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Fear of Jemaah Islamiyah resurgence grips Malaysia

Malaysia, and by extension Southeast Asia, cannot afford the militant group to regroup
Policemen board a truck during a search for suspected Jemaah Islamiyah members in Aceh Besar, Aceh province on March 1, 2010. The regional terror group is blamed for multiple attacks across Indonesia.

Policemen board a truck during a search for suspected Jemaah Islamiyah members in Aceh Besar, Aceh province on March 1, 2010. The regional terror group is blamed for multiple attacks across Indonesia. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 20, 2024 11:20 AM GMT
Updated: May 20, 2024 11:35 AM GMT

Concerns over the likelihood of the resurgence of a militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), gripped Malaysians last weekend with a series of incidents, including an attack on a police station that left two police dead and one injured in a small southern town and a foiled attempt to enter the king’s palace in Kuala Lumpur.

The name of the 30-year-old militant group, which in Arabic means 'Islamic congregation,' made headlines after a decade. The last JI attack was reported in Manila in 2014.

The pre-dawn attack on May 17 at the police station in Ulu Tiram was carried out by a 21-year-old man who was killed in the ensuing gunfight.

Seven people have reportedly been arrested, and police are on the lookout for 20 more who were said to be linked to JI. Five of the seven arrested are members of the attacker’s family.

The following day, two men attempted to enter the palace of the Malaysian king. But they were stopped by security personnel. A machete was found in the car they arrived in.

On May 19, a 35-year-old man tried to take a HK MP5 submachine gun from a sentry at a city center police station in Penang. He was apprehended immediately.

Police did not say that the last two incidents were linked to JI, but the fact that all three occurred on consecutive days raised fears over the return of JI.

Malaysia has, for the most part, been safe from terror attacks, and it is Indonesia and the Philippines, where the bulk of deadly attacks were reported to have taken place.

The first and only terror attack in Malaysia was in 2016 when a restaurant bar was bombed in a town about 20 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. Police said it was by Islamic State members. Earlier that year, police arrested 15 members of IS who were believed to be planning a series of attacks in the country.

Some believe the IS in Malaysia has ties with the homegrown radical Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (Malaysian Mujahideen Movement), which, incidentally, unsuccessfully attacked a police station in the northern state of Kedah in 2001 to steal M16 rifles and use them to topple the government.

Militant groups in Southeast Asia and the Indonesia-based JI share the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, and the southern Philippines.

JI is still considered the greatest terror threat to Southeast Asia. However, they have been lying low due to the deaths and arrests of key leaders and numerous counter-terrorist operations by Southeast Asian governments since 2002.

More than 300 suspected JI terrorists have been arrested in Southeast Asia since 2002. That was the year JI bombed two nightclubs in Bali, which killed 202 people in its deadliest attack in Indonesia. 

Malaysians fear that the country and the region will see a re-emergence of all these terrorist acts.

Adding to the public’s concern over national security are conflicting statements from the Malaysian authorities.

Police chief Razarudin Husain earlier said the Ulu Tiram attack was JI-linked, but Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail says it was a lone wolf attack.

The police chief has now revised his earlier statement and says the attacker was not a JI member but that his 62-year-old father is.

Reactions in social media show that Malaysians are convinced the attack is linked to JI, with many voicing concerns and urging the government to act quickly. Some even talked about creating a safe environment for foreign investment.

Both the Malaysian and Singaporean governments are not taking matters lightly. They have stepped up security measures, especially at border checkpoints. Singapore has also warned its citizens traveling to Malaysia to exercise caution.

Ulu Tiram, a town some 40 kilometers from Singapore, is where JI's spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir is said to have established a religious school or madrasah called Luqmanul Hakiem in the early 1990s.

The school was attended by Noordin and another JI militant, Mukhlas, who was involved in the 2002 Bali bombings, according to Channel News Asia.

Bashir, the high-profile radical cleric linked to the 2002 Bali bombings, was sentenced to jail for two separate terror-linked offenses and was released in 2021.

Two Malaysians who confessed to conspiring with JI in the Bali bombings will be returning to Malaysia before the end of the year. It is not known if they will be undergoing deradicalization like many of the convicted JI members who have been released.

Mohammed Farik Amin, 48, and Mohammed Nazir Lep, 47, were captured in 2003 and detained without trial since then in Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

They had agreed to testify against Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, the former military leader of JI who is also in American custody at Guantanamo.

The Ulu Tiram attack is likely to make the Malaysian authorities rethink the different rehabilitation options.

Malaysia, and by extension, Southeast Asia, cannot afford to let JI pick up the pieces by letting released JI members linked to the Bali bombing and other masterminds regroup. There is much at stake now, especially with the present conflict between Israel and Hamas that is undoubtedly fanning the flames of anger in militant groups in the region.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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