The Malaysian government announced Wednesday it would start screening Muslim pilgrims before they go abroad, after two citizens joined the Islamic State (IS) terror group under the pretext of undertaking the minor pilgrimage (umrah) to Saudi Arabia.
The government wants to ensure that Malaysians are going to Mecca and Medina solely to perform a pilgrimage and not veering away from those holy sites to join IS’s ranks in the Middle East, The Star newspaper quoted Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz as saying.
“There are cases of missing umrah pilgrims from Malaysia who went missing after performing the umrah to join the IS,’’ Nazri told reporters in Nusajaya, Johor state, on Wednesday.
The people who will be screened will include pilgrims travelling to Mecca by themselves as well as those going there through pilgrimage packages sold by travel agents, he said.
Security agencies will also need to develop procedures to ensure that Malaysian pilgrims return home after going on umrah, he said.
“We will work closely with the Saudi government to tackle the issue as the issuance of umrah visas comes under their jurisdiction,’’ Nazri said.
And, as an added safeguard against Malaysians joining IS under the guise of foreign tourism, the government will implement a similar screening policy for Malaysians planning to holiday abroad, he said.
Case of the stray pilgrims
Earlier on Wednesday, Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar announced that two people had broken away from their umrah tour group and joined up with IS militants in Syria, the state-run Bernama news agency reported.
The two had used the services of an umrah agency in order to evade detection by the authorities, Khalid said, declining to reveal the identities of the missing “pilgrims.”
Police don’t believe the agency was in any way connected with IS or that it knowingly helped the two join the extremist group.
"So far, we have detected two such cases where on the pretext of going for umrah, they actually wanted to join the IS militants,” Bernama quoted him as saying.
"They went not for a religious purpose .... imagine, the umrah being misused," said Khalid, who declined to reveal the identity of the two individuals.
Meanwhile, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is working to introduce a new law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), for parliamentary debate this month, said Wednesday that the bill was aimed at cracking down on Malaysians who planned to leave the country and fight for IS.
Till now, police have identified 61 Malaysians fighting alongside IS in Iraq and Syria, and that 10 of them had died in combat, Bernama quoted Zahid as saying.
“… The formulation of POTA is to ensure the security and wellbeing of the people and country,” the minister told a monthly assembly at his ministry.
By BenarNews staff with inputs from local media.