In hunt for Malaysians joining Islamic State, a faceless menace

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, in this June 11, 2014 file photo. — Reuters pic
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, in this June 11, 2014 file photo. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 6 — It could be anyone. The next Malaysian leaving to join the Islamic State (IS) jihad in Syria could be the besuited man reading from his tablet computer sitting to your right on the train to work.

Or it might be the typical college-goer, clad in jeans and a T-shirt, seated your left and scrolling through his smartphone.

This is how obscure the profiles of young Muslims aspiring to join jihadist militant movement that police investigators are discovering in their bid to stem the tide.

According to Bukit Aman’s counter-terrorism division senior official Datuk Ayub Khan, gone are days when those involved were the stereotypical bearded men wearing serbans and carrying prayer beads.

“They come from various backgrounds now. Not a specific group like in the case of now defunct terrorist group, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), or Malaysian Mujahideen Movement, where religious schools were used to recruit for jihadists cause.

“It is all encompassing- from those in the private sector, your local grocery shop owners and even businessmen,” Ayub told Malay Mail Online.

Another major concern is that those radicalised by the jihadist movement are getting younger — between the ages of 20 and 30 — bringing a new set of challenges to authorities trying to track them: tech savviness.

Social media networks the main breeding ground

Once, recruits were discreetly cultivated and enlisted in quiet prayer halls away from view.

Today, this is being done across anonymous social networks and text messaging apps

“There is no need for preachers of any sort or physical communication for them as they are all tech-savvy,” Ayub said.

The concern over the use of the Internet for enlistment and the spread of propaganda is two-fold: It gives recruiters a much wider reach and authorities a monumental task in finding them.

It could also mean that new recruits may be indoctrinated remotely by someone who is not even in the country.

With the anonymity that can be achieved using social networks, Ayub said it was a complicated task to discover the individuals behind the movement to send Malaysians to fight in Syria, and to keep tabs on any they do discover.

The use of modern communications has also made the task of ferreting out those who may be involved in IS doubly hard, as it was getting more difficult to rule out the usual suspects even when they are not seen to be active.

“So far, we do not have any intelligence report on our students in Egypt to confirm of their involvement, but just because we do not have such confirmation, it does not mean that they are not participating, because of communications via Facebook,” he added.

However, Ayub said that while the police may face an uphill task in “culling” IS recruitment and activities in the country, they will not let up until they are able to sever all militant links in Malaysia.

Saying that authorities have been monitoring IS-related activities since 2012, Ayub revealed that police still managed to locate and detain 25people over the movement despite the technological hurdles.

“We are not going to slow down our moves simply because they use a ‘faster approach’, social media.

“This is going to be an all-out fight,” Ayub said.

From doctors to canteen workers

The range of those known to be involved in the militancy illustrates the arduous task in putting a face to the menace.

In 2012, police arrested two men with links to the Tanzim al-Qaeda militant group, among the precursors of what would eventually become IS.

They were cafeteria assistant Muhammad Hilmi Hasim and former army captain Yazid Suffat, who is also a trained biochemist.

The two later became the first people to be charged under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, which replaced the repealed Internal Security Act 1960.

This month, a jihadist claiming to be a Malaysian doctor also began making headlines after the media caught wind of her posts of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

“Stethoscope around my neck and kalash on my shoulder. Martyrdom is my highest dream,” the woman who dubbed herself “Shams”, wrote on Twitter.

Shallow understanding, a romantic notion, and ‘jihad tourism’

The success of IS in drawing Muslims is because it understands its target audience well.

While it touts its bid to forcibly form a caliphate in Iraq and Syria as an Islamic struggle, critics point out that its violent methods and goals were not based on the religion.

“But to know this, one must be clear on their faith; [otherwise it] allows for confusion when movements like IS come up and unleash war in the name of Islam,” said Professor Datuk Abdul  Halim Sidek, the secretary of the National Professors Council’s politics, security and international affairs cluster.

National University of Singapore (NUS)  associate professor Dr Maznah Mohamad said young Muslims were also drawn by the romantic notion of an Islamic caliphate.

“The concept of a Caliphate appeals to them (young Muslims) as they are tired of being under a national government and find the alternative idea of a new non-national state purely for Muslims attractive, like in the yesteryears,” Maznah told The Malay Mail Online.

A caliphate is an Islamic state that encompasses every Muslim in the world and led by a supreme religious leader. It originates from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, when he was succeeded by Abu Bakar, the first caliph (Arabic for “successor”).

Indonesia-based terrorism expert Jasminder Singh said IS recruiters were wily at marketing their recruitment as “jihad tourism” to draw those curious about the movement and the perceived excitement it entails.

He said young Muslims often buy into this idea with the intention of wanting to feel what it is like to be in “Bumi Allah” (Allah’s land).

He added that the strong anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments aroused here over the Palestinian conflict is another factor steering young Muslims towards militancy on the notions of “saving their people”.

“One only needs a minimal amount of cash to fly to Syria, about RM 2,000, to be part of the movement, as other necessary needs are usually taken care of.

“What starts out as a curiosity however, ends up as a serious life mission,” Jasminder said when met at a forum in Kuala Lumpur recently.

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