The government has repatriated 21 individuals from five families of fighters who had travelled to Syria to participate in its civil war. This operation, announced on Tuesday by the homeland security minister Ali Ihsan, marks a continuation of efforts by the Maldivian authorities to address the issue of its citizens involved in foreign conflicts.

The individuals were transported to the Maldives via Türkiye on a specially chartered flight by the Maldivian government. Prior to repatriation, the Maldives Police Service and the National Reintegration Centre in Himmafushi, Kaafu Atoll, conducted several visits to the internment camps in Syria for assessments, including DNA tests, to confirm the Maldivian identity of the individuals.

This operation was expedited following President Mohamed Muizzu’s official visit to Türkiye, where he initiated crucial talks with the Turkish government to facilitate the repatriation.

The group includes 15 children and six adults, of which five are women. All the children are offspring of these women. Upon arrival, the group underwent a health assessment and was taken to the National Reintegration Centre for rehabilitation.

The repatriation flight, operated by Beond Airline, was selected for its competitive rate, costing approximately USD 120,000 (MVR 1.8 million).

The National Reintegration Centre, which has experience rehabilitating a family from a war zone, will conduct individual assessments and tailor rehabilitation programmes accordingly. A family repatriated in March 2022 has been successfully reintegrated into society.

Ihsan said following the assessment, the individuals will be subject to criminal investigations and will be prosecuted under the law. Currently, all conflict zones in Syria are classified as banned zones under the Anti-terror Act. 

Individuals travelling to participate in foreign conflicts in these warzones will face jail terms of five to six years. Reports suggest over 90 Maldivians in Syria, including those affiliated with Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, have expressed a desire to return home.

The Maldives has faced challenges with ISIS supporters, first documented in 2014 when over 300 people protested in Malé against democracy and in support of Islamic jurisprudence—sharia. The National Bureau of Economic Research has noted that one out of every 500 Maldivians has joined an extremist group in the Middle East, with the Maldives having the world’s second-highest per capita rate of people fighting for ISIS.

In response to these threats, the Maldivian government has implemented several counter-terrorism measures. In 2021, the third amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act was ratified, enhancing police powers to investigate terrorism-related cases and detain suspects. A Joint Interagency Operations Centre (JIOC) was established to counter terrorist attacks. Additionally, the Fifth Amendment to the Penal Code was ratified to address hate crimes, particularly those labelling individuals as non-believers or anti-Islamic based on religious views.