Arrests Raise Fears About Islamic State Threat Level in Malaysia

By Hata Wahari and Nani Yusof

2015-04-30
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150430-MY-IS-THREAT-620 Police take one of 12 suspected Islamic State members into custody in Selangor, Malaysia, April 25, 2015.
Courtesy of Royal Malaysia Police

This month’s arrests in Malaysia of 30 suspected Islamic State (IS) members – many of them with explosives allegedly in their possession – have raised concerns about the threat posed by the militant group to the nation and region, experts say.

“The threat posed by IS militants in Malaysia has reached a third level in which they are ready to stage attacks,” Akhbar Satar, a former senior Malaysian crime fighter, told BenarNews.

Twelve of the 30 suspects were taken into custody on Saturday with bomb-making material while on their way to a mountain site in central Selangor state. According to Malaysian authorities, they were preparing to target government facilities in bomb attacks.

Seventeen others were arrested earlier this month under suspicion of taking part in plotting attacks in Kuala Lumpur, sources with Malaysian police said. Another person was picked up soon after on suspicion of planning to leave the country to join IS.

These arrests and a string of other earlier raids have stoked fears that the terror threat facing Malaysia has reached an alarming level. The other raids included the detention of two Iraqis who, according to police, were planning to attack the Saudi and Qatari embassies in Kuala Lumpur.

Akhbar said the militants had already attained two tiers: recruiting members at all levels – from students and military personnel to civil servants and businessmen; and training them to stage attacks using explosives.

The critical third tier could involve attacks by the militants on key installations, said Akhbar, now director of local university HELP’s Institute of Crime and Criminology and president of Transparency International Malaysia.

“We do not know how big the IS cells are and, based on the arrests so far, many of the militant suspects do not know each other. They met after being directed to pursue certain actions. This is something very dangerous,” he said.

So far, 109 people have been arrested in Malaysia over their links to IS. Authorities have identified 105 Malaysians in Syria and Iraq, where IS has set up bases as part of its plan to establish a global caliphate.

Six charged

On Thursday, six of the 17 suspects who were arrested April 5 were charged with being “party to a conspiracy to promote terror in Malaysia,” Agence France-Presse reported, citing court documents.

The six included two Royal Malaysian Air Force personnel and an Indonesian, Ali Saifuddin, an alleged weapons expert and ex-member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a group linked with al-Qaeda, according to news reports.

The six charged Thursday also included Murad Halimmuddin Hassan, a 49-year-old Malaysian and former member of the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) extremist group, the Star Online reported.

According to the Star, Murad is a veteran of armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Sulawesi in Indonesia, and Syria. He is also suspected of being the mastermind of a group that tried to raid a police weapons’ depot in Guar Gempedak, a town in Kedah state, The Star reported.

Comprehensive approach needed: expert

The capabilities of the groups that seek to emulate IS in Southeast Asia are still low but “that does not preclude the autonomous cells that are cropping up and seeking to learn,” Ahmed Salah Hashim, an expert on military studies at Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University, told BenarNews.

“There is also the potential threat posed by lone wolves, although to date lone wolves are mainly a product of western individualistic societies.”

He expressed doubt that the recent arrests meant Malaysians was facing “a beast of the nature of IS.”

In his view, Malaysia needs to adopt a comprehensive approach to staving off the IS threat, encompassing diplomatic, intelligence, security and legal measures.

That approach could have three prongs, he said: continued disruption, surveillance and arrests of IS sympathizers at home, as well as measures to prevent people from going to Syria, even under the guise of charity work; preventative measures for “battlefield” returnees, including de-radicalization, therapy and surveillance; and creation of an IS task force to gather and analyze intelligence and work with the police’s Special Branch wing.

“IS is not at the threat level in Malaysia as it is in Indonesia, and both are not at the threat level it is in the Middle East, of course,” said Ahmed, an associate professor at the university’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.

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