Dressed in traditional Muslim garb – abaya or niqab for women, skull caps for men – the people entering a hotel banquet hall in Kuala Lumpur one recent evening looked like any other group gathering for iftar, the meal that breaks the day’s fast during Ramadan.
But this was no ordinary group. It included one-time members of Jemaah Islamiyah, Darul Islam, Abu Sayyaf, al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State – men convicted of terrorism offenses and men detained under security laws, plus their relatives – 122 people in all.
The event has been hosted annually for 16 years by the Royal Malaysia Police to help authorities stay engaged with people once involved with or suspected of involvement in terror activities.
“We do have other programs, but it is not something that we hold on a grand scale like this. The other would be one-to-one visits, and sometimes we organize talks. It is difficult to conduct house visits to everyone, but we make sure we are contactable whenever they need us,” Malaysia’s counter terror chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told BenarNews.
The aim of all these efforts is to keep strong relationships with people who could be vulnerable to returning to violent activities and radical ideologies, he said.
“They had to deal a lot with public perception among others, family acceptance and financial aid as well. So we talk to their family, because family acceptance is important. Once they have that support, they will be able to stay focused and handle the pressure,” Ayob said.
He described the iftar event as a reunion where ex-terrorists and former detainees get to meet not only with police officers but also with people they used to associate with in terror groups.
Asked if he was worried about hosting an event where such individuals could interact, Ayob said no.
“Those who are here have repented. They are no longer a threat,” he said.
Only seven of more than 700 individuals arrested since 2001 for terrorism-related activities have relapsed, he said, citing police data.
“Our de-radicalization program is a success. Many have gone back to society and they live a normal life. Some had gone back, in fact they fled to Syria to join the caliphate, but it is an isolated case,” Ayob said.
“Many regret their actions and believe that violence and extremism is not the way,” he said.
‘We are the only country’
People attending the event appeared uneasy around reporters and most declined to speak to the media.
One man, a government official detained by police for 28 days in 2014, gave a short interview to BenarNews on condition his name not be used.
The 32-year-old was arrested after he was believed to have attempted to flee the country to join militants in the southern Philippines. He was held under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), which allows suspects to be detained up to 28 days without charges.
He was later released due to lack of evidence.
“I used to be detained under SOSMA. I see the law able to curb militant activities especially when it involves the country’s security. Maybe what the government can do is to improve it,” said the father-of-one. But he declined to say how.
He said his name had been added to a police watch list, requiring him to seek police consent before visiting any other countries.
“I do not know how long I will be on the list. I have no other comment on this matter,” the man said.
Ahmad El-Muhammady, a senior lecturer with International Islamic University Malaysia, said that Malaysian police use an individualized approach to de-radicalizing extremists.
“The breaking fast event is one of the programs the police organize to engage with them,” he said.
Ahmad, who participates in the rehabilitation efforts, claimed that Malaysia is the only country that uses this approach to get close to ex-terrorists.
“We are the only country. During Ramadan we invite them for breaking fast, during Eid we visit them and bring them some gifts, and when their children are entering school we help them with school shoes or a bag.”