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Malaysia in the post-IS era

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A view of the city skyline in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 23 October 2019 (Photo:Reuters/ Lim Huey Teng).

In Brief

Since its independence on 31 August 1957, Malaysia has confronted security threats of different forms and intensity, including from terrorist groups Jama’ah Islamiyyah (JI) until 2012 and the so-called Islamic State (IS) until 2019. The disintegration of IS has left its fighters and their families in chaos. Some former fighters are requesting repatriation while others choose to stay in Syria, hoping that IS will return to power. How will the post-IS era impact Malaysia?


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What are the challenges for Malaysia’s counter-terrorism department, E8, and its newly appointed chief Normah Ishak?

Six key factors may pose threats to Malaysia.

First, IS is transforming from an organisation into a movement with a global following. The fall of IS in late 2017 arguably marked its end as an organisation, but its legacy remains. One former IS follower said in late 2019 that the true success of IS has been to make it a global household name. Attacks initiated by individuals and cells across the world are indicators of IS’s success in spreading its propaganda globally. Despite aggressive campaigns dedicated to countering violent extremism, support for IS in Malaysia remains as a result of discrete recruitment drives and ideological appeal.

Second, terrorism threats in Malaysia are often globally inspired, locally created and regionally connected. The nature of such terrorist threats is manifest in groups such as JI, IS and other IS-affiliated groups. IS-affiliated groups are inspired by IS’s global ideology, are locally created and have regional strategic partners, usually from Indonesia and the Philippines, to provide funding, technical support and ideological inputs.

This suggests that Malaysia’s security, to some extent, depends on the security of its neighbours, especially Indonesia and the Philippines. This is evident in the religious tensions and conflicts in the southern Philippines, which affects the security of the nearby Malaysian state of Sabah. Malaysia must continue to assist the Philippines in solving these issues as seen in the 2014 peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Manila.

Third, despite the fall of IS in Syria, recruitment drives targeting youth continue. For example, in late 2019 two university students were recruited by IS-affiliated individuals online. The duo were approached by a recruiter on social media and invited to join a Telegram group. They were then indoctrinated, received online training on bomb-making and groomed to carry out a terrorist operation. But this activity was quickly discovered by the authorities and the plan was thwarted.

Fourth, political radicalisation has been intensifying alongside the increased rivalry between the hardline supporters of both long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH), which won power in May 2018. This is manifest in the form of racial hostility, a lack of mutual respect, sensitivity and tolerance, and the inability to learn and benefit from each other’s differences. Despite underlying social and political tensions, diversity has historically been considered a source of strength in Malaysia. This strength is being eroded.

Fifth, Malaysia has a policy of repatriation for returning foreign fighters and their families. There are four main justifications for this policy. The fighters are still Malaysian citizens and so the government has the legal and moral obligation to take them back. Repatriation prevents them from travelling to other countries and posing a security threat to other countries. There is a humanitarian rationale when widows or small children are involved. Malaysia also has robust terrorism laws and is confident in its legal system’s capabilities.

But this policy presents a number of challenges. Malaysia needs to develop a new method of rehabilitation assessment which includes ideological, psychological and security assessments because IS’s ideology is more extreme than al-Qaeda and Jama’ah Islamiyyah. Given recent developments in Syria, some detainees who initially decided to be repatriated are now choosing to stay after being influenced by Southeast Asian inmates that claim IS will make a comeback. Bringing fighters back is also logistically challenging.

The final factor is political uncertainty. Malaysians expected post-2018 politics to be more stable — socially, politically and economically. But internally, inexperienced ministers, party infighting due to differences in ideology and policy priorities, and an unfulfilled manifesto are contributing to political anxiety. The defeat of PH candidates in several by-elections showed that people were disenchanted with the government.

Malaysia’s opposition parties capitalised on any possible opportunities to amplify PH’s failures, especially in implementing its manifesto. The ouster of the PH government in February 2020 was the culmination of internal conflict within the PH coalition, while the opposition seized the opportunity to form a new government led by Perikatan Nasional.

This political instability has had spill over effects for national security. Political distractions may affect Malaysia’s ability to fight violent extremism, pushback against terrorist ideology and secure national security. The post-IS era brings a new set of challenges that require immediate action. A wait-and-see attitude towards tackling problems in the early stages will be costly in the long run. Clearly, Malaysia’s E8 counter-terrorism department has a lot on its plate.

Ahmad El-Muhammady is a counter-terrorism analyst and research fellow at the Extremism Analytic Research Unit of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization at the International Islamic University Malaysia (ISTAC-IIUM). He is an expert witness appointed by the Malaysian government to provide analysis and testimony on terrorism cases to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu High Court. He is also part of a terrorism rehabilitation team under the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs.

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