Why Mauritius must wake up to the Islamic State threat fast

By Shantanu Mukharji

Mauritius, the serene Indian Ocean island once notorious as the dumping ground of labourers of Indian origin, has started showing a disturbing trend. The Islamic State could be trying to establish a foothold here; in fact it may have made some progress on it already.

The warning signal comes from recent revelation on the presence of some Mauritians in the IS and unconfirmed reports that over the last one year some locals have traveled to Syria to join the organisation. The most disturbing development, however, is a propaganda video of the IS showing a young Mauritian, a Hindu converted to Islam a decade ago, speaking Creole (the lingua franca of Mauritius) and exhorting all Muslim brothers and sisters to come and join the promised land and to 'free Mauritius'. The propaganda speech makes a blatant appeal to people to ignore calls by current and erstwhile prime ministers of Mauritius, US President Obama and UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron for communal harmony and adhere to the preaching of the prophet, who the video presenter claims , had advised the Muslims to fight with their bodies and swords. Such a development is unprecedented in the history of Mauritius. This outburst, disseminated through a video, appears to be negating the efforts of the moderate Muslims who have been counseling the younger lot not to fall prey to the IS’ radicalisation tirade promising paradise through jihad.

 Why Mauritius must wake up to the Islamic State threat fast

Representational image. Image courtesy: Reuters

Muslims in Mauritius, mostly of Indian origin, have been largely non-communal and peaceful. Yet some may fall prey to the IS’s propaganda offensive. Maldives, with a population of less than four lakh, has seen a large number of inductions in IS. This should be a wake-up call for Mauritius.

What should be worrisome for India is that Pakistan too has been active, diplomatically and otherwise, in this region. The last three Pakistan High Commissioners here have been retired military officers of the rank of major general. Such assignments may be a well-crafted strategy to keep an eye on the Indian influence in the geo-strategically critical country.

In November 2012, Pakistan navy sent its warship ‘Tipu Sultan’ to the island. Despite protests by moderates, Dr Zakir Naik, an Islamic activist, was allowed to visit Mauritius in 2012. As usual, his rhetoric did have an impact on a section of the youth. In sum, Pakistan’s interest in the island and recent reports of some Mauritians joining the IS cadres cannot be seen in isolation and merit a close watch.

While Mauritius figures in Pakistan’s strategic agenda, India’s effort has been less than urgent. It has been generally posting career diplomats, mostly on the verge of retirement. The present incumbent too retires from here early, though his initiatives to keep aloft security issues have been focused and on course.

On its part, Mauritius has been lackadaisical in its approach to the emerging threats. The intelligence apparatus in the island at present is perceived to be devoting most of its time and energy to pursuing political intelligence rather than countering terror. The nascent Counter Terrorism Unit has not added teeth and fangs to its body so far. A definite roadmap to tackle terror is amiss. The officers and men at their command carry the promise to deliver, but they lack effective leadership to goad them into action.

As I write this piece, the present government marks the completion of one year in office. Its biggest task now includes pre-empting a section of misled Mauritian Muslims, albeit minuscule in number, from joining the IS. The government has spent one year of its rule in investigating political opponents. This has taken a toll on the intelligence establishment, which has lost focus on priority areas. Western intelligence agencies have been urging Mauritius to abandon its ostrich-like attitude and tackle growing radicalisation in a serious manner but to no avail.

Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth, believed to be a staunch Hindu, was so tough against the Libyan Ambassador in 1992 that he ensured the latter's expulsion and closure of the embassy within 24 hours following allegations that the Libyan Ambassador was openly distributing money to those converting to Islam. Such a tough approach is no more visible.

Indian counter terror experts have been sincere in helping out Mauritius with sharing of intelligence and reorienting their Counter Terrorism Unit. It is expected that Mauritius would keep India on board in restructuring its apparatus to deal with threats in a meaningful way.

India can play a crucial role by augmenting intelligence sharing and imparting advance training to the Mauritian security set up. Traditionally, Mauritius has been recruiting an Indian National Security Advisor since 1983. In the light of the growing threat of terror, it would appear practical to post a serving Indian police officer (or freshly retired) with adequate background of intelligence and counter terror for Mauritius instead of assigning such an important task to individuals devoid of any active knowledge with policing.

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2015 15:43:38 IST