By Nigel Cory
Malaysia’s counter-terrorism record is commendable. The country has never had a terrorist attack on its home soil akin to the deadly 2002 Bali bombings in neighboring Indonesia. This success is mostly due to hard work and cooperation with its neighbors and key partners, including the United States and Australia. However, the present challenge for Malaysia is whether it can keep pace with the changing terrorism threats originating from the Middle East facing Southeast Asia.
The emerging terrorist threat to Malaysia is a new generation of fighters returning home after participating in ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. The Syrian government says at least 30 Malaysians are fighting in Syria, and reports another 15 have been killed there. In Iraq, a Malaysian national drove a car bomb into a police station as part of an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attack, killing 25 Iraqi soldiers. These developments have renewed fear among a number of Southeast Asian governments, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, that veterans from these conflicts will bring home extremist ideology, skills, and experience, much as Southeast Asians fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s returned home and joined the newly-formed Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.
Authorities are facing a greater challenge this time as terrorist groups have become more social media savvy and their networks more diffuse, with online recruiting making monitoring particularly difficult. Malaysians who are already involved with ISIS have gathered large online followings, while recent police operations show the need for vigilance. Since April 2014, Malaysian police have arrested 19 people linked to ISIS, Abu Sayyaf, Al-Shabaab, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Malaysian courts on May 23 charged four people with promoting terrorism in Syria.
One reason for Malaysians to participate in networks in the Middle East is that they view militant groups such as ISIS as defending Sunni Islam against Shia oppression. The Shia-Sunni distinction is a serious one in Malaysia and starts at the top with the government promoting Sunni Islam above all other religions and sects. This extends to the close monitoring of Shias and legal actions against those who proselytize.
Malaysia’s past reluctance to crack down on lower-level terrorist activities has raised concerns about how it will approach the current threats. Authorities have used Malaysia’s counter-terrorism successes to deflect calls for more action against terrorism-related support, transit, and financial activities in the past. But this approach can lead to complacency and a false sense of security. Malaysia’s relatively liberal visa policies– it grants visas on arrival to citizens from high-risk countries such as Yemen and Syria – porous borders, and lax border controls can be exploited by groups involved in illicit activities, including terrorism, and drug and people smuggling.
Malaysia’s ability to respond to terror threats is complicated by its new security legislation, the Security Offenses Special Measures Act (SOSMA), and a re-structured police force. SOSMA has replaced the now defunct International Security Act, which was for years used to arrest and try the government’s political opponents. Enforcing this new legislation is the responsibility of the Royal Malaysian Police’s Special Branch, which took over counter-terrorism responsibilities from the disbanded Special Taskforce on Counter-terrorism Operations. While the Special Branch is a highly effective intelligence agency, it is not a specialized counter-terrorism unit, and has been criticized in the past for getting involved in political activities.
Malaysia will need to extend its counter-terrorism response to the evolving, full range of terror-related activities it continues to face. Malaysia’s neighbors and security partners, especially the United States and Australia, will also need to adjust their existing cooperation mechanisms and engagement, especially in regards to the sharing of information about Malaysians involved in fighting in the Middle East, and efforts to improve border control, immigration measures, and counter-terrorism capabilities.