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Counter-terrorism: Malaysia walks religious tightrope

Government uses tough security laws against political opponents but shows little interest in countering Islamic radicalism
Counter-terrorism: Malaysia walks religious tightrope

A file photo of members of the police and army standing guard before the arrival of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak for a joint police-army exercise at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 22, 2016. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

Published: April 06, 2017 02:39 AM GMT
Updated: April 06, 2017 02:40 AM GMT

After spreading terror in Syria and Iraq, the return home of Islamic State militants is causing jitters in South East Asian countries like Malaysia.

Police figures released in October last year showed that 90 Malaysians have joined the so-called Islamic State (IS) fighting in Syria and Iraq since 2013.

The passports of 68 Malaysians, identified as leaving the country to join the Salafi jihadist group, have been revoked. A further 137 people have been arrested for either planning to join IS overseas, returning to Malaysia after joining the group, or sending funds to the group.

In early March, the Malaysian police revealed the arrest of nine Malaysians around the country believed linked to the terror group.

The national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said in a press statement on March 24 that the nine aged between 26 and 46 years were all Malaysians.

The police chief said one suspect, a government agency employee, was linked to a group that had pledged allegiance to IS and was involved in a grenade attack on a bar in Kuala Lumpur in June last year injuring eight people.

That attack is viewed as the first Islamic terrorist attack in the country perpetrated by Malaysian militants linked to IS.

Another of the detainees reportedly admitted he was involved in the channeling funds to IS in Syria and spreading the group's ideology via the internet.

One was planning to head to the southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf — a kidnap-for-ransom group that has declared allegiance to IS — is holding several hostages including Malaysians. In February, Abu Sayyaf beheaded an elderly German yachtsman they abducted last year after they failed to extort ransom for him.

The arrests in Malaysia show that while Islamic radicalism remains potent, the government of scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak appears ambivalent about countering Islamic radicalism.

While arming itself with tough new security laws that allow allows search and arrests without warrants, property seizures and bans on demonstrations authorities have fixated on political opponents.

Malaysian activists and human rights lawyers note how government supporters and ruling party politicians fan racial and religious disquiet with impunity.

They point to provocative statements by Muslim preacher, Zakir Naik, as a threat to national security.

They accuse Najib and his cabinet of welcoming the preacher from India, though he is accused of lacking an understanding of Malaysia's multi-cultural character and thus inciting religious extremism and intolerance.

Social activist Lim Teck Ghee, who was among 19 plaintiffs suing the government over Zakir's speeches, noted how Malaysian officials once ignored the presence of Indonesian Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah who was subsequently jailed for the deaths of 14 people in the Bali bombings.


Increasing links with Saudi Arabia

Malaysia’s growing relationship with Saudi Arabia has added further complexity to the issue. During Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud's visit to Kuala Lumpur in February, Najib said the two countries had agreed to boost military and security cooperation to combat terrorism.

On March 7, police chief Khalid revealed that four suspected militants from Yemen were arrested ahead of the kings visit. Police believed the four belonged to Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi movement, which hails from a Shiite Muslim sect and has been fighting other Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition for two years.

Khalid's disclosure added to criticism from some that Malaysia was piling on security worries by being involved in overseas conflicts.

Critics such as retired brigadier-general Mohd Arshad Raji have criticized Malaysia's deployment of soldiers to Saudi Arabia because it could have repercussions on Malaysia.

While the small-scale Malaysian deployment is reportedly focusing having personnel on the ground there to facilitate the evacuation of Malaysians in Yemen, any military involvement there could provoke reactions from elements fighting Saudi Arabian-led campaign, he warned.

"When it comes to the involvement of our military overseas, we have to be cautious. If it's for humanitarian reasons and peacekeeping missions, then it's fine," Arshad said according to online media Free Malaysia Today.

"But I'm at a loss as to why we are sending people to that side of the world. I think we have enough problems in our own region."



Malaysia is beefing up its navy to deal with cross-border crime, piracy, anti-terrorism and search and rescue operations.

It aims to replace all 50 vessels in its ageing fleet even as the country cuts its total defense budget by 12.7 percent to RM15.1 billion (US$3.41 billion) this year.

Malaysian navy chief Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin told Reuters in an interview that four vessels it would buy from China "would be very capable of dealing with the threat posed by Daesh (Arabic acronym for the IS) and other maritime security concerns."


More intelligence sharing needed

Security analysts say that the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), needs to boost intelligence sharing apart from making procurements.

Shahriman Lockman, an analyst with the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters that without strong intelligence sharing supported by a wide network of surveillance equipment any advantage nations had with procurements would be useless.

"You can't fight what you can't see," Lockman said.

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