Malaysia’s diverse Muslim community has made it a popular destination for foreign militant fighters who are trying to escape from the wars in Syria and Iraq, an adviser to the Royal Malaysian Police told BenarNews.
Ahmad El-Muhammady, who advises police on rehabilitation programs for terrorist detainees, said foreign fighters had admitted this during debriefing sessions.
“It is without a doubt that Malaysia’s image as a moderate Islamic nation is one of the main attractions for foreign fighters. They get to blend in easier because we are a Muslim country, our food is halal, our facilities are good,” he told BenarNews. “It is also because we have a huge Middle Eastern community along with groups from Central Asia.”
“Moreover, when they manage to get fake documentation and their names are not on any red alert notice, it makes it harder for the local authorities to notice the danger.”
As for Middle Easterners, immigration regulations are relaxed and visas are not needed to visit Malaysia.
“For that reason, Malaysia became their second home. It’s less hassle for them,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad said he had lost count of the number of local and foreign militants apprehended, explaining that while some were detained at Malaysia’s airports trying to fly to Syria, others were deported back to Malaysia from Turkey.
“I have worked on this matter since 2013 and I have lost count on the numbers. But I know there are more than 300 of them in our prisons,” he said.
“Locals and foreign fighters. Foreigners who we arrest and did not commit any crime here, we send them back. But those who did commit crimes here, they have been charged and they are now in prison,” he said.
“Same goes to the locals. They are in our prison and are undergoing rehab programs,” Ahmad said.
The website of Malaysia’s Immigration Department showed that citizens of many Middle Eastern countries need no visa to enter, while those of only six of the 53 Commonwealth countries – Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ghana, Pakistan, Nigeria and Mozambique – are required to apply. In addition, travelers from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan do not require visas.
Ahmad said the trend of foreign militant fighters traveling to Malaysia was rooted in wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan during the 1990s into the early 2000s.
‘Easy for people to enter’
Another security analyst, Badrul Hisham Ismail of IMAN Research, questioned Ahmad’s comments about Malaysia’s role as a Muslim country in the influx. The Kuala Lumpur research group calls itself a social enterprise focusing on research and community engagement.
“I agree that Malaysia is safe and diverse, therefore foreign fighters can blend in with the vast community from all over the world,” Badrul told BenarNews. “However, it is not because Malaysia is a Muslim country, it is because Malaysia is safe and our open door policy makes it easy for people to enter.”
He also doubted whether foreign fighters considered Malaysia their second home.
“I do not think that they consider Malaysia as a home in the first place. They are escaping the war and escaping prosecution,” he said. “They take whatever chances they have to avoid being detained.”
Ahmad, who has spoken with many local and foreign fighters, said police had a tough time detecting terrorists who enter Malaysia through legal means.
“It would be hard to detect if they enter through the airport gates unless there are alerts from Interpol and intelligence sharing,” he said. “Therefore information sharing is crucial to avoid any unwanted incident.”
In October, Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun said 45 foreign fighters had been arrested in the first nine months of 2017. Fuzi said some of the terrorists were linked to Islamic State (IS), including three Iraqis who were based in Iraq or Syria.
The counter-terrorism squad had also detained nine suspected Abu Sayyaf members, three members of the Turkish Fetullah militant group and one from an Albanian terror cell with connections to IS, Fuzi said.
Meanwhile, a source in the police department’s counter-terrorist special branch, said police were aware of possible terrorists entering the country but noted that it would be hard to detect each one flying into Malaysian airports.
The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said Malaysian police were working closely with their international counterparts in detecting suspected militants and combating terrorism.
“Although it is hard, it is not an impossible task for us. We managed, for instance, to arrest 45 foreign terrorists alone last year and this shows we are serious about it.”
“Information sharing and intelligence sharing is vital. We have a very good relationship with other countries and we share countless of information on who is who. There will be more arrests in the future,” the source told BenarNews.