The second of November 1988 was no different from any other day to the citizens of Maldives, a country of roughly 300,000 people. Known to the world for its natural beauty, the islanders enjoy a peaceful way of life.
Male, the capital city of the Maldives is a crowded island city with a population of nearly 80,000 people. In the 1980s, Maldives was in a state of economic prosperity with a booming million-dollar tourism industry. No one in this island nation, including its leaders and army was aware of the danger that was approaching them.
Hundreds of miles away, rebels fighting a civil war in Sri Lanka were making plans for an invasion of this small island state. Unaware of the horrific events that would unfold in a matter of hours the people of Male went to sleep.
It was 4am in the morning; a young corporal in the Maldivian army was at patrol duty at the front gate of the army headquarters located close to the Marine Drive of the capital city. Corporal Hussein Adam was unaware that his actions in matter of minutes would save his country from a future that no man desires.
Just off the coast of the capital city Male, terrorists armed with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and high explosives were getting ready for an invasion of the small island state. They had travelled for several days in stolen freighters for this deadly mission.
It was about 4.15am in the morning of 3rd November 1988. Two vessels approached Male harbour boarding 80 well-armed Tamil terrorists, who were determined to break the defensive barriers of the Maldives and capture its leaders. They had prepared for this mission for several months in terrorist training camps in the neighbouring country of Sri Lanka. As soon as they reached the jetty, they divided into small groups and headed to their destinations, which included the headquarters of the army and the Presidential Palace.
Within few minutes after landing on the capital city, a group of terrorists launched a frontal attack on the army headquarters. Their mission was to use the “shock and awe” created by the attack as an advantage to storm and infiltrate the army headquarters. Corporal Hussein Adam responded to the enemy fire, the second he heard it. Armed with an Ak-47 rifle and just one spare magazine, he fired relentlessly at the enemy. This split second decision and decisive action halted the enemy and pinned them down.
Under fire, the gates of the headquarters were soon closed but the young corporal engaged with the enemy was unable to make it through. Locked outside with just one spare magazine of ammo, the young corporal had two choices; either stay and fight or run for his life like his partner did. As he reloaded his Kalashnikov assault rifle, he looked at the enemy head on and fired his last rounds knowing that it was up to him to hold the enemy back. In a matter of seconds, as he ran out of ammo enemy bullets sprayed on him.
Inside the headquarters, the sleeping soldiers were awakened by the sound of gunfire. Within a few seconds, soldiers in well-fortified positions engaged the enemy. But by then the terrorists had laid siege to the headquarters cutting it off from rest of the world. By that time, the terrorist leaders, two of whom were Maldivians, knew that the initial stage of the terrorist plot had failed. They were not ready for a prolonged fight but set up their invasion plans on a blitzkrieg tactic.
As one group of the terrorist laid siege to the army headquarters, other small groups of terrorists started to sweep the capital city to find and capture senior figures of the Maldivian government while some groups were on a sabotage spree to destroy communications in an attempt to cut off the nation from the rest of the world.
In the Presidential Palace, the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom was awakened by the sound of gunfire, unaware of the events taking place. He was soon escorted under fire into a safe house located a few blocks away from the palace. President Maumoon was just re-elected into office for a third term and was popular among the Maldivian people by then.
It was dawn on 3rd November 1988, in the gun battles that raged for almost three hours now; Maldivian army had miraculously killed the three leaders of the terrorists, leaving them in disarray. Pinned down, all their leaders dead and the Maldivian army strengthening their counter attack, the terrorists resorted to hostage takings and using civilians as human shields to force the army to surrender. By this time terrorists had seized a mosque located next to the headquarters and taken the worshipers hostage and were using the elevated position to fire on the soldiers. But if they were to defeat the Maldivian army they had to find a point of entrance. Desperate, they used dynamite to blow up the thick walls of the headquarters. As soon as the dynamite blew and before the dust of the explosion settled, the soldiers inside directed machine gun fire through the large gap that was created.
Inside the army headquarters, a Reconnaissance patrol team was being gathered to storm out of the besieged headquarters in a bid to collect intelligence on the ongoing situation and determine the enemy strength. Leading this patrol team was a young Captain named Moosa Ali Jaleel. Young and enthusiastic, this graduate of royal marines’ all arms commando training in United Kingdom volunteered for the daring mission. The first attempt to storm out was made on a bus but was unsuccessful as the gate of the army headquarters was jammed by enemy fire and resulting explosions.
Meanwhile, in his safe house, President Gayoom sent distress calls to friendly states including the United States, UK, India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, all of whom had considered the call. Unfortunately, for the US, its seventh battle group stationed in Diego Garcia was in a training exercise too far away to react in such a short notice. However, US Marines in Diego Garcia were put on alert and were told to standby for rapid deployment to the Maldives but their mission was aborted as, within hours, Indian Prime Minister Ragiv Gandhi assured President Gayoom that Indian paratroops were on their way to the rescue.
Inside the army headquarters, the reconnaissance patrol team was getting ready for another attempt. This time the attempt was being made on foot with another small gate located at the rear end of the headquarters. The soldiers soon gave away a wave of covering fire to give the team a chance to run out. Captain Jaleel stormed out firing his Kalashnikov but only nine members of his eleven-member team could come out, three of whom died under fire as the terrorists intensified firing on their position. With Indian troops on their way to reinforce the Maldivian army all they had to do was hold their positions. The team completed their mission and entered the headquarters through the same gate. Captain Jaleel was injured by shrapnel wounds in the fighting that followed but continued to fight.
With victory not in sight, the terrorists turned against the two leaders left alive. Frustrated and outnumbered they started looting the local shops for food. By the dusk of the same day, with US reconnaissance aircrafts circling Male, the terrorists made up another plan – this time to escape on a Maldivian shipping liner docked outside Male. By nightfall, this plan was in full motion that they transferred one cabinet minister, his wife, a prominent businessman, and several other local people to the ship as hostages.
By midnight, Indian paratroopers had secured the international airport next to the capital city and were soon heading stealthily in small boats towards the Presidential Palace on the adjoining island. Then there was an eerie silence broken only by the occasional landing of the Indian air force aircrafts. Around 3am, the menacing silence was shattered by the sound of firing of small and medium arms. It seemed there was an exchange of fire between a ship heading for high seas and the Indian troops on the island. By daybreak, the mercenaries fled and the situation was under control. The Indian Air Force and the naval aircrafts launched another operation to track down the vessel carrying the terrorists and the hostages.
The cargo ship taken hostage by the terrorists was detected and tracked by Indian maritime reconnaissance aircrafts, and two Indian Naval vessels, the INS Tir and INS Godavari, were able to capture the absconding ship. The terrorists were demanding the Indians not to follow them and when the warning was ignored, two hostages were executed point blank. Sea King helicopters, from one of the naval vessels, dropped depth charges to deter evasion. On the morning of 6th November 1988, the Indian Marine Strike Force (now known as the Marine Commando Force - MARCOS) commandos boarded the vessel and took control without any resistance from the terrorists.
In the capital city Male, the government and the people of Maldives were still in a state of shock and trauma. Several points were still unclear, including the number of casualties, the identity and number of the Tamil and Sinhalese-speaking men who tried to topple President Gayoom, and the identity of their leaders. Tamil and Sinhalese are the languages of the main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, an island nation some 400 miles east of the Maldives. But a clear picture of the events soon started emerging. The terrorists who belonged to a Sri Lankan rebel group called “PLOTE” were working with two Maldivians to overthrow the legitimately elected government. In the fighting that took place, 19 people died and dozens more were wounded. But to this day several key questions remain unanswered about the events that took place.
Corporal Hussein Adam, aged just 19, who gave his life for his country was awarded highest military decorations and is still today regarded by the people as the “Hero of Maldives.” It was undoubtedly his actions that saved the day. The people of Maldives still mark the 3rd of November each year as the “Day of Victory.”
Experts who study this event are divided about the motive of the PLOTE but soon after the event international media put forward different conspiracy theories, speculations and unfounded allegations. Some of those allegations point that the People’s Liberation Organisation was reported to had been offered at least US$1 million – some estimates run as high as US$10 million – by a foreign government to overthrow President Gayoom’s government.
But other experts say they are not certain whether money was the only reward the terrorists were to get for their part in the coup. There have been suggestions that the Tamils may have been promised one of the small Maldivian islands as a base, possibly for narcotics smuggling and their war against the Sri Lankan government.
Much changed after the failed coup attempt; the Maldivian army itself was reformed and strengthened to face such threats in future. Until then the army was just a paramilitary force designed to quell domestic violence and a tool to establish law and order. But yet the world and India itself had not learned from this threat of seaborne terrorism. Exactly 21 years after the terrorist plot in Maldives was foiled another band of terrorists launched a similar much more devastating terrorist attack – this time on the financial heart of India, Mumbai.