The Islamic State (IS) extremist group is trying to co-opt Islam and pervert its basic tenets while trying to sow terror far beyond territory it controls in the Middle East, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“There are people who want to bring terror to our streets,” Najib, who is facing corruption allegations at home, said in a speech to the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
He called for a global assault on IS’s “warped ideology.”
“We will not stand for it, neither will they succeed,” he said Thursday, according to a transcript of his speech later published by the state-run Bernama news agency. “For Malaysia has been, and will always be, a land where many faiths and ethnicities freely prosper and thrive.”
Najib’s strongly-worded speech on the world stage came amid pressure at home to resign over corruption allegations swirling around 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state development fund.
He has also faced criticism that supporters from his ethnic Malay-dominated United National Malays Organization (UMNO), the linchpin in the ruling coalition, have allegedly stoked tensions in multi-racial Malaysia in a bid to divert attention from the scandal.
The PM has been fending off allegations that at least U.S. $700 million in money from the fund wound up in his personal bank accounts.
‘No greater slur on Islam’
Najib did not touch on the corruption allegations in his 22-minute speech before the U.N., which largely focused on the global threat posed by IS.
“We must strive harder to combat this threat together,” he told the general assembly. “Militaries and intelligence services need to share information, and countries need to collaborate more, daring to pre-emptively arrest as necessary.”
The IS represents a threat to nation-states well beyond the boundaries of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the prime minister warned.
“Expert at using social media to recruit followers in faraway countries, they lure them with false promises, persuading many young people that their barbaric actions will bring them closer to God,” he said.
“It is sickening, and there could be no greater slur on Islam – a religion of peace, moderation and justice. But these extremists cannot be defeated by traditional military means alone.”
Officials in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia say they have been grappling with the threat of IS targeting local youths as potential recruits via social media.
On this point, the prime minster delivered a blunt assessment.
“We must acknowledge that we are not winning the propaganda war against the so-called Islamic State. Their twisted narrative is not being adequately countered to prevent many misguided people from joining or supporting from afar,” he said.
To stave off the threat, “it is more important than ever that we spread awareness of authentic Islam, most especially when conflicts persist and people lose hope,” he said, adding, “For it is there that extremism finds fertile soil.”
Toward that end, the Malaysian government has been working aggressively to stop IS members from plotting attacks on home soil or transiting through the country en route to the Middle East, Najib continued.
He noted that authorities in his country had arrested more than 100 people suspected of having ties to IS.
“Our tireless, ever-vigilant security forces have intercepted many would-be IS recruits transiting through Kuala Lumpur,” Najib said. “It is because of our efforts that they have not fallen into the darkness that blights Syria and Iraq.”
“But some have,” he added. “We have identified 39 Malaysians who have travelled to join IS.”
On Thursday, The Star newspaper in Malaysia quoted a senior official with the national police’s counter-terrorism branch as saying that three Malaysian jihadists had recently been killed in action in the war zone, bringing to 14 the number of Malaysians killed while fighting for IS.
Malaysia joins coalition
Najib’s speech to the U.N. came two days after U.S. President Barack Obama, during a Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL (another acronym for IS) at the United Nations in New York, welcomed Malaysia as one of the new members of a global coalition countering the IS threat.
Established last year, the U.S.-led coalition consists of more than 60 countries “committed to degrading and destroying” IS, according the White House. Two dozen members of the coalition are involved in a military campaign, and have launched more than 7,200 air strikes on suspected IS positions inside Iraq and Syria, according to a fact sheet released by the White House on Tuesday.
Other coalition members are providing other types of support, but it was unclear exactly how Malaysia would contribute to the global anti-IS effort.
That support could come in the form of Malaysian leadership – with international backing – in establishing a “digital counter-messaging center” based in Southeast Asia, whose mission would be to counter the IS narrative in cyberspace, as Najib indicated during a speech to fellow leaders at Tuesday’s summit.