Terror Arrests Drop in Malaysia Due to Pandemic, New Policing Approach

Muzliza Mustafa and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-01-15
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Terror Arrests Drop in Malaysia Due to Pandemic, New Policing Approach Malaysian anti-terrorist police participate in a drill in Kuala Lumpur, July 20, 2017.
[AP]

Malaysia made only seven counterterrorism arrests in 2020, the country's counter-terror chief said this week, but analysts told BenarNews that the dramatic drop in detentions reflects a change in policing strategy, and extremism remains a threat in the country and the region.

Lower arrests don’t mean the terror threat has decreased, but coronavirus-related movement restrictions affected everyone, including sympathizers and supporters of the Islamic State group (IS/Daesh), Normah Ishak, Malaysia’s counterterrorism chief, said this week at a symposium on preventing violent extremism.

“In 2020 our division only arrested a total of seven individuals … So the truth is, COVID-19 came to Malaysia as a blessing in disguise,” Normah said at the opening of the symposium, hosted by U.S. and Malaysian universities and funded by the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

By comparison, Malaysia arrested 72 IS-linked suspects in 2019 and 119 the year before that.

“Due to health security and pandemic prevention measures, daily movement and activities have been restricted. So this has indirectly reduced the risk and flattened the curve of terrorism in Malaysia,” said Normah, principal assistant director of the Bukit Aman Special Branch’s Counter-Terrorism Division

 ‘Gaining power silently’

Zachary Abuza, an academic who focuses on Southeast Asian security issues, didn’t expect this big a drop in terror-related arrests in Malaysia.

“The drop in arrests is really surprising even in spite of the COVID lockdowns in Malaysia in 2020,” Abuza said.

“I think it reflects a change in policing. Many of the 468 arrests from 2013-19 were for online activities, whether they be fundraising, radicalization, recruitment, or simply viewing Daesh videos or other media,” said Abuza, a professor at the National War College and at Georgetown University in Washington, and a columnist for BenarNews.

It is “highly unlikely” IS sympathizers stopped online proselytization, Abuza said.

Malaysian counterterrorism specialist Mizan Aslam said online radicalization activities had actually risen during the pandemic.

“With only seven arrests in 2020, it doesn’t completely reflect the safety of the country from terrorist-related activities. As long as extreme ideologies exist, the threat remains,” said Aslam, who is a professor at the University of Perlis Malaysia.

“Terrorism activities slowed down physically due to the pandemic but are gaining power silently by exploiting online platforms,” Aslam said.

Terror supporters are “smartly preparing for their future survival by exploiting more people through online platforms” and new technologies like bitcoin, cryptocurrency and the dark web, Aslam said.

Still, Malaysia is safe from terror threats currently because of the pandemic lockdowns, said Ahmad El Muhammady, a Malaysian counterterrorism analyst.

“Our police are continuing monitoring for any signs of threat … and so far there is no indication of advanced threats present, except the radicalization attempts that occurred mostly in cyberspace,” said El Muhammady of the International Islamic University Malaysia.

“Spending more time online doesn’t make a person radical or extremist,” he said.

A change in strategy

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s counterterrorism division is implementing a change in strategy in dealing with terror threats, division chief Normah said.

In responding to threats, counterterror practitioners have to weigh the seriousness of the offense and gauge whether executive, preventive or rehabilitative action is needed, she said.

For example, when a suspect is found with a small IS sticker – a relatively minor crime – arrest and incarceration may have undesired consequences.

“Sometimes it happens out of ignorance and you have to give them benefit of the doubt. If you arrest a person and the result [is] retaliation and hatred coming from the family members and the community, what good will that bring in the long run?”

She called for a “whole of nation” approach where teachers, coaches, and community leaders help monitor for “red flags,” leaving police to focus on activities such as policing covert online platforms.

“Let’s give this young man and woman a second chance in life and only refer them to the police as the last resort,” said Normah, who took the post of Malaysia’s top counter-terrorism official in February 2020.

“Since the threat is now considered manageable, our leadership wanted to balance our approach to threat from a different angle, and one approach is CVE, or the countering violent extremism angle,” she said.

CVE refers to proactive actions to counter efforts by extremists to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence, according to the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Counterterror specialist Abuza, El Muhammady and Aslam believe this change in strategy would be a good idea.

“Normah is acknowledging that the large number of arrests [in previous years] may have been counterproductive, and that some of the sentences did not fit the crime,” Abuza said.

CVE is what many international organizations recommend, said El Muhammady.

“I welcome this approach. CVE works need to be intensified with the inclusion of civil society,” he said.

For Aslam, in addition to CVE, preventing violent extremism, or PVE, is also very important in reducing the terror threat.

“PVE is in dire need right now. PVE will determine the roots of terrorism,” he said.

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