By: Michael Hart

Malaysia has so far avoided the scourge of the radical Islamic State, or ISIS, that has been suffered by its neighbors the Philippines and Indonesia. The country has seen just one ISIS-claimed attack, when a grenade thrown into a Kuala Lumpur nightclub injured eight people in June 2016. All major plots have been thwarted.

Yet fears of jihadist infiltration in Malaysia have grown since the territorial defeat of ISIS in its former stronghold of eastern Syria at the hands of a US-backed coalition of local insurgents. Malaysia’s head of counter-terrorism policing, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, confirmed in mid-March that 13 Malaysian citizens who fought alongside ISIS in the Middle East now want to come home. Although the extent of the threat is hard to gauge, at least 102 Malaysians are known to have joined ISIS abroad. The authorities fear these fighters might seek to launch attacks or radicalize others upon their return.

Adding to the concern over returnees, national police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun revealed last month that militants are using the towns of Sandakan and Tawau in eastern Sabah as transit points to join with ISIS affiliates in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The same week, the US State Department issued a travel advisory warning of a heightened kidnapping risk along Sabah’s coastline. The claim drew a firm response from Malaysia’s foreign ministry, which insisted Sabah was safe for tourists, while the defense ministry declared the threat from ISIS as ‘under control.’

The confidence expressed by Malaysian officials is founded upon a security architecture strengthened in the final years of the Razak administration and reinforced in the first year of Mahathir’s premiership. A much-praised deradicalization program, coupled with waves of arrests enabled through updated although controversial counter-terror legislation, has kept the threat at bay. Yet after the defeat of its Middle Eastern caliphate, could ISIS look to Malaysia as a launchpad for its activities in Southeast Asia?

Risk from returning fighters

The risk posed by returning battled-hardened jihadists, trained by ISIS’ central branch in Syria and Iraq, has long been of serious concern for Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority states. While several hundred Malaysians are rumored to have joined the group abroad, at least 102 are confirmed to have fought with ISIS in Syria. Of these, 40 were killed during battle, including nine who detonated themselves in suicide bombings. At least 11 have already returned, while 51 remain in Syria having fought in Katibah Nusantara – ISIS’ Malay division composed of foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia. The unit was led by Malaysian jihadi Mohammad Wanndy before his death in a drone strike in Raqqa in 2017.

While some countries such as the UK have stripped ISIS-affiliated nationals of citizenship and denied their return, Malaysia will allow them to come home. Anti-terror chief Ayob told news outlets ‘returnees will be interrogated’ before being monitored during their reintegration into society, having completed a compulsory month-long rehabilitation program run by the government. He revealed clerics and psychologists would be brought in to evaluate their ideological make-up, while assuring that those found guilty of involvement in militant activities would be sentenced by the courts.

Risk not only emanates from the physical return of ISIS fighters but also through online recruitment aimed at inspiring sympathizers to carry-out either ISIS-aided or lone-wolf attacks on Malaysian soil. Only one such attack has occurred to date, when local ISIS supporters targeted the bar in 2016, having been in encouraged by Malaysian fighters in Syria, including Wanndy.

Although financing and direct support from ISIS’ central branch to its Southeast Asian affiliates have reduced in the aftermath of its territorial losses, the group maintains a strong presence online and across social media, making use of encrypted messaging apps to engage sympathizers. In one such case, last December authorities foiled a plot to attack police stations and places of worship after two men were arrested in Kelantan after having allegedly received instruction online from Syria-based Malaysian jihadi Akel Zainal.

Threat from Malaysia’s borderlands

Arguably the larger threat emanates not from the Middle East or cyberspace, but from conflicts raging across Malaysia’s borders – in the southern Philippines to the east and southern Thailand to the west.  

On the eastern front, there is a risk that violence perpetrated by the notorious ISIS-aligned Abu Sayyaf group could spread to Sabah from the remote Sulu archipelago. Abu Sayyaf in fact already has a history in eastern Malaysia. Since the start of 2018, 24 alleged members of the group have been arrested by Malaysian authorities while 13 have been sentenced to prison. In the same period, suspected Abu Sayyaf fighters have clashed twice with Malaysian security forces – on a plantation in Tawau in February 2018, and in waters off Lahad Datu three months later.

Abu Sayyaf militants on speedboats have also attempted to launch piracy attacks and maritime kidnappings four times – either within Malaysian waters or close to the sea boundary with the Philippines – since January 2018, seizing hostages twice. On 11 September, two seafarers were seized off the coast of Semporna. On 5 December, three Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped from a vessel off Pegasus Reef before being taken back to Abu Sayyaf’s island lairs in the hope of securing a ransom.

Malaysian police chief Fuzi warned last year that the group aims to establish a cross-border cell in Sabah. The head of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), Hazani Ghazali, said intelligence reports indicated a band of heavily-armed Abu Sayyaf bandits were plotting to kidnap high-value targets, such as businessmen or foreign crew members, from vessels on Sabah’s east coast.

The recent assertion by authorities that militants are using Sabah as a transit point to join ISIS-linked groups in the Philippines exacerbates fears regarding the regional movement of terror suspects. There is a precedent. Prior to the 2017 siege of Marawi on the island of Mindanao, dozens of jihadist fighters including senior Malaysian militants Amin Baco and Mahmud Ahmad were able to travel undetected to the Philippines to link up with ISIS-affiliated groups. In the two years since, fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have been sighted alongside Filipino militants in the jungles of Mindanao.

More than 1,500 km to the west, along Malaysia’s border with Thailand, fears over jihadist infiltration have also been raised. In May 2017, an ISIS-linked weapons smuggling cell was found to be operating in Kelantan state after the arrest of three militants. The men were found to have purchased guns from across the border in southern Thailand, where an insurgency has been waged by Malay separatists since the 1950s. The raid offered the first concrete evidence of the transfer of arms between rebels in Thailand and militants in Malaysia, stoking fears of a new geographical front in the fight against ISIS. 

Aside from the threat of weapons smuggling, Kelantan does not represent a potential gateway for ISIS into Malaysia, especially when compared to Sabah. While hardline Islamist groups have been active in Mindanao since the early-1990s, the conflict in southern Thailand has retained its ethno-nationalist and secessionist character. The Muslim insurgent groups based there are more interested in securing an autonomous homeland for the Malay population rather than forging an ISIS-style caliphate. Given their moderate ideology and absence of links to ISIS, the risk from Thailand’s rebels to Malaysia is low. 

Confronting the terror threat

In recent years, Malaysia has adopted a range of measures – both hard and soft – to guard against the threat from terrorism. Under Najib Razak, Malaysia updated its counter-terrorism laws, replacing the outdated Internal Security Act (ISA) with a raft of new measures including the Security Offences and Special Measures Act (SOSMA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries (SMATA) act. The latter two were introduced in 2015 after the rise of ISIS on the global stage. Taken together, the legislation provides for longer detention periods, tougher prison sentences and increased police powers to investigate those suspected of committing offenses.

The laws, criticized by human rights groups, have facilitated waves of large-scale arrests in the past few years. In August 2017, police detained more than 400 individuals in a nationwide counter-terror sweep and later disrupted a plot to attack the closing ceremony of the Southeast Asian games, held in Kuala Lumpur. The first months of this year have seen at least 26 people arrested in a series of raids. Despite pledging to scrap the new anti-terror laws on the campaign trail ahead of his surprise election victory, Mahathir’s government has confirmed it will keep the laws in the interest of national security.

De-radicalization courses are another, softer tool, used by Malaysia. Between 2001-2012, it is claimed by the government that of 229 suspects enrolled, only seven relapsed into militant activities, giving the program a 97 percent success rate. The state-run scheme is a collaboration between the education and home affairs ministries, prison leaders and religious institutions, and aims to counter extreme interpretations of Islam before supporting individuals released back into mainstream society.

Where the risk of ISIS activity is greatest, along Sabah’s eastern frontier, authorities have maintained a range of security measures. Since mid-2017, Malaysia has conducted trilateral naval and air patrols alongside Indonesian and Philippine assets in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, to deter jihadists. Off the coastline of Sabah itself, the ESSCOM has indefinitely extended a night-time curfew for civilian vessels to deter kidnappings and enable more effective policing of waters.

Security personnel have also conducted an increased number of land patrols on Borneo in an effort to prevent the infiltration of fighters from Indonesia over the densely-forested Kalimantan-Sabah border.

Is Malaysia a potential ISIS hub?

Despite the risk posed by returnees and the threat of jihadist infiltration through porous border areas, fears that Malaysia could become a regional hub for ISIS are overstated. Malaysia has a strong record in counter-terrorism and measures in place to ensure such a scenario is not realized on a notable scale.

However, like many other countries whose nationals have joined ISIS overseas, Malaysia will have to deal with the reintegration of its own foreign fighters, who may seek to join militants in Sabah to either plan attacks or use the state as a launchpad to once again link-up with ISIS in the southern Philippines.

Due to its vast security architecture and heightened level of vigilance in the age of ISIS, a large and coordinated attack within Malaysia – on the scale of the Marawi siege or recent suicide bombings in Sri Lanka – appears remote. Yet small-scale attacks cannot be ruled out if returnees from the Middle East slip through the net or militants from neighboring states cross porous borders unnoticed. Malaysia must stay alert to avoid ISIS gaining even a small foothold in a nation so far beyond its reach.

Michael Hart (info.michaelhart@gmail.com) has researched for Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch. This is written for Asia Sentinel.