The Maldives government has chartered a flight to Türkiye to repatriate around 20 Maldivian citizens, predominantly wives and children of fighters, who are in internment camps in Syria. 

This move is part of a special operation conducted by the homeland security ministry and police, aiming to address the complex issue of Maldivians participating in foreign conflicts.

A private airline has been commissioned to facilitate the return of these individuals. The aircraft carrying the group is expected to arrive in the Maldives on Wednesday.

Necessary legal procedures have been completed, especially for children born abroad, to ensure their smooth repatriation, according to the government.

Upon arrival, the repatriated individuals will be placed in the National Reintegration Centre in. Hinmafushi, Kaafu Atoll. This step aligns with the government’s strategy to rehabilitate or deradicalise individuals affected by the conflict. According to current laws, they can be housed at the centre for up to one year for rehabilitation purposes.

It’s estimated that over 100 Maldivians have gone to Syria to participate in the civil war, with more than 70 reportedly killed in the fighting. This operation follows a precedent where a Maldivian woman and her four children were successfully brought back and rehabilitated at the centre.

The involvement of Maldivians in foreign militant groups, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan, has been a matter of increasing concern. Reports suggest a significant number of Maldivians have joined groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

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.

The influence of foreign preachers in the Maldives has been a contributing factor to the radicalisation of Maldivians. The recruitment of terror group members is often linked to foreign preachers, with some being detained for their connections to terror groups. The government has been proactive in addressing terrorism, publicising a list of 17 terror organisations under the Anti-Terrorism Act and taking measures against organisations encouraging terrorism.

Despite these efforts, challenges related to radicalisation and extremism persist, partly due to the politicisation of religion and the growing influence of Salafism. The situation is complicated by the role of powerful street gangs in Malé, which have been a primary recruitment ground for potential terrorists, with some members having joined extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Details of the operation are expected to be released on Thursday after its conclusion.