Video raises fears of al Qaeda expansion to Maldives

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MALE, Nov 19 (Reuters) A propaganda video shot inside a radical Maldives mosque and posted on the Internet has raised fears that al Qaeda is gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean tourist paradise.

The video was recorded at the Dhar-al-Khuir mosque on the remote Himandhoo island in the hours before it was raided on October 6 as part of an investigation into a September bomb blast in the capital Male.

Dozens of men from Himandhoo remain in custody, following the September 29 attack that wounded 12 foreign tourists.

Intelligence analysts warned the appearance of the footage on a Web site linked to al Qaeda was an attempt to attract recruits for militant activities in the Maldives, which has practised a moderate form of Sunni Islam for centuries.

Under the catchline ''Your brothers in the Maldives are calling you'', the nearly two minute trailer shows images of masked men praying. A follow-up feature is promised.

The video was uploaded onto the Islamist al Ekhlaas site, where it features alongside clips of fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The Maldives, a chain of more than a thousand islands straddling the Equator, is famed for its white sand beaches and celebrity retreats.

The September blast, which struck tourists near the entrance to a popular park, was the first recorded Islamist militant attack in the country.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asian's longest serving leader, responded by banning the full veil and foreign Islamic preachers. He ordered the strict enforcement of the Religious Unity Act, which forbids prayer in non-government mosques.

Nick Grace, a counter-terrorism analyst for threatswatch.org told Reuters the video could be part of an effort ''to establish a fully operational al Qaeda cell in the Maldives''.

Grace said the propaganda video was an attempt to attract ''finance and recruits'' for militant activity in the Maldives.

He said there was a spike in funding for Philippines separatist Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf after it posted a video on the same Web site a few months ago.

B. Raman, a former head of India's external intelligence agency, wrote in an article on the Asian political Web site www.saag.org that ''The reported expansion of al Qaeda's arc of jihadi operations to the Maldives should be of concern to the international maritime community''.

He warned of possible attacks on international shipping routes.

Despite a government ban on travel to Pakistan for study in militant Islamic schools, the propaganda video is the latest evidence of an international dimension to the September 29 attack.

Earlier this month, Maldives police said 10 masterminds of the blast were on the run in Pakistan, while an Indian newspaper has reported links between one of the leading suspects and the Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Reuters SYU RS1855

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