Fight against ‘internal terrorism’ biggest hurdle for Malaysia

Philippine Marines stand guard outside a mosque in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 30, 2017. Putrajaya confirmed this week that three Malaysians were killed in clashes between militants and Philippine security forces in Marawi. — Reuters pic
Philippine Marines stand guard outside a mosque in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 30, 2017. Putrajaya confirmed this week that three Malaysians were killed in clashes between militants and Philippine security forces in Marawi. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, June 2 — Malaysia’s main challenge in combating terrorism is curbing the rise of local militants and sympathisers drawn to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group’s cause, security experts said.

While the country has escaped terrorist activities besetting neighbouring nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, news of Malaysians involved in militancy abroad continue to emerge.

Putrajaya confirmed this week that three Malaysians were killed in clashes between militants and Philippine security forces in Marawi, Mindanao, which comes amid a report that former Malaysian university lecturer Dr Mahmud Ahmad is set to take over an IS cell in the southern Philippines to create a regional terror network.

Experts believe these show that counter-terrorism efforts here must be enhanced if these are to curtail the spread of extremist ideologies locally.

Lessons to be learnt

“The lesson and point is that, somehow, Malaysian counter-terror operations are not effective as Malaysia has been able to provide conditions and facilitate the rise of important leaders in the terrorist networks.

“Clearly much more work needs to be done in countering radicalisation upstream, middle stream and downstream; if not, your flow of terrorists to national and regional groupings will continue,” National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh told Malay Mail Online.

Bilveer pointed out that Malaysians have been involved in a number of terrorist groups outside Malaysia, from individuals such as Dr Azari Husin Noordin to Mohammad Top who were active in Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia in the past.

But the adjunct senior fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) cautioned against considering Malaysia as an “exporter of terrorists”, saying the term was “too strong”.

He also said the definitions of terrorists and terrorism were fast changing, particularly with the new breed of sympathisers and recruits being drawn to groups such as the IS and al Qaeda.

Bilveer stressed that this was happening in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and spreading to areas in Mindanao and Sulawesi, to some extent.

He also pointed out that not just Malaysians, but also Singaporeans, Indonesians, Uighurs, Rohingya, Arabs and Africans were being recruited by IS.

“The moral of the story is a simple one: there is a concept of whole-of-terrorists in fighting a battle, and if governments do not cooperate likewise, we are in trouble. Just imagine: for the first time an aggregated terrorist unit could hold government forces for more than a week, and this is almost akin to conventional warfare of holding territory.

“In short, just as terrorists have learnt to fight a battle more efficiently, national and regional militaries and counter-terrorist forces must do likewise.” he explained.

Mahmud’s role in IS

However, Bilveer was doubtful that Mahmud would head the IS chapter in the Philippines, saying this is not how the terrorist group operates.

“IS like to have locals take up the leadership position. Mahmud may eventually head the Malaysian chapter and it makes sense, but to head IS in Philippines is a bit far-fetched.

“Still, Mahmud is highly trusted but so are there others, especially those based in Syria now and who are poised to return to the region, including the Emir of Katibah Nusantara, Barumsyah and some of his key commanders.”

UK-based terrorism expert Sally Leivesley said the reported participation of Malaysians in Marawi as well as Mahmud’s possible ascension as regional leader for IS will make Malaysia’s fight against “internal terrorism” more challenging.

Putrajaya operates a deradicalisation programme that reportedly has a 87.5 per cent success rate, and which it said was recognised globally.

However, police still make near-monthly announcements of local arrests over activities directly related to or in support of IS extremism.

“Malaysia and other countries in the region are experiencing a  well-coordinated strategy by IS in Syria to establish a local caliph in the southern Philippines and to expand its regional influence.

“Malaysia will not be viewed as an exporter of terrorism but as a victim of core IS tactics employed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi where mixed groups of foreign fighters are used to achieve an objective,” she told Malay Mail Online.

The managing director of Newrisk Limited London, a group advising governments and companies on terrorism, said that there will be regional concerns over the report of a former Malaysian academic becoming a regional IS leader as this may also signal an increased training of local militants.

“The danger within Malaysia is that growing numbers of sympathisers will be encouraged by a Malaysian academic being considered as the future leader of an ISIS caliph in the region,” she said.

But she added that Malaysia has not disproportionately contributed fighters to IS in Syria compared to other countries, and one way to address this growing threat was to establish strong intelligence links between all countries in the region where terrorists may train or travel to for recruitment, or to carry out attacks using local sympathisers to support them.  

Malaysia’s reputation unaffected

Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of University Sains Malaysia’s (USM) political science department believed that Malaysia’s reputation as an adversary of international terrorism is still intact despite the problems faced by the authorities here in stemming the tide of Muslim youths gravitating towards extremist movements.

“Other countries are grappling with more serious problems, I can assure you, but we must not rest on our laurels.

“The government especially must make sure that its own machinery is free from extremist manifestations of the faith that in themselves encourages an intolerant culture that may indirectly give rise to pro-terrorist sentiments,” he told Malay Mail Online.

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