China, ISIS, and Pakistan: Unholy Alliance Eyes Maldives

The newly elected Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu meets Xi Jinping in Beijing on January 10. Source: PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Many Westerners know the Maldives as a paradise for tourists. The smallest country in Asia, it is also one of the most important strategically, as it occupies a key position in the Indian Ocean. For many years, China has tried to replace India as the Maldives’ main ally, by helping the local government building infrastructures—although not for free and creating what many see as typical Chinese “debt traps.”

Following a sequel of corruption scandals and political crises, a new President of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, was elected in 2023 and assumed his office on November 17. Muizzu had campaigned with the slogan “India Out,” claiming that India had traditionally been a “Big Brother” bullying the Maldives, whose future would be best assured by a close cooperation with China.

Religion played a major part in this campaign. According to the government’s statistics, the Maldives has a 100% Muslim population, although in fact small Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian groups do exist and face serious problems of religious liberty. Muizzu used the argument that the present government of India is anti-Muslim to persuade local voters that coming closer to China is in the best interest of the Maldives. He voluntarily ignored the fact that the Chinese regime has been condemned by several countries as guilty of genocide against its Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang, and ethnically Chinese Hui Muslims are also subject to growing restrictions.

Once elected, Muizzu paid his first state visit to China, where he remained for five days and was enthusiastically welcomed by President Xi Jinping. Muizzu also asked India to withdraw the troops it maintains in the Maldives by March 15 next.

One problem Muizzu has been less willing to discuss is the presence of ISIS-related and Pakistan-related Islamic terrorists in the Maldives. On July 31, 2023, the U.S. Department of State designated Maldivian supporters of ISIS and al-Qa’ida, including 18 ISIS and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) facilitators and two al-Qa’ida operatives, along with 29 associated companies operating in the country.

The Maldives has the dubious record of the highest per capita enrollment of its citizens in the ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, well-known both for its attacks against Indian targets and its clandestine cooperation  with Pakistani intelligence services, is also active in the Maldives, as are different Pakistani ultra-fundamentalist Islamic groups.

A dark area Western intelligence services are very much interested in is China’s cooperation with Islamic radicals and terrorists, including Hamas and groups that terrorize religious minorities in Pakistan. Paradoxically, while accusing the Uyghur Muslim community in Xinjiang of “terrorist” leanings, China has consistently used real Muslim terrorists for its own purposes.

By the way, Muizzu has stated that he does not consider Hamas as a terrorist group. And the instability created by Islamic radicals and terrorists in the Maldives plays into the hands of China—and Pakistan.

Islamic radicals and the governments of China and Pakistan are among the worst perpetrators of anti-religious-liberty crimes, including the persecution of Christians throughout the world. It seems that the Maldives offers a unique window on what may happen when these three forces come together. The Maldives may be small but controlling the archipelago offers a decisive advantage in any future Indian Ocean conflict. China’s maneuvers and its alliance with Muizzu try to realize the old Chinese dream of having a state it can control strategically placed in India’s own (maritime) backyard. It is not a threat to India only.

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