skip to Main Content

Prison-Based Radicalization to Militant Jihadism in the Maldives

Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, & Sheikh Ali

Executive Summary:

This article explores prison-based radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives, based on in-depth psychological interviews with 20 current prisoners and one former prisoner of Maafushi Prison, and consultations with 22 governmental and non-governmental stakeholders over a period of five months. The findings are summarized below:

  • All but two of the interviewees struggled with substance abuse, particularly a form of heroin called “brown sugar,” and were generally unaware of the neurobiological process of addiction prior to trying the drug for the first time.
  • In the absence of detoxification support, addiction treatment, and drug rehabilitation programs in prison, 10 interviewees were attracted to the extremist cell operating in Maafushi Prison because the group appeared to run a somewhat successful rehabilitation program.
  • Guilt and shame over drug abuse, punitive versus rehabilitative state practices, and a lack of Islamic education countering militant jihadist ideologies, can lead Maldivian inmates to join militant jihadists in prison for the sake of belonging, positive identity, drug rehabilitation, and religious redemption.
  • In the face of long sentences, lack of state-sponsored rehabilitation programs, perceived unfair treatment in the justice system, and poor conditions in prisons, the extremist cell operating out of Maafushi Prison provides new members with benefits including internet access, jihadist propaganda, a strong sense of belonging and positive identity, and divine forgiveness for crimes, while simultaneously meting out violent punishments for their opponents.
  • Improving quality of life for prisoners, including by offering access to rehabilitation, educational, and vocational programming, will reduce the benefits which the militant jihadists can offer to prisoners.
  • The extremists in Maafushi Prison have access to the outside through internet-equipped cell phones, which they use to communicate with compatriots, spread propaganda, and support the families of those members who travel abroad to fight with groups like ISIS. Understaffing limits the Prison’s ability to monitor such communication. The English-language lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, sometimes subtitled in Divehi, were particularly popular forms of propaganda spread amongst the militant jihadists.
  • Challenges also extended outside the prison walls, as lack of general and Islamic education, family dysfunction, drug abuse, and gang involvement all made the interviewees susceptible to radicalization and recruitment by militant jihadists who promised them a sense of purpose and belonging.

These factors can be addressed through a whole-of-society approach which could include better housing, increased employment opportunities, improved access to secondary level education, sports and youth activities that compete with drug use, more comprehensive Islamic education which inoculates against violent extremist ideologies, and in-depth drug awareness and prevention programs.



This article explores prison-based radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives, based on in-depth psychological interviews with current prisoners of Maafushi Prison, and consultations with governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. The findings suggest that guilt and shame over drug abuse, punitive versus rehabilitative state practices, and a lack of Islamic education countering militant jihadist ideologies, can lead Maldivian inmates to join militant jihadists in prison for the sake of belonging, positive identity, rehabilitation, and redemption. The implications of the study extend beyond the prison setting, as those who are radicalized in prison became vulnerable to radicalization long before being arrested.


With fewer than 400,000 people living on approximately 200 islands, the south Asian tourism hotspot of the Maldives has tended to fall under the radar with regard to terrorism research, often overshadowed by its neighbors like Pakistan and Indonesia. In recent years, however, the Maldives has garnered increased focus. According to some measures, the Maldives distinguished itself as the nation with the highest per capita number of foreign terrorist fighters [FTF] joining ISIS and al Qaeda in recent years (U.S. Department of State, 2019). On the islands, there have also been several high-profile terrorist attacks, including the Sultan Park bombing in 2007 and the 2021 attempted bombing assassination of former President and current Speaker or Parliament Mohamed Nasheed, alongside ISIS-claimed attacks on tourists (Makan, 2007; Mashal, 2021; Zahir, 2020). With the apparently increasing rate of terrorist attacks in the Maldives, as well as the anticipated return of Maldivian men and women who traveled to join terrorist groups abroad, it is critical to understand the risk factors for radicalization to militant jihadism in the Maldives, particularly in prisons.

Many recent reforms in Maldivian prisons were inspired by recent cases of prison-based radicalization. In 2020, for example, Moosa Inaas was charged for setting a police boat on fire, ten years after having been released from prison when he was three years into a 15-year sentence for his participation in the Sultan Park bombing. Although Inaas was not radicalized in prison, his case makes clear that he was not effectively deradicalized or rehabilitated in prison (Counter Extremism Project, 2021). There is also anecdotal evidence that Maldivian FTFs had been previously imprisoned for drug and petty crimes, and that they tended to join terrorist groups “in part because of the sense of redemption that came from protecting Sunni women and children” (United Nations Development Programme, 2019). As a result, the Government’s Strategic Action Plan (Government of Maldives, 2019) highlights the need to include Islamic education countering militant jihadist propaganda in prison rehabilitation programs, preventing prisoners from being convinced by terrorists’ claims of redemption through violence. These changes largely come from information from security services and risk assessments of prisoners suspected to be radicalized. However, there has yet to be an in-depth psychological study about the risk factors for radicalization to militant jihadism and experiences in such groups in the Maldives, particularly in the prison context. The present article aims to elaborate upon the findings of such a study, beginning with a review of the literature on prison-based radicalization in general and followed by the presentation of results from interviews with 20 current and one former prisoner of Maafushi prison in the Maldives. It concludes with an overview of the implications of the study, including recommendations for policy and practice.

Factors Contributing to Prison-Based Radicalization

Before exploring the prison-specific factors that contribute to radicalization to terrorism, it is important to understand the psychosocial underpinnings of radicalization to violent extremism, which apply across many contexts. First, there are vulnerabilities which can make an individual susceptible to terrorist radicalization and recruitment, which vary based on whether or not the individual resides in a conflict zone. Those living outside of conflicts may view graphic images online and communicate with those living in conflict zones, becoming angry at their own countries’ reactions to geopolitical crises in which Muslims are suffering. Muslims living outside of these conflicts may also harbor a desire or sense of duty to help the global family of Muslims, the ummah. This vulnerability is exploited by groups like ISIS and al Qaeda which claim that all Muslims have an individual duty to fight endless jihad. Discrimination, marginalization, and perceived or real unfair treatment by law enforcement can also play a significant role, as can trauma, on the pathway to radicalization (Speckhard, 2012; Speckhard & Akhmedova, 2006; Jasko, LaFree, & Kruglanski, 2017). These vulnerabilities comprise a few of many, most of which contribute to a need for a sense of identity, purpose, dignity, belonging, and significance. But these vulnerabilities are not sufficient for radicalization into terrorism. There must also be an ideological narrative which explain the source of people’s grievances, provide a clear enemy, and detail a course of action through which the individual can fight back against that enemy. In the case of militant jihadism, religious scriptures are twisted to claim that in order to lead a meaningful life, one must commit violence in defense of victims around the world and establish lands ruled by shariah. Finally, there must be a group or network which provides social support for the ideological narrative. This group may exist in person or as a network of online connections (Speckhard, 2016; Kruglanski, Bélanger, & Gunaratna, 2019). In prisons, several factors can exacerbate vulnerabilities, make people more susceptible to terrorist ideologies, and enhance the appeal of a strong network.

Overcrowding, Understaffing, and Lack of Trained Staff

The pervasive problem of overcrowding, beyond potentially being a violation of prisoners’ human rights, can also be a vulnerability through which prisoners become radicalized. Overcrowding creates duress and disorder, often leading to repressive prison policies and lack of services which can lead an individual to seek certainty and comfort wherever they are found. In the seemingly purposeless landscape of an overcrowded prison, terrorist ideologies provide a sense of purpose and empowerment. Additionally, the ideologies rely on exploiting grievances, which are often exacerbated in overcrowded, understaffed prisons. In the militant jihadist context, imprisonment of Muslims is portrayed as unIslamic and therefore a serious grievance against a believer. Moreover, resources are scarce in overcrowded prisons. If staff cannot provide enough food, sleeping space, protection from violence, or self-development opportunities, terrorist recruiters may find ways to provide these to inmates, who then feel that joining their group will improve their lives. Additionally, overcrowding makes monitoring difficult. In an overcrowded prison, inmates who are becoming radicalized or who are recruiting others are able to fly under the radar. If guards are dealing with violent fights over the stresses of overcrowding and limited resources, they may turn a blind eye to individuals sharing terrorist propaganda. Finally, lack of trained staff can result in misplaced special treatment for terrorist prisoners who are mistakenly seen as devout and deserving of respect. Indeed, there have been reports of terrorist prisoners in Indonesia having a reputation as being “fearless of death,” thus earning the respect of inmates and guards, which increases the likelihood of radicalization of other inmates desiring such esteem (Jones, 2014).

Lack of Respected Prison Imams

Lack of knowledgeable, credible, and legitimate religious leaders in prisons to counter violent extremist interpretations of Islam has long been an issue. In prisons around the world, militant jihadist prisoners self-organize, governing themselves according to their extreme, violent interpretations of shariah. Those who rise to emir status are well-versed in militant jihadist ideology and teach it to other inmates. Although there have been a few prison-based imams who have acted as terrorist recruiters over the years, a more common problem is the informal, self-appointed imams who compete with the prison imams who lack the training, charisma, and ability to refute militant jihadist claims. Fortunately, well-trained prison imams can counter radicalization by providing legitimate religious guidance (Pickering, 2012). Credibility, in addition to knowledge, is key to prison imams’ effectiveness. In well-meaning efforts to ensure that prison imams are not radical, some prisons and governments have tried to standardize the teachings and methods of prison imams. As a result, however, the imams are often accused by radicalized inmates of preaching state-sanctioned Islam, which erodes their credibility (Rascoff, 2012; Bin Khaled Al-Saud, 2020). Similarly, those charged with hiring imams may not understand the difference between Salafism and militant jihadism. In fear of hiring a radical imam, they may hire only those preaching more moderate strains of Islam, who may not be able to distinguish between violent and nonviolent Salafi interpretations. Militant jihadists’ ideology is basically a twisted, violent form of Salafism. Therefore, a nonviolent Salafi scholar, or at least one well-versed in Salafism, may be more credible to radicalized prisoners and more knowledgeable about the interpretations of Islam which militant jihadists claim are true (Neumann, 2010; Baker, 2012).

Grievances with the Justice System and Lack of Staff Training

Grievances with the justice system can be powerful recruiting tools for terrorists in prison. In countries plagued by corruption, wasta-type nepotism, and/or authoritarianism, inmates often feel they were not given a chance to succeed by national leaders, whom they can be convinced are not following the true Islam (Al-Badayneh, Al-Assasfeh, & Al-Bhri, 2016; Yom & Sammour, 2017). Further grievances can arise through repressive government policies, arbitrary arrests, conviction for “thought crimes,” and torture. When inmates believe the justice system is corrupt, terrorist groups are able to push new recruits into embracing the terrorist interpretation of Islam and believing that the terrorist path toward establishing Islamic rule will result in true justice for all Muslims, which would preclude imprisonment of Muslims, as mentioned above.

Opportunities for Bonding

Many have argued that segregating extremist prisoners can prevent them from radicalizing others, but such a strategy comes with pitfalls (Christiansen, 2017). Members of the Philippine Abu Sayyaf group were found to have increased in their levels of Islamic extremism, support for violence, and negative attitudes toward the West after two years of imprisonment together (Kruglanski et al., 2016). Perhaps the most notorious example of terrorists regrouping in prison, radicalizing others, and returning even stronger happened in Camp Bucca in Iraq, where militant jihadists and ex-Ba’athists came together to form what eventually became ISIS. Among those prisoners were future ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adani (Rushchenko, 2018). Indeed, since the rise of al Qaeda, militant jihadist ideologues have taught followers to expect imprisonment and to see it as a badge of honor. After the Detainee Rehabilitation Program was developed in Iraq in 2007 to attempt to deradicalize militant jihadists held by U.S. forces, militant jihadist ideologues even disseminated an online manual of instructions telling followers what to expect in prison deradicalization programs and how to resist them.[1]

Outside Influences

In addition to influence by imprisoned terrorists, influence by outside groups can also drive radicalization. Terrorist propaganda can make its way into most prisons, and this process is easy in overcrowded and/or understaffed prisons. Indeed, many prison staffers do not realize that their libraries contain militant jihadist writings (Speckhard, Shajkovci, & Yayla, 2018). Many other such writings are illicitly available in prisons and can also be accessed via internet-equipped phones. Nowadays, phones can easily be smuggled into prisons, allowing inmates to communicate with terrorists on the outside to fundraise, access online propaganda, arrange escapes, plan activities, and recruit. Although many terrorist groups have largely turned to the internet and social media to spread their message, they are still producing written literature that may not be easily identified by overworked prison staff responsible for scanning incoming mail (Useem & Clayton, 2009). Cadres on the outside may also send resources into the prison. If terrorist groups provide money or goods to their incarcerated members, non-members may see joining such groups as a path to better living or even survival. Though they might not initially believe the group’s ideology, these new members are likely to take on their beliefs as they spend more time with terrorist offenders and receive support from terrorists outside of the prison (Jones, 2014).

The Present Context: The Maldives

Many of the aforementioned factors apply to the Maldives. Given that all Maldivian citizens are Muslim, special treatment for Muslim prisoners is unlikely to be a concern in Maldivian prisons. However, it is possible that less educated prisoners and staff may perceive terrorist offenders as being especially devout and willing to sacrifice for Islam and attribute moral value to this, especially in comparison to prisoners convicted of blatantly unIslamic crimes such as drug smuggling and prostitution, which comprise the majority of criminal offenses in the Maldives (Naseem, 2020; Naaz & Ibrahim, 2019; Naaz, 2011). The concern about “state-sanctioned Islam” may also be relevant. The Maldivian government has taken strides to train imams to counter violent extremism and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs issued a fatwa in 2015 stating that fighting in foreign wars is not a religious obligation, contrary to what ISIS and other terrorist groups claim (Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, 2015). However, prisoners may view imams who have undergone such trainings as being tools of the government sent to surveil them (Awan, 2013).

With regard to incarceration in general, the Maldives has long prison sentences for drug-related criminal activity and a high crime rate as well as a high rate of recidivism, leading to overcrowding of some prisons, though this overcrowding is not as severe as it is elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia and has been reduced over the past years (The U.S. International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program reports that Maafushi Prison is 9.6 percent overcrowded). The Strategic Action Plan (Government of Maldives, 2019) states that the Government aims to reduce the number of people incarcerated by at least 20 percent by 2023. Unfortunately, many of the factors which influence radicalization in prisons worldwide are also present in the Maldives, including an inability to keep phones and other resources used by recruiters out of the prison. The Maldives has long prison sentences for drug-related criminal activity, a high crime rate, and a high rate of recidivism, leading to overcrowding of some prisons, though this overcrowding is not as severe as it is elsewhere and has been reduced over the past years and the Strategic Action Plan aims to reduce the number of people incarcerated by at least 20 percent by 2023 (Government of Maldives, 2019). In a survey of Maldivian prison officers and prisoners, Shafy and bint Wan Muhammad (2018) found that 28.6 percent of officers and 61.9 percent of prisoners said that they had witnessed officers taking bribes from prisoners, and 57.1 percent of officers and prisoners alike said that prisons are understaffed. Additionally, despite many educational programs carried out by prison staff that are well appreciated by prisoners in the lower security prisons and prison units, the officers and prisoners cited instances of prisoner mistreatment and abuse over the years. It is promising, however, that the Government’s National Action Plan (2019) focuses on the factors that can affect prisoners’ vulnerability to violent extremist radicalization and recruitment, particularly the development of a new high security unit in Maafushi Prison to segregate and isolate violent extremists, the expansion of education of prison staff, and humane treatment of prisoners.


This study’s results are based on interviews conducted by the lead author, along with a trained Islamic scholar (the third author), with 20 prisoners and one former prisoner of Maafushi Prison. The results are corroborated by stakeholders from Maldives Correctional Services including officials from Asseyri Prison; Male’ and Hulhumale Prisons and Maafushi Prison; Department of Juvenile Justice; National Counter Terrorism Center; National Drug Agency; Drug Rehabilitation Center (K. Himmafushi); Ministry of Education; Ministry of Islamic Affairs; Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services; President’s Office; Human Rights Commission of the Maldives; Juvenile Court; Inspectorate of Prisons; United Nations Development Programme in the Maldives; Journey; and Advocating for the Rights of Children.

The research was organized by the non-governmental granting organization, Transparency Maldives. The 20 prisoners were interviewed at Maafushi Prison, and the one former prisoner was interviewed at the Drug Rehabilitation Center in K. Himmafushi. The interviews were conducted in both English and Dhivehi, with the help of two translators provided by Transparency Maldives.

Each interview began with an informed consent process. Because prisoners are a vulnerable population, extra care was taken to ensure that the interviewees were not coerced to participate and did not fear that their answers would be used against them; for instance, to justify segregating them from the rest of the prison population. Careful explanation was given orally and in written form and consent was given on video and in writing, and the videos and consent forms are securely stored and accessible only to the research team. The interviewees were told that the purpose of the project was to learn about how and why radicalization occurs in prisons and what can be done to prevent and counter it. They were told that they would be asked about their childhood, family, life experiences, and experiences in prison, but that they should not incriminate themselves. The interviews lasted approximately one and a half to two hours. Risks included emotional distress in recalling painful experiences, which was mitigated by the researcher, a trained psychologist, proceeding slowly and helping the interviewee deal with any emotions that arose and an Islamic scholar who could elaborate on any Islamic discussions that occurred, particularly surrounding guilt and Islamic forgiveness for serious crimes. Additionally, interviewees were told that although the researcher would anonymize and observe confidentiality with the data, there is always a risk in prisons that a conversation is being monitored. There was also a risk that other prisoners might retaliate against interviewees for speaking with a researcher, although there is no evidence that this has occurred with regard to this project. It was clear, however, that some terrorist cell members were warned and questioned before the interview or debriefed afterward. Benefits to the participants included the opportunity to talk to and reflect with an experienced psychologist about their lives, experiences, and feelings in a confidential setting. Indirect benefits included improving people’s understanding of the radicalization process in prison and helping officials gaining a better understanding of people’s experiences in prison in the Maldives. Participants were ensured that no information from the interviewees would be shared with the authorities without the interviewee’s explicit permission, unless they indicate future harm to themselves or others. They were also told that their name or video would not be used in any future research article or report unless they explicitly gave permission to do so; later all data was anonymized regardless of permission, given the interconnectedness of the Maldives and potential risks to interviewees. Finally, participants were told that they could refuse to participate, stop participating at any time, or refuse to answer any questions without penalty from the prison authorities, and that they could ask questions of the research team as well.

Participants and Procedure

The sample of interviewees includes 20 prisoners currently held in Maafushi high-security prison, 17 men and three women. One former Maafushi prisoner who had been housed with the violent extremists in the high security area of the prison, but was currently in drug rehabilitation in Himmafushi, was also interviewed. The inmate interviews started with a life and family history, leading to experiences in adolescence and any experiences of drug abuse, criminality, and extremism. Beliefs and relationships throughout the lifespan were probed as well as plans, hopes, and expectations for after release. Prisoners were asked about the prison units in which they had experiences and were currently housed, education, counseling, Islamic guidance, experiences and relationships with staff and other prisoners, desires and concerns, and their experiences upon arrest, in remand, and under interrogation during their time in investigation and prison. They were also asked about their view of the Maldivian government as well as their views on various topics espoused by militant jihadists (i.e., ideologies put forward by groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and others that promote the concepts of suicide terrorism, violent jihad, overthrow of governments, and establishment of shariah states via violence). The interviews were run by the lead author, who uses a nonjudgmental, open approach to psychological interviewing. Questions that arose regarding Islamic topics during the interviews included the Islamic scholar, who was able to deepen the discussion with the interviewees.

Radicalization to violent extremism does not appear to be a pressing challenge among female prisoners, who could speak about radicalization in their communities but not in the prison. Thus, the analysis of the interview data include only the 17 male prisoners. Demographic information for the interviewees is provided in Table 1. Reporting on the prisoners’ statements throughout this report refers to them by pseudonyms.

Table 1. Demographic Information

Variable Minimum Maximum Mean Standard Deviation
Age at first arrest 16 36 21.56 5.403
Age at interview 19 46 33.12 5.957
Education (in years) 6 10 8.20 1.207
Prison time prior to current sentence (in months) 0 144 69.7 58.875
Socioeconomic status 64.7% poor/working class; 29.4% middle class; 5.9% upper class
Marital status 41.2% single, never married; 11.8% married; 47.1% divorced
Legal status 64.7% serving limited sentence; 35.3% serving life sentence

Using the verbatim notes from the interviews, the second author coded each of the prisoner interviews in SPSS Version 26 using a coding scheme designed a priori. Each of the 20 prisoner interviews was coded on 329 variables covering demographic details, life histories and vulnerabilities, criminal and prison histories, influences and motivations for radicalization, roles and experiences within the militant jihadist cell, sources of disillusionment with the group (if any), and present psychological state and level of radicalization.


General Findings

All but three of the prisoners referenced adherence to militant jihadist views such as takfir (believing only they have the correct interpretation of Islam and could excommunicate and/or declare other Muslims to be apostates who can be killed), a strict militant jihadist view of how shariah (Islamic law) and hokum (Islamic penalties for crimes) must be applied, the illegitimacy of the Maldivian government for failing to adhere to their interpretations of Islam, taghuts (infidel and polytheist leaders), the need for militant jihad, the legitimacy of suicide terrorism as Islamic martyrdom, and others. These statements were usually made upon probing and only once rapport had been established. It was also clear from their carefully worded speech that the interviewees did not reveal all of their violent beliefs. One prisoner who did not appear currently radicalized implied that he had previously associated with the radicalized prisoners but disengaged, and he spoke about his previous beliefs. The other two prisoners who did not appear radicalized spoke openly about what they had witnessed from radicalized fellow inmates.

In Maafushi Prison, an overarching emir leads all of the militant jihadists in the prison, and each prison unit also has its own emir. The extremist cell also has a shura council (a self-styled panel of Islamic judges) which metes out punishments. The extremists in the prison claim to be at war with the Maldivian government, whose leaders they believe to be taghut. For that reason, they see themselves as asirs, prisoners of war held unjustly by the state. They aim to establish what they see as a true Islamic State in the Maldives which is governed by shariah and applies hokum as they believe it should be applied, using the same brutal interpretations as ISIS did. As one interviewee, Daoud, said about the Maldives, “If a nation is considering itself an Islamic nation and has an Islamic constitution, if a man’s hand is not cut [when he steals], is it really an Islamic nation? […] The Prophet said even if my daughter stole, I would cut her hand.” Other interviewees referred to the need to fight jihad to bring about an Islamic State. Najib described militant jihad as the “same as prayer. It’s fard al-‘ayn in this time. It’s an obligation individually. It’s jihad against kafirs, munafiqs, and murtads [disbelievers, hypocrites, and those who leave Islam].” They exploit the sense of injustice among prisoners who have long sentences, harsh conditions, and a feeling of hopelessness by telling them that in a true Islamic State, no Muslim would ever be held prisoner.

The extremist cell in Maafushi appears well funded and offers new members a great deal of benefits. They appear to offer the best, if not only, in-prison drug rehabilitation program in Maafushi, albeit one that is informally arranged by the extremist prisoners themselves. Additionally, the extremists offer religious education, which many prisoners crave as a result of their lack of schooling and shame over sins such as criminality and substance abuse. The extremists also have mobile phones, money, and other material assets that are offered to new prisoners who are struggling. Finally, while ISIS and al Nusra were holding territory, if members with shorter sentences agreed to travel to Syria to join the jihad there, the cell offered and may still offer financial support for their families. Family members of committed prisoners who do not travel also appear to be supported.

The interviews, particularly those with non-radicalized prisoners (including the women), also revealed information about the broader Maldivian militant jihadist landscape. The cells run training camps in Male’ and uninhabited islands. Many of the individuals in the cells are linked to an initial group of militant jihadists who trained in Pakistan and created an isolated extremist enclave in Himandhoo and recruited other inmates while they were imprisoned, primarily after the Sultan Park bombing. Maldivian extremists work closely with the gangs, organizing murders to silence their opponents and violent robberies to fund their activities.


The interviewees reported a variety of life experiences that may have made them vulnerable to both criminal behavior and radicalization. In the sample, 52.9 percent (n = 9) had divorced parents – many reported having parents who divorced in their early childhood and that they did not have frequent contact with their fathers. Since the divorce rate in the Maldives is the highest in the world with 10.97 divorces per 1,00 people per year, this may reflect the norm for many Maldivians. Additionally, seven reported growing up in dysfunctional households. This tended to result in a feeling of a lack of positive identity and belonging and a desire to escape their psychic pain and join any group that felt like a family, even a drug-dealing gang. As adolescents and young adults, all but two interviewees struggled with substance abuse, with most reporting using hard, addictive drugs like a form of heroin they called “brown sugar.” Fewer interviewees also reported experiencing emotional abuse (n = 1) and emotional neglect (n = 1), witnessing domestic violence in their homes (n = 2), having a parent who struggled with substance abuse (n = 1), having a parent who was incarcerated (n = 1), having a parent who died during the interviewee’s childhood (n = 2), and living on their own before the age of 18 (n = 4). Six interviewees also reported experiencing specific, impactful, traumatic events during their lives. One interviewee was in a traumatic car accident, but the other five reported instances of torture during interrogations and imprisonment, primarily prior to the 2008 ratification of the Maldivian Constitution. One said that he was traumatized by witnessing other people being tortured, one said he was tortured in prison, and three said they were tortured during interrogations. Although they acknowledged that these events occurred in a previous political era, the experiences nevertheless left them resentful and distrustful of the government, which made them particularly susceptible to extremist claims that they were being unjustly imprisoned and that the government officials were taghut and applying unIslamic policies.

Ehan was arrested on drug charges for the first time when he was a teenager in 2001. He was tortured and humiliated by the guards, and a friend died in prison after being tortured. After leaving prison, he found it difficult to deal with his psychological challenges without continuing to use drugs. Finally, he was able to stay clean for one year, during which he completed a rehabilitation program and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Then, one night, Ehan was “drinking vodka. I was hung over. [My friends] said smoke some, you’ll feel better. I said I know. I’ve done this before. [It] progressed [and I] went back to heroin.” Soon enough, he was caught with just over a gram of heroin, which incurs a 16-year sentence.

Rafiq grew up poor in a thatch house after his father left the family. At age 14, he joined his father in Male’. His father told him he would put him in school, but instead forced him to work without pay in his business and prevented him from contacting his mother. He recalls, “There was no happiness once I came [to Male’]. Father kept promising when this project is finished I will enlist you in school. I never lived with my father. [I] lived in the workers’ housing unit. My father lived at home with his wife.” Rafiq later married, but his wife took their children and left him, emotionally devastating him. After that, “I started hanging out with violent drug users, let them hang at my house and gave them money. I lost my way with them.” He was arrested in relation to these friends’ crimes and says that the police “hit me with a plastic that had paper on it, so it was very heavy—a plastic paper-covered beam that they used to beat me on [my] chest, hands, body, and they beat me with military boots, kicked me with these military style boots.” In prison, his anger at his father, his wife, and the government drew Rafiq to the militant jihadists, who were compassionate and nonjudgmental about his past traumas and taught Rafiq that “Before you punish someone in Islam, you need to understand their condition, how they grew up and how they were presented to crime.” Rafiq concluded that “these things don’t happen here, so what they say [about the Maldives not being a legitimate Islamic government] makes sense.” Still, he emphasized that he was not currently a part of the extremist cell and was terrified that they would hurt him or his family if he spoke out against them.

Faisal started selling heroin at age 15 to help support his family. Soon after, he started using, quickly spiraling into addiction: “One day I was really depressed about a little problem going on in my family. One of the guys I sold drugs to said you look really depressed, listen, use some of this, you’ll feel better. As long as you don’t use it all the time, you’ll be okay.” Faisal says that when he ran out of heroin, “I started getting really sick, fever. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know what it was. [The] supplier showed up and said yeah, you’re sick, [and the] only way you will get over it is if you use it more. It turned out to be true.” Faisal’s substance abuse was exacerbated by the confusion and unfairness that he perceived during the change in government in the Maldives:

When I was first sentenced to jail, I quit. It was difficult but I got over it and then I was trying to be really good. Then, when the coup happened, when the military took over, when the Vice President took over and became the President, I got a pardon. I had married someone when I was in prison. I went to Male’ and she had come to pick me up. There was a group who was being released one at a time. I asked why I haven’t been released. There is my wife outside. They sent her away [and said] we’re sorry but your pardon was a mistake. I [had] seen the letter. How can it be a mistake? They returned me to jail. I relapsed. I used as soon as I got back, and I had been clean for two years. I never quit again.


Generally, the interviewees were influenced in their extremist beliefs by fellow prisoners through discussions, printed propaganda, and online militant jihadist content. Two admitted to being influenced by extremist materials they viewed online in prison, primarily lectures by Anwar al Awlaki (a Yemeni American ideologue, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, whose sermons are used in al Qaeda and ISIS propaganda) and stakeholders said there were other al Qaeda and ISIS ideologues whose writings were shared in prison. One prisoner also referenced the book Kitab Al-Tawhid by Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, which forms the basis of the wala’ wa bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) thought behind takfir. These materials were either in English or translated from Arabic or English into Dhivehi. Some prisoners had already begun to radicalize before entering prison: One by his parent, one by an extended family member, and six by friends.

The recruiters in prison were particularly impactful on those with little religious education. Jabbar recounts, “Before I came to prison, I literally didn’t know anything about religion. My mom told me to pray, so I did […] I learned here the principles and tenets.” About becoming a shaheed (martyr), he says, “All I know is that in Islam one of the highest positions you can attain is to die a martyr in the way of jihad. Everyone wishes for this.” Asked about suicide bombers, he admits, “I don’t know if they would become a shaheed or not.”

Latif was radicalized to violent extremism when his cousin brought him to a mosque after years of opium use. He says that the community he found “filled this place of opium with prayer and brothers,” thus demonstrating the benefit of religion in bolstering sobriety, but also the danger of replacing one addiction with another. When ordered to enter drug rehabilitation, Latif opted for a longer prison sentence instead, as he was “unhappy about rehab […] [There was] no focus on religion […] I felt that things were happening that were not up to religious standards: Mixing sexes, music, dancing. That’s why I moved to prison.” Latif would have been released from rehab after only six months, but he prefers his longer prison sentence because “There are people who want to be better, people with a history of drug abuse [who] have come for help, even for new [people] that want to be more religious.”

Another man, Mansur, espoused extremist beliefs and said that he was the imam of his prison-based cell. Perhaps in an effort to draw attention away from the extremist cell in the prison or to legitimize his extremist views, he credits his prison-based radicalization as having come from those in the Islamic Ministry running the prison’s religious education program: “In the [prison] rehabilitation program in phase one, I was taught if a person gives up the prayer, then all of the religious scholars of the ummah agree that this person should be beheaded.”


The range of motivations for associating with militant jihadists in prison and buying into their ideology was limited in comparison to those residing elsewhere who were radicalized outside of prison (Speckhard & Ellenberg, 2020). Ten (58.8 percent) were motivated by the idea that joining such groups would help them be rehabilitated from their substance abuse problems, a goal which came to fruition for a few who stopped using heroin after starting to associate with the extremists. Eight individuals, with some overlap with the former group, were motivated by the idea that becoming involved in militant jihadism would redeem them in the eyes of Allah after years of criminal and sinful behavior. Two who had committed murder expressed deep concern over whether they could be forgiven for this sin, with one stating that a Maldivian imam had said he could not ever be forgiven. Less common motivations included anger at the injustices they believed were being committed by the Maldivian government (n = 2), belief in the extremist concept of takfir defined previously (n = 1), perceived harassment by law enforcement for their beliefs (n = 1), and the opportunity to make money through their association with these individuals (n = 1).

One man, Qasim, was staunch in his belief that the Maldivian government is not Islamic, stemming in part from being tortured during interrogation as well as the inequality he reportedly witnessed in prison: “When some politicians were put in jail, they get a really nice cell area, cold water. I’ve been sleeping on a concrete sheet, without a mattress, for ten years. Not everyone is equal in this system, but in Islam even the poorest of people are on the same level.” He believed that the government was not following the laws of the Quran, and that he was essentially a prisoner of war, admitting, “Takfir I can do when taking everything into consideration.”

Najib, who was motivated by the informal extremist rehabilitation program, explained, “I was clean for six years. I was with people who followed the Sunnah for six years.” Said Bilal, “After I stopped using, [I] started praying and learning about religion. I felt a lot of satisfaction that I could stop, and not use again […] My hope is that my sins are forgiven. I get really good feelings when I pray and fast.” Said Hakim, who was still struggling with a heroin addiction, “I realize the only way [to get clean] is leading a good religious life. I could only go 30 minutes [without using]; now I can go 48 hours. I know I need to do this.”


Possibly fearing self-incrimination, very few of the interviewees admitted to holding specific roles within the militant jihadist community in the Maldives or the violent extremist cells in Maafushi Prison. However, two referred to themselves as teachers in the prison and two said they acted as prayer leaders. None admitted to being emirs, although some were accused by other interviewees of playing a greater role in the prison-based militant jihadist cell than they may have let on.

Abbas unintentionally incriminated another interviewee, Daoud, when he explained,

[Daoud] taught me tawheed. He’s a teacher. If someone wants to become good and start praying, they become a source of information and mentor him […] I was taught [that] taghut [is those] who makes a non-Islamic constitution and tries to get people to obey it. These institutions are taghut. Prison officials are part of this […] He taught me that the sentence I got was not Islamic. In Islam, if you commit a murder, if the inheritors forgive you, then you are forgiven, but you are still here in jail. You are serving an unjust Islamic sentence.

Daoud denied that he was an extremist, stating that the “more pious and righteous get accused [of being extremists]. I was a high-ranking member in the gangs. When a person like that gets more religious, police and services get afraid, versus seeing a person getting better.” Although this perspective is reflected around the world in prisons, where increased religiosity (particularly conversion to Islam) more often leads to true rehabilitation than radicalization (Hamm, 2008), Daoud’s other statements regarding his ideology and admiration of al Awlaki betrayed his claim that he was merely “getting better.”

One of the dissenters, Faisal, describes his interactions with the extremist cell in prison:

One group told me that if you are a drug user, you have to be executed. I said, ‘Show me evidence from the Quran.’ They wouldn’t show it but said, ‘This is the law of Allah. This is the Islamic religion.’ I responded that this is not the religion I know. I have heard the story of the Prophet where during a battle they had someone cornered and because he was cornered he said the shahada, but they killed him even. When they returned and told the Prophet, he said, ‘What you did was wrong,’ multiple times […] About fifteen of them attacked me. I asked them how could you hit me? They answered, ‘We were executing the emir’s order.’ The emir had declared me a kafir and I had to be executed.

Asked who the emir was, Faisal responds, “[Daoud].”

Present Radicalization and Potential for Deradicalization

Three of the interviewees did not appear radicalized, acting as informants regarding the militant jihadist scene in the prison. Said one, Carim, “I am in conflict with the more religious people in the jail. I experiment in spirituality, and they accuse me of being in witchcraft […] They say my blood is halal and I should be executed because I have committed shirk [idolatry or polytheism].”

Four were somewhat involved with the militant jihadists but seemed unclear as to what the ideology was and whether it was actually Islamic. People at this level of radicalization may be the best candidates for Islamic education programming in the prisons during which they are inoculated against the militant jihadist ideology. This may prevent these individuals from becoming fully radicalized or willing to commit acts of violent extremism. Seven interviewees had a concrete understanding of the militant jihadist ideology and were entrenched in the extremist cell in the prison. However, they were receptive to an Islamic scholar refuting their claims, showing genuine interest in learning more about Islam. As Jabbar explained when asked about his impoverished religious upbringing, “They taught us how to pray but no knowledge.” These people may benefit from more intensive sessions with credible Islamic scholars who are able to guide them with passages from the Quran and Sunnah and stand against violent interpretations of Islam presented by extremists.

Finally, three people were apparently leaders in the extremist cell in Maafushi Prison. They defended their beliefs in the face of discussion with a reputable Islamic scholar who provided reasoned arguments to undermine their twisting of scriptures to fit their ideology. These individuals may be the most resistant to deradicalization programming, though that is not to say that they should not also be targeted for such programming. However, efforts to segregate extremist prisoners and cut access to the internet and illicit phones should prioritize people who are radicalized to this fullest extent, as they are the most likely to radicalize others and to use their contacts outside the prison for malintent. In addition to radicalizing others, these leaders having contact with their own followers and those followers having access to other inmates is also dangerous. Rafiq said about the extremist cell, “They are very strong and well-connected. Even if I’m in solitary they can kill me […] They attacked me once already. Every murder in the past few years has been linked to them.”


Violent extremism is a sizeable yet manageable problem in the Maldives generally and in Maldivian prisons specifically. This challenge can be linked, as in so many other countries, to economic, political, and social contextual factors. These factors can be addressed through a whole-of-society approach which could include better housing, increased employment opportunities, improved access to secondary level education, sports and youth activities that compete with drug use, more comprehensive Islamic education which inoculates against violent extremist ideologies, and in-depth drug awareness and prevention programs.

The results of this study highlight the need for teachers, social workers, drug rehabilitation workers, prison staff, and law enforcement to be educated about the ideologies and processes of radicalization involved in violent extremism to understand the underlying psychosocial needs and drivers; the political, social, and economic context in which radicalization occurs; and the details and fallacies of the militant jihadist ideology. If age-appropriate prevention and countering violent extremism programs, including in-depth Islamic education, are instituted in schools, students can feel confident and prepared to reject the claims of militant jihadists and their twisted interpretations of Islam. Teachers of these programs should be able to confidently address and deconstruct militant jihadist claims. They should not shy away from provocative questions; if children feel that they cannot ask questions about the militant jihadist ideology or if they are shut down when they do ask these questions, they may be tempted to turn to other sources, whether online “scholars” or local extremists. One such question was asked by Khalid in his interview: “What I am confused about is, who are the true people who are fighting in wars? ISIS, Hezbollah, al Qaeda. Among these groups, who are the people who are on the true path?” Given a thoughtful answer by a trusted teacher, he may be less likely to seek out an extremist who tells him that groups like ISIS are righteous, despite their slaughter of innocents. Similarly, those on the frontlines need to know where to turn for interventions with youth who are already radicalizing, as stakeholders from the Ministry of Education made clear that teachers know how to identify radicalized youth but have no idea how to effectively intervene.

There are also steps that can be taken in prisons to alleviate some of the grievances that augment prisoners’ vulnerability to violent extremist radicalization. These include improving prisoners’ quality of life, increasing access to general and Islamic education programs, particularly for the high-security prisoners who interact with the extremists, providing effective drug rehabilitation that includes an Islamic component, segregating vulnerable prisoners from extremists, and decreasing the benefits that militant jihadists can offer to prisoners by blocking internet access and leaders’ ability to communicate. Likewise, deconstructing the militant jihadists’ claims and teaching the prisoners how to interpret Islam in ways that benefit their lives rather than making them a danger to themselves and society is crucial.


Al-Badayneh, D.M., Al-Assasfeh, R.A. and Al-Bhri, N.A., 2016. Social causes of arab youth radicalizing. Journalism6(12), pp.743-756.

Awan, I., 2013. Muslim prisoners, radicalization and rehabilitation in British prisons. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs33(3), pp.371-384.

Baker, A.H., 2012. Engagement and partnership in community-based approaches to counter-terrorism. In Counter-Terrorism (pp. 74-99). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Bin Khaled Al-Saud, A., 2020. Deciphering IS’s narrative and activities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Terrorism and Political Violence32(3), pp.469-488.

Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, 2015. Maldives. Country Reports on Terrorism 2015.

Christiansen, S., 2017. Preventing Radicalization in Prisons: A comparative analysis of the Danish and Swedish Prison and Probation Service’s counter-radicalization strategies within prisons.

Counter Extremism Project, 2021. Maldives: Extremism and terrorism. Counter Extremism Project.

Government of Maldives, 2019. Strategic action plan, 2019-2023. Government of Maldives.

Hamm, M.S., 2008. Prisoner radicalization: Assessing the threat in US correctional institutions.

Jasko, K., LaFree, G. and Kruglanski, A., 2017. Quest for significance and violent extremism: The case of domestic radicalization. Political Psychology38(5), pp.815-831.

Jones, C.R., 2014. Are prisons really schools for terrorism? Challenging the rhetoric on prison radicalization. Punishment & Society16(1), pp.74-103.

Kruglanski, A.W., Bélanger, J.J. and Gunaratna, R., 2019. The three pillars of radicalization: Needs, narratives, and networks. Oxford University Press, USA.

Kruglanski, A.W., Gelfand, M.J., Sheveland, A., Babush, M., Hetiarachchi, M., Ng Bonto, M. and Gunaratna, R., 2016. What a difference two years make: Patterns of radicalization in a Philippine jail. Dynamics of asymmetric conflict9(1-3), pp.13-36.

Makan, A. (2007). Bomb blast wounds 12 tourists in Maldives capital. Reuters. Available at: Maldives-capital-idUSCOL8415420070929.

Mashal, M. (2021). Former Maldives President Is Critically Injured in Bombing. The New York Times.   Available at:

Naaz, A. A., 2011. Prison assessment and proposed rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders report. United Nations Development Programme in the Maldives and the Government of Maldives.

Naaz, A.A., & Ibrahim, A. S., 2019. Maldives: Towards the reformation of the criminal justice system. In Jaishankar, K. (Ed.), Routledge handbook of South Asian criminology. Routledge.

Naseem, A., 2020. Maldives embraces a Salafi future. Routledge Handbook of South Asian Religions, 371.

Neumann, P. R., 2010. Prisons and terrorism: Radicalisation and de-radicalisation in 15 countries. ICSR, King’s College London.

Pickering, R., 2012. Terrorism, extremism, radicalisation and the offender management system: The story so far. Prison Service Journal203, pp.9-14.

Rascoff, S.J., 2012. Establishing Official Islam-The Law and Strategy of Counter-Radicalization. Stan. L. Rev.64, p.125.

Rushchenko, J., 2018. Prison management of terrorism-related offenders: is separation effective. Centre on Radicalization and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, Millbank, London7.

Shafy, M. A., & bint Wan Muhammad, R., 2018. Imprisonment As a Form of Punishment: A Case Study of Maldives. Journal of Asian and African Social Science and Humanities4(4), 1-8.

Speckhard, A., 2012. Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers &” martyrs”. Advances Press.

Speckhard, A., 2016. The lethal cocktail of terrorism: the four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role. International Center  for the Study of Violent Extremism: Brief Report.

Speckhard, A. and Akhmedova, K., 2006. Black widows: The Chechen female suicide terrorists. Female suicide bombers: Dying for equality84(1), pp.63-80.

Speckhard, A. and Ellenberg, M.D., 2020. ISIS in Their Own Words. Journal of Strategic Security13(1), pp.82-127.

Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A. and Yayla, A.S., 2018. Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long?–Challenges for the West in Dealing with Returning Foreign Fighters. Homeland Security Affairs14.

U.S. Department of State., 2019. Integrated Country Strategy: Maldives.

Useem, B. and Clayton, O., 2009. Radicalization of US prisoners. Criminology & Public Policy8(3), pp.561-592.

Yom, S. and Sammour, K., 2017. Counterterrorism and youth radicalization in Jordan: Social and political dimensions. CTC Sentinel10(4), pp.25-30.

Zahir, A. (2020). Islamic State Terror in the Maldives as COVID-19 Arrives. The Diplomat. Available at:

[1] Viewed by the lead author, who designed the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of the U.S. military’s deradicalization program used in Iraq

Back To Top