The Maldives can't afford to lose tourism.

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Maldives Wants U.S. to Help It Fight Terrorism

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Maldives is calling on the United States to help it respond to an attack on its president, potentially opening the newest front in the war on terror.

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom on Sunday narrowly escaped an explosion on his boat. His wife was injured. Investigators have converged on the island nation in the Indian Ocean to determine whether the blast is related to organized terrorism. The government is already rethinking its security and defense practices; top officials say terrorist recruiting has been on the rise there.

Maldivian Foreign Secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed told me Tuesday that officials are still piecing together what happened.

“No group has claimed responsibility," he said. "But we believe it was an attack directed to the president. That’s the first time the president has been attacked in that way.”

Ali was in the United States this week for the UN General Assembly, and he said his government has been tracking an increased flow of its citizens traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight there, at least 40 so far. Some are coming back to the Maldives.

“That is actually the biggest threat that we face as a nation-state and as a society. That is our biggest fear,” he said. “And that’s where our security forces are finding quite a challenge.”

An unidentified Islamic extremist group last month threatened terrorist attacks and attacks against the president in a YouTube video that featured the flag of the Islamic State. But Ali said that until this week, there had been no credible information that any terrorist group was operating in the Maldives. Now the government is reevaluating that.

“Some of the terrorist groups operating in South Asia and the Middle East have been able to penetrate to certain individuals," he said. "We know Maldivians are being recruited. Social media is they key instrument being used.”

The Maldives cannot tackle Islamic extremism comprehensively on its own. The government wants more intelligence cooperation, more security assistance and more engagement from its international partners, especially the United States.

“There is a need to cooperate," he said. "And while the Maldives is one of the smallest countries, the challenges we face are not small.”

The Maldives, dependent on tourism, doesn’t want its image as a paradise destination for honeymooners altered by the presence of armed guards everywhere. But Ali said officials are upgrading security at airports and tourist destinations.

Ali said the government now has no choice but to give law enforcement new tools to find those who are planning to travel abroad for jihad and jail them before they can leave. New anti-terror legislation has prompted opposition from human rights groups and the opposition party.

“There is an urgent need to criminalize not only the actual activity you do, but the intention of traveling to these places to engage in warfare,” he said. “I hope this attack will be a wake-up call to the entire society and create a sense of urgency for everyone.”

There is also a broader argument for increased cooperation between the United States and the Maldives.  The Indian Ocean will be key to geopolitical balance in the coming decades. China is increasingly making its presence known there, challenging India’s traditional dominance.

The status quo in the Indian Ocean favors the U.S. The two nations' common interest in preventing terrorism could refocus Washington's attention to the Maldives, securing that foothold -- if Washington chooses to respond.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net