
The Maldives has been greatly affected by the rise of violent extremism over the past decades, leading to the Maldives having, by some accounts, the most foreign fighters joining the conflicts in Syria in the Middle East per capita from a non-Arab country.[viii] With limited government reach throughout over 200 inhabited islands, the country has been seen by some as a breeding ground for extremist groups, many of whom reject democratic reforms introduced in 2018[ix]. All Maldivian citizens are Muslim, and historically the dominant practice was considered moderate, however, in the 1970s, new interpretations of Islam were introduced. Additionally, aid workers coming to assist after the 2004 tsunami may have brought with them some extremist Islamic teachings. In recent years, Maldivians have had access to al Qaeda, ISIS, and other militant jihadist groups promoting violent interpretations of Islam over the internet, all during a period rife with government corruption, and repression of political opposition.[x] Mohamed Hameed, Commissioner of Police in 2017 estimated that there are close to 1,400 Maldivians within their country who have adopted extremist ideology as of 2017. Members of local extremist groups have taken measures such as withholding their children from school and vaccinations, claiming these parts of life to be “Western ideology.” Child brides are also common in these circles.[xi]
For those traveling to Syria, men and women alike believed that they were leaving their problems behind by joining the Caliphate, which was presented to them as a utopian society where they would prosper. The individuals leaving the Maldives to join ISIS were often unemployed and had substance abuse and prison histories, with forty-eight percent having criminal records, and thirty-nine percent having known affiliations to gangs.[xii] Those who had prison histories were often radicalized in prison by militant jihadists providing repentance and structure in prison to help them leave drugs behind. These same radicalizers sent them to Syria with the promise for a better life under shariah. In 2021, ICSVE interviewed five Maldivian women currently held at Camp Roj. Before traveling to join ISIS, three of the five were married. One was single when she joined ISIS and met her Maldivian husband in ISIS. Another was divorced and joined ISIS with her sister and brother-in-law. She married while in ISIS. All five women reported being raised in middle class households in Malé. Before joining ISIS, three of the women were not at all radicalized. Indeed, two sisters reported being tricked into joining ISIS by one of their husbands. Another did not report holding any specific extreme ideology before joining ISIS, but she was aware that she would be joining and went willingly. Moreover, she lied to her mother about where she was going, implying that she did have some understanding of what ISIS was. One was radicalized prior to joining ISIS and clearly stated that she wanted to migrate to live under shariah in the Caliphate.
While the government of the Maldives has shifted towards and maintains a democracy, the radical ideology introduced over the past decades has remained and grown. This has been especially problematic with the spread of violent extremism occurring among inmates. ICSVE researchers recently gained access to 20 Maldivian inmates and one former inmate, many of whom were radicalized. ICSVE found through in-depth research interviews that the spread of the militant jihadist ideology is serious in high security prison units. While that itself is problematic and requires interventions including shutting down internet access for prisoners using illicit phones and putting in effective prevention and deradicalization programs, the problem extends beyond the prison walls and into the greater Maldivian society.
In the last decade there have been multiple attacks in the Maldives, some claimed by ISIS, and others clearly carried out by militant jihadist actors such as Jabhat al Nusra, the Islamic Front, and others. In May of 2021, an improvised explosive device (IED) set by extremists detonated outside the home of former President Nasheed, resulting in five individuals being injured. In April of 2020, there was an attack on the Mahibadhoo harbor that was claimed by ISIS.[xiii] Extremist groups have been able to reach the Maldivian people in part due to the socioeconomic struggles that the region faces, along with the lack of government control. In 2004, a tsunami hit all but nine of the 1200 islands of the Maldives, causing 10 percent of the islands to become uninhabitable following the fifteen-minute ordeal. This natural disaster led to years of economic hardship, resulting in many individuals being unemployed, with up to 15 percent living below the poverty line.[xiv] Terrorist organizations then found the at-risk citizens of the Maldives to be a fertile area for radicalization and recruitment, as participation in militant jihadist terrorism was seen to be an opportunity that could be presented to Maldivians as being financially prudent and morally consistent with their religious values.[xv] Along with strict Islamic teachings being the main form of Islamic education with the country, the tourism industry was also a factor that led some Maldivians to sympathize and later join terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Nusra. With many tourists not conforming to the traditions of Islam and the resorts catering to them (particularly their desire to drink alcohol), online forums fueled and then exploited locals’ anger, condemning the Maldives for its sinful and un-Islamic practices.[xvi]
This research involved a small, informal survey study of 48 professional women working in the security sector of the Maldives including female police, customs, military, and security officials who have a far reach throughout the Maldives, both professionally and personally through family ties. These women were gathered for training purposes and during the training were asked to fill out a short anonymous survey, after providing informed consent, and discuss their answers later with the group, if they were comfortable doing so. Given the high per capita number of foreign fighters from the Maldives, it was hypothesized that many of these women may have had contact professionally or informally with violent extremists over recent years. Indeed, 37 of the respondents reported such contacts. The eight questions posed in the survey covered topics pertaining to the quality of the relationship with the extremist, if any intervention had been attempted, and if not, reasons for the lack of intervention as well as questions of what was perceived as needed to do an effective intervention. The respondents were also asked whether they believed that gender was a factor in these interactions. The survey also included a section where individuals were able to write in what they believed would have helped them in this situation.
The results of the survey are based upon 48 anonymous responses from women between the ages of 29 and 50. Out of the sample, only 11 had never met anyone involved with violent extremism, leaving the majority to have had personal experience in knowing a violent extremist. The range of violent extremists known to each of those 37 individuals ranged from one to more than five. The relationship between the female official and the violent extremists also varied, with three being family members, nine listed as friends, and ten as colleagues, though it was not specified if by “colleagues” the respondents were referring to other security officials, which would indeed be most concerning. The most common answer, 28 responses, was that the official knew someone who had been radicalized, but they were not close. In response to being asked if any intervention had taken place, the female officials responded that they had tried various methods of intervention such as talking to them to try and change their mind (n = 10), talking to family and friends looking for support (n = 8), and asking an authority figure for help (n = 2). Seven respondents reported the person to the authorities. Twenty of the 48 respondents stated that it would have been helpful to have an experienced and trained authority figure, such as an imam or counselor, to whom they could bring these cases for advice. Five officials desired a resource in the form of a website where they could learn more about the subject and intervention practices. Seventeen respondents indicated that they wished there were resources on the law enforcement side, such as a hotline, in order to anonymously report violent extremism, or to have trained police intervene with the individual. The respondents were all asked, if they did not actively intervene, to indicate why they did not do so. Their responses included that they either did not want to offend their person (n = 11), they did not know what to say or do (n = 8), and that they were afraid of bodily harm (n = 4). There were also a number of respondents who indicated that they did not intervene because the person had already left the Maldives to join an extremist or terrorist group by the time they learned of the case (n = 3).
The research discussed in this article demonstrates that women in the security sector in the Maldives have a significant reach, both personally and professionally, regarding the phenomenon of violent extremism. That 37 out of 48 respondents personally knew of an extremist in their circles and that some had tried to intervene but lacked the training and resources to act effectively makes clear that these women might be highly effective agents in countering violent extremism if they received adequate training, tools, and resources to equip them for effective interventions. That only seven had enough faith in the authorities to report extremists also speaks to a need to create trust in government, even in the security sector, so that officials will be confident that government will respond in ways that are not simply punitive but also rehabilitative, especially when one is reporting family members, neighbors, or friends.
The respondents’ position in society as members of law enforcement, military, and the security sector, as well as family members and friends, enables them to have a significant impact on those around them. The women surveyed, given the proper training and education for which the majority asked, would have the power and foresight to not only intervene with known extremists, but would be a resource to those in the early stages who are not yet radicalized, helping to mitigate the threat of violent extremism before it takes root. While this particular research pertained solely to female security officials in the Maldives and is a small, exploratory study, it is likely that the necessity for training and development of trusting relationships in government authorities and resources to help carry out effective interventions is mutual across genders for all those involved in interactions with future or current extremists in the Maldives and beyond.
The P/CVE community has grown into a more diverse collective with each new aspect of understanding coming to light, and women’s roles in these efforts are becoming increasingly researched and recognized, albeit with much work to do. Women are an integral part of society, are often highly trusted with sensitive and emotional issues, and often have unique insights and access throughout communities that may have been left unaddressed otherwise. Women are therefore in positions not only in their professional lives, but also in their personal lives, to detect, intervene with, and prevent those who are going down the extremism path from engaging in violent action. While women in the security field still face major obstacles to their professional advancement around the world, it must be realized that women, with effective training and tools, can play key roles in prevention and intervention of violent extremism. Women around the world are answering the call for preventing and countering violent extremism, and the women of the Maldives are no different.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Abdul Raheem, Hawwa, Strezishar, Kate, and Ellenberg, Molly (January 24, 2022). Women’s Involvement in Countering Violent Extremism and Recruitment to Terrorism in the Maldives. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
 Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is CEO/Director of ICSVE and Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and Associate in the Security Studies Program. Hawwa Abdul Raheem is a Lecturer at the College of Defence and Security Studies of Maldives National Defence Force. Her key role is to plan and implement required trainings for Maldives National Defence Force. Kate Strezishar is a Junior Research Fellow at ICSVE and is currently supported by the Shinnyo Fellowship through George Mason University’s Carter school for Peace and Conflict Resolution. Molly Ellenberg is Research Fellow at ICSVE and Ph.D. Student at the University of Maryland.
[i] A. Speckhard (personal communication, 2007)
[ii] Dufour-Genneson, S, Alam, M. (January, 2014). Women and Countering Violent Extremism. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from. https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Women-and-Countering-Violent-Extremism.pdf
[iii] Speckhard, A. (February, 2016). Lethal Cocktail of terrorism. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.icsve.org/the-lethal-cocktail-of-terrorism/
[iv] Speckhard, A, Ellenberg, M, Ali, S. (October, 2021). Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project Europe 2021. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from. ISIS in their own words talcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1791&context=jss
[v] Institute for Security Studies. (n.d). Integrating a Gender Dimension in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) Policy and Practice. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from. https://www.globalcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/EU_Gender-and-CVE-Event_Background-Note.pdf
[vi] Junayd, M. (December, 2019). About 1,400 extremists ‘willing to kill’ in Maldives. Retrieved January 18, 2022 from https://maldivesindependent.com/crime-2/about-1400-extremists-willing-to-kill-in-maldives-149692
[vii] The World Bank. (March, 2021). Women and Economic Empowerment: Helping Maldivian Women Navigate the COVID-19 Crisis. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2021/03/29/helping-maldivian-women-navigate-covid19
[viii] Baddorf, Z. (April, 2020). The Maldives: Tropical Paradise Turned Transnational Jihadi Recruiting Hub. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://www.loboinstitute.org/the-maldives-tropical-paradise-turned-transnational-jihadi-recruiting-hub/
[ix] U.S. Department of State. (April, 2019). Maldives. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ICS-Maldives_UNCLASS-508.pdf
[x] Counterextremism Project. (n.d) Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/maldives
[xi] Junayd, M. (December, 2019). About 1,400 extremists ‘willing to kill’ in Maldives. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://maldivesindependent.com/crime-2/about-1400-extremists-willing-to-kill-in-maldives-149692
[xii] Junayd, M. (December, 2019). About 1,400 extremists ‘willing to kill’ in Maldives. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://maldivesindependent.com/crime-2/about-1400-extremists-willing-to-kill-in-maldives-149692
[xiii] Counterextremism Project. (n.d) Maldives: Extremism and Terrorism. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/maldives
[xiv] Central Intelligence Agency. The world Factbook: Maldives. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mv.html
[xv] Borri, F. (March, 2017). The Maldives: Where Jihadists are heroes. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.nrc.no/perspectives/2017/where-jihadists-are-heroes/
[xvi] Burke, J. (February, 2015). Paradise jihadis: Maldives sees surge in young Muslims leaving for Syria. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/26/paradise-jihadis-maldives-islamic-extremism-syria