Malaysia increases counterterrorism measures, arrests

Malaysia increases counterterrorism measures, arrests

Joseph Hammond

Malaysian authorities have launched several new efforts to combat terrorism in recent months to suppress potential large-scale attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Southeast Asia.

“Malaysia is serious about fighting extremism in its soil and elsewhere,” Animesh Roul, the executive director of the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, told FORUM. “The threat of [ISIS] has, in fact, changed the mindset of political and religious elites in many Southeast Asian countries.”

The battle of Marawi in the neighboring Philippines, in which the Armed Forces of the Philippines fought ISIS militants for months and successfully suppressed their nefarious activities, has served as a warning for several member states of the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

“With Islamic State, most of them come from various backgrounds,” Roul said. “That’s why we are having problems identifying them at the early stages.”

Malaysia has stepped up its counterterrorism efforts through joint defense measures and a renewed push to counter extremist ideology online. Malaysian authorities are also on pace to arrest more individuals linked to ISIS in 2017 than in previous years.

Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the head of the Malaysian national police’s counterterrorism division, told Channel NewsAsia that officials had made 82 arrests linked to ISIS as of October 19, 2017, a figure that was  on pace to break the record of 109 such arrests in 2016. Malaysia has significantly increased counterterrorism arrests since 2013 when it only made four arrests tied to ISIS.

To prevent individuals in the “early stages” from joining groups such as ISIS, Malaysia has partnered with various foreign governments to speed the development of centers designed to identify and counter violent extremism (CVE) online. The most notable of these is the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Centre (RDC3). Modeled on a similar center in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), RDC3 has been jointly developed by UAE and the United States. The center has also received financial and technical support from the Chinese government.

Other nations are also developing CVE centers in Malaysia. The Saudi-funded King Salman Centre for International Peace is being built on 16 hectare in Putrajaya. Extremism in Malaysia isn’t a peripheral concern for Saudi Arabia. Malaysian authorities announced in March 2017 they foiled a plot to assassinate King Salman during his visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier in the year.

International cooperation is an increasing feature of Malaysia’s counterterrorism efforts. ISIS’ increased activities in Southeast Asia may have also served as an impetus for the implementation of a 2016 trilateral defense agreement among Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In the summer of 2017, the three nations launched joint maritime patrols to prevent smuggling, piracy and terrorism in the Sea of Sulu. In October, the three countries announced joint air patrols in a ceremony at  Subang Air Base. (Pictured: Special forces drill in October 2017 after announcing the joint patrols at Subang Air Base in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia). Malaysia has already begun its patrols and will be joined by the Philippines and Indonesia in January 2018.

The Trump administration has applauded and encouraged Malaysia’s developments, including its decision to make an additional U.S. $60 million in defense procurements from the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Razak to the White House in September to discuss a variety of issues including counterterrorism in Southeast Asia and beyond.

When it comes to fighting terrorism, “[Malaysia] will also contribute regarding the ideological warfare because you need to win the hearts and minds,” Razak said. “And the key to it is to support moderate and progressive Muslim regimes and governments around the world, because that is the true face of Islam.”

Joseph Hammond is Transatlantic Media Fellow and a FORUM contributor reporting from London.