How are Malaysia’s police and politicians answering to terror?

Asia World

Authors: Kevin Fernandez, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, and Greg Lopez, Murdoch University

Since the beginning of 2019, the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) have arrested several individuals, both Malaysian citizens and foreigners, for suspected links to the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist organisations. Effective and efficient as they are, the RMP will continue to face significant challenges in their counter-terrorism efforts due to wide-ranging developments in domestic and international arenas.

Malaysian police leave a security briefing at the 27th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 November 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris).

Malaysian police leave a security briefing at the 27th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 November 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris).

In the face of increasing Islamic conservatism at home, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government is struggling to navigate a complex political, social and security terrain.

The PH government’s response to these new challenges has been to promote an inclusive form of Islam through three pillars: rahmatan lil alamin (compassion for all), maqasid syariah (interests of the greater good) and manhaj malizi (a Malaysian approach of being appropriate to local context). Malaysia’s foreign policy under the PH administration remains consistent in its support for the Islamic ummah (community) narrative that became pronounced under the first Mahathir administration.

The current PH administration has already seen several tense encounters between conservatives and advocates of a more inclusive Islam. Conservative forces have so far gained the upper hand.

In June 2018, as part of the PH government’s reform process, the Group of 25 — an assembly of former high-ranking bureaucrats and scholars of Islam — recommended a review of the role of Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM). JAKIM, the federal agency responsible for Islamic affairs, is seen as the face of bureaucratic Islam. Not often is the agency viewed in a complimentary light by adherents of a more inclusive Islam. To date, the Group’s request has been ignored.

The PH government also suffered embarrassment when, in the face of conservative backlash, it reversed a decision to ratify two international treaties: the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In early February 2019, nine terror suspects were arrested — including Malaysians, Egyptians and Tunisians — in the Klang Valley of Peninsular Malaysia and the Serian district. The Tunisians were reportedly members of the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia and the Egyptians were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Malaysian suspects were charged with terror offences relating to facilitating the movement and transit of foreign fighters.

March 2019 saw the arrest of a Malaysian and 12 Filipinos believed to be members of the outlawed Abu Sayyaf Group, Maute Group and Royal Sulu Force (RSF) in Sabah. The four suspects from Maute Group were involved in the Marawi conflict in the southern Philippines in 2017 and the two RSF detainees were responsible for the attacks in Sabah’s Lahad Datu and Semporna in 2013.

In another incident, a 20-year-old Rohingya refugee residing in Peninsular Malaysia was arrested. He admitted to supporting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and to having had plans to attack the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

There have also been developments that suggest potential coordination, if not tactical convergence, between the Indonesian terrorist organisation Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Malaysian terrorist cells. Malaysia’s new Inspector General of Police (IGP) Abdul Hamid Bador commented that an Islamist ‘wolf pack’ was preparing to strike during the first week of Ramadan this year to avenge the death of Muslim fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim.

Adib was injured in an emergency response call from the Seafield Sri Mariamman Temple last November and later succumbed to his injuries. Hindu activists were resisting the closure of the temple by local authorities and violence ensued. Adib’s death became the subject of an inquest and has been used by conservative Islamic groups to propagate the narrative that Islam is under siege in Malaysia.

The IGP raised serious concerns about two members of the ‘wolf pack’, Muhammad Syazani and Muhammad Nurul Amin, who undertook bomb-making training in Yogyakarta under JAD instruction in 2018. According to intelligence sources, Syazani and Nurul Amin managed to produce in their homes the same type of explosives as used in the 2018 Surabaya bombings. Reports claim that the ‘wolf pack’ appeared to be targeting non-Muslim houses of worship, entertainment spots and four high-profile personalities during Ramadan.

The Malaysian terrorist cells also seem sympathetic to the doctrine of ‘near enemy’ (Muslim regimes that they regard as ‘apostates’). But the number of ‘far enemy’ attacks in recent years has paled in comparison to the number of ‘near enemy’ attacks, which include those directed at the Indonesian state and its agencies.

The RMP has been effective in managing terrorist threats in Malaysia. Since February 2013, it has arrested 488 militants and the RMP counter-terrorism unit has thwarted 25 terror plots. But unfavourable domestic and international developments will continue to challenge the RMP. Domestically, the authorities must steer cautiously under conditions where a large portion of Malaysian society adhere to the growing narrative of an Islam under siege.

Kevin Fernandez is a Senior Lecturer at the Universiti Malaysia Kelantan.

Greg Lopez is a Research Fellow at Murdoch University.

A version of this post originally appeared here on RSIS.