Malaysia arrested slightly fewer terrorism suspects in 2017 compared with 2016, in the first year-on-year decline since 2013, according to statistics provided by counter-terror officials.
But authorities have stepped up their surveillance of suspected militants and expanded intelligence gathering to foil attacks in the Muslim-majority nation, officials said Thursday.
Police arrested 105 suspected militants this year, compared with 119 the previous year. Statistics also reflected lower numbers in charges filed: 41 this year compared with 70 in 2016.
“The decline in charges does not mean that the remaining [suspects] are freed,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, chief of the national police’s counter-terrorist special branch, told BenarNews.
Ayob said some of the suspects had been detained on charges of violating the nation’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which allows police to restrict the movements of suspects by using electronic monitoring devices.
“We have increased our surveillance and intelligence sources,” Ayob said. “We are not saying we are smarter, but we are keeping up with the upcoming threats.”
In 2013, officials charged three of four terrorism suspects who were arrested during the entire year, according to government figures reviewed by BenarNews. The following year, authorities arrested 59 and filed charges against 21.
The upward trend in the number of arrests and charges continued in 2015, when 82 suspects were arrested and 30 were taken to court. The numbers peaked last year.
Authorities attributed the sharp decline in court cases against terror suspects this year to insufficient evidence and the deportation of foreign militants.
“That does not mean the counter-terrorism team is less productive,” Ayob said.
In October this year, Malaysian police released a list of 45 foreigners arrested since January for suspected links to terror groups, including the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Among the suspects were nationals from as far away as Iraq, Turkey, Albania, Yemen, the Maldives and China, as well as from nearby Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun said then in a statement.
Those 45 suspects arrested through Oct. 6 included nine members of the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), three from Turkey’s Fetullah, one from an Albanian terror cell linked with IS, and another from Bangladesh’s Jamaatul Mujahideen, Fuzi said.
During the past four years, Malaysian authorities have arrested 369 people for their suspected links to terror groups, according to government statistics compiled by BenarNews. Among those arrested this year was a 26-year-old female college student who was arrested at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on April 4 after being deported by Turkish authorities.
In October, Ayob told reporters that 70 foreign fighters had been detained by Malaysian officials since 2013. Nine of those men were suspected ASG members thought to have been in contact with Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant considered the IS recruiter in Southeast Asia.
That same month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that Mahmud was among militants who were killed in Marawi. The five-month battle in the southern Philippine city left more than 1,100 people dead, including more than 900 militants, officials said.
Malaysia, home to about 32 million people, including 19.5 million Muslims, has foiled at least nine IS-related bomb plots since 2013. Those plots included one that targeted the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur in August, but that was thwarted, according to police.
Last year, however, an IS-linked grenade attack at a nightclub in Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, injured eight people.
Officials said at least three planned attacks had been foiled this year.
The Borneo connection
Terrorism spotlighted the Borneo state of Sabah this year with numerous suspected militants, especially those with ASG links, being arrested in the coastal town of Sandakan town, which has ferry services to the southern Philippines.
The Malaysian Eastern Sabah Security Command’s (Esscom) attributed the arrests to tip-offs from members of the local community.
Early this month, authorities said that security forces had killed Abu Paliyak in waters off the east coast of Sabah. Paliyak allegedly belonged to an ASG faction responsible for kidnappings and robberies.
Two weeks after Paliyak’s killing, authorities said that a cousin of Isnilon Hapilon, the late “emir” of Islamic State’s Southeast Asian branch, and a leader of Indonesian terror group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) were among 20 suspected militants arrested in raids across Malaysia in December.
JAD carried out the terrorist attack in central Jakarta in January 2016, in which eight people, including four perpetrators, were killed, Indonesian police said. The attack was the first successful one claimed in Southeast Asia by IS.
Esscom commander Hazani Ghazali credited the police involvement in community activities for the closer bond that led to the arrests of suspects in Sabah.
“Through these operations, we get closer and forge a relationship with the local community and this is where we build their trust and confidence in us,” Hazani said during a Malaysian TV interview Wednesday.
Kamal Affandi Hashim, a Malaysian crime analyst, praised the Malaysian police for what he called an excellent job this year in curtailing terror attacks, but said authorities need to improve their public-relations efforts.
“I have faith that effort had been taken by the police to ensure public safety in the background all along,” he told BenarNews. “But for 2018, I hope it will be much more visible so that there will be more trust in them.”
Hareez Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.