Returning Foreign Fighters

Returning Foreign Fighters

Malaysia employs A multifaceted counterterrorism strategy to suppress threats


In January 2016, militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killed four civilians in a gun and bomb assault near a bus station in Jakarta, Indonesia. Soon after, ISIS claimed responsibility for a grenade attack at a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur, injuring eight people and marking the first ISIS-affiliated attack to hit Malaysia. Then in 2017 militants inspired by ISIS controlled the southern Philippine city of Marawi for more than five months. Hundreds died, and fears materialized that ISIS would try to spread its influence in Southeast Asia as the group was pushed out of Syria and Iraq.

In recent years, the threat of attacks in the Indo-Pacific region by ISIS and affiliated foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq has materialized. Since ISIS’ emergence, however, Malaysia has implemented counterterrorism measures that have proven largely successful in containing such threats there. Through December 2017, Malaysian authorities had foiled 19 large plots, including the botched nightspot attack in Kuala Lumpur, and detained more than 340 terror suspects since 2013. Authorities went from making four such arrests in 2013 to arresting more than 100 terror suspects in 2016 and 2017. Moreover, Malaysian courts have achieved among the highest conviction rates of nations for terror-related crimes, convicting and sentencing more than 100 people in the past four years.

However, military and police professionals engaged in combating the spread of terrorism must remain vigilant, experts say. The large-scale defeat of ISIS in Marawi, for example, could cause another wave of foreign fighters migrating to other countries in the Indo-Pacific from the Philippines, some analysts have warned. The threat to Malaysia remains high, they say.

For Malaysia, “I rank Islamic State as the No. 1 threat [for 2018] as its ideology has spread all over the world. Even though they no longer have any territories, they still receive strong support and have many sympathizers,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the Malaysian police counterterrorism division, told Channel NewsAsia in late December 2017. “Marawi in the Philippines is the second-biggest threat because IS is expanding its power to the Southeast Asia region. People are joining them [pro-ISIS groups] in the Philippines because the location is nearer and easier to access compared with Syria,” he said.

Authorities have confirmed that more than 50 Malaysians joined ISIS in Syria, according to Ayob Khan, and the actual numbers could be much higher. In Syria, ISIS formed distinct units called Katibah Nusantara that were composed of Indonesians and Malaysians who moved to the region. Authorities estimate that at least 20 Malaysians died fighting in Syria, including nine suicide bombers.

Soldiers guard a major shopping area in Kuala Lumpur after Australia warned that terrorists might be plotting attacks. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Meanwhile, at least five Malaysians traveled to Mindanao to join terror groups through the end of 2017, Ayob Khan told Channel NewsAsia. Before being killed in a gunfight with Armed Forces of the Philippines Soldiers, a former Malaysian university lecturer named Mahmud Ahmad helped plan and fund the Marawi siege, raising more than U.S. $500,000.

ISIS “may have lost a very valuable conduit in Mindanao with the reported death of Mahmud,” Rommel Banlaoi, a terrorism expert who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told The New York Times newspaper in October 2017. “His death can severely affect financing terrorism in the region. However, threats of attacks from other terror groups remain imminent. It’s not yet over.”

Malaysians are continuing to venture to Mindanao. During the first half of December 2017, Malaysian police arrested 16 men who wanted to join a pro-ISIS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group, Ayob Khan said.

Continuing online threat

Moreover, ISIS’ online recruitment efforts are ongoing, some of which have worked in Malaysia. For example, ISIS has distributed various videos in Malay via its Al-Hayat media center with the hopes of recruiting Malaysians to execute attacks in Malaysia. ISIS has used other social media routes, including encrypted messaging apps to radicalize Malaysians.

“Although the concept of the caliphate is long gone, IS is currently exploiting the social media to recruit, disseminate ideology and incite new members to launch attacks in their respective countries,” Ayob Khan told Bernama, a news agency of the Malaysian government, as evidenced by the October 2017 arrests of three ISIS members in Kelantan who were suspected of planning attacks at the Better Beer Festival 2017 and other targets in the Klang Valley with improvised explosive devices. “They were influenced by the ideology and then learned to make a bomb through the IS website,” he said.

“The IS ideology is getting more active without the need to go to Syria and without having to recruit people physically anymore,” he told Bernama.

To counter ISIS online, Malaysia helped launch a regional initiative in 2016 called the Digital Counter-Messaging Centre. It will help stop outreach and recruitment efforts by ISIS and other militant groups in the region, then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said during a speech at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Police conference in July 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, according to themalaymailonline.

“It is vital that this center utilizes the studies that illustrate why there is nothing at all ‘Islamic’ about the IS that shamefully declares [itself] as such,” he said. “It is also vital that all authorities — our muftis, our media commissions, our tech-savvy young people for whom social media is an integral part of their daily lives — ensure that the message the center puts out is solid, persuasive and real.”

Because the online threat transcends geographical borders, information sharing is increasingly important, experts agree. Ayob Khan said the Malaysian government and Royal Malaysia Police are working to enhance information sharing with many other countries to enable authorities to monitor, detain and return foreign fighters to their countries of origin, according to a January 2018 report by “We need intelligence sharing. If not, how can we detect any terrorist suspect?” he asked.

“We are worried because if we fail to obtain intelligence, we certainly cannot detect and defeat IS attacks,” Ayob Khan told Bernama.

Innovative approaches

Malaysia has proven a trailblazer in implementing counterterrorism measures. The nation, long at the forefront of counterterrorism, has adopted a multifaceted approach that employs a diverse set
of tactics.

Malaysia has long espoused that tackling terrorism requires a whole-of-society approach that looks beyond military and police solutions to resolve the threat. Prior to the onset of ISIS, for example, Malaysia had implemented innovative approaches to deradicalizing individuals to reintegrate them into society. Its programs, which are run by the ministries of home affairs and education in conjunction with prison authorities and religious institutions, rank among the most successful, according to available statistics. Between 2001 and 2012, Malaysia treated 229 suspected terrorists in its programs, and seven are known to have since engaged in terrorist activities. Malaysian officials plan to enroll Malaysians radicalized by ISIS in programs similar to those that helped citizens radicalized by Jemaah Islamiyah.

Public information campaigns and education programs may also help stop individuals from becoming radicalized, some experts advocate. “We need efforts by our religious authorities to explain to the public about the misinterpretation, the misquotation of certain al-Quran verses,” Ayob Khan told the FreeMalaysiaToday website. He said schools may need to include modules in their curricula to address the perils of extremism.

Similarly, even before ISIS emerged in 2014, Malaysian lawmakers passed updated anti-terror legislation under its Security Offences and Special Measures Act (SOSMA). The laws added provisions for terrorism-related offenses and crimes to the nation’s penal code. For example, SOSMA criminalized promoting terrorist acts, aiding terrorists and financing terrorism and implemented tough penalties, including death in some instances, for those convicted of such offenses.

Then in 2015, Malaysia introduced additional legislation to grant police more authority to arrest and detain suspected terrorists. The laws include the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act. In addition, Malaysia joined the international Financial Action Task Force in 2016 to help crack down on global financing of terrorist groups.

Malaysia also is cooperating with Australia and other Southeast Asian nations to stifle terror financing of ISIS and other terror groups. Called the Southeast Asia Counter Terrorism Financing Working Group, the alliance will “directly target and disrupt the funding lifeline of terrorist groups” by blocking them from the international financial system and other funding sources, Australian Justice Minister Michael Keenan said in Kuala Lumpur in November 2017 at the third Counter-Terrorism Financing Summit, The Straits Times newspaper reported. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that “to stop a terror network effectively, all forms of its financing must be cut off,” The Straits Times reported.

Malaysia has also enhanced its terror enforcement capacity in recent years. In October 2016 then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak created a National Special Operations Force. The unit integrated personnel from the Armed Forces, police and Malaysian maritime enforcement agency to provide a coordinated response to any terror attack. Then in July 2017, the Royal Malaysia Police announced plans to launch a new federal counterterrorism department, according to The Straits Times. The department will be staffed by 500 officers or more than double the 200 officers who are drawn from various state forces to staff the existing counterterrorism division.

“The establishment of this new department is timely, especially when terror threats are growing in this region. The country needs more trained personnel to keep Malaysia safe from radicalism and extremism, including the war against the Islamic State group,” a source told The Straits Times.

Malaysia also supports various institutions within its borders to suppress such threats, including the King Salman Center for International Peace and the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism.

Malaysia’s comprehensive approach to countering terrorism serves as a model for the region to help keep ISIS in check. Malaysia’s strong laws, intelligence sharing and vigilant law enforcement efforts combined with online countermessaging, revamped education and deradicalization programs have aimed at tackling terrorism from all sides and enabled authorities to successfully curb such activities.