The terrorist threat in Malaysia is “under control” but recruitment of locals by extremist groups like Islamic State persists, the chief of the Malaysian police’s counter-terror special branch told BenarNews in a year-end interview.
In 2016 Malaysian authorities arrested, charged and prosecuted more suspects in terrorism-related cases than in the previous year, and they also foiled six terrorist plots by IS, according to special branch chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.
The Middle Eastern-based group, however, claimed responsibility for a grenade attack at a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur six months ago that injured eight people – its first terror act committed on Malaysian soil.
And while arrests and prosecutions of suspected militants were up this calendar year, 60 Malaysians, including 12 women and 17 children, are currently in Syria or Iraq – where IS is fighting to hold on to territory it controls – compared with 95 previously, Ayob said.
“Recruitment is still active. Malaysians still find ways to go to Syria,” Ayob said Friday in an interview at his office in Kuala Lumpur.
“They are getting smarter and daring. Nevertheless, my team is on high alert and we are on our toes all the time,” he said.
Yet he declined to disclose his department’s plans to counter terrorist threats in 2017.
“As for the threat, the situation is under control. Monitoring and surveillance have been increased,” Ayob added.
The number of arrests of suspected terrorists has increased each year since 2013, according to the police official.
Police made 119 arrests this year compared with 82 last year – a 45 percent increase. Fifty-nine arrests were made in 2014 and four arrests in the previous year, Ayob noted.
“This year saw an increase in arrests, but not only just that as there was also an increase in the number of charges and prosecutions,” he said, adding that 122 suspects have been charged in court, including 62 convicted for terror-related offenses in the past three years.
Out of a total of 264 suspects arrested since 2013, 66 have since been freed, according to figures given by Ayob.
Among radicalized Malaysians who have managed to reach Syria or Iraq, 27 have been killed in the region since 2013, including nine who killed themselves in suicide bombings, he said.
Sixty Malaysians are believed to still be in the war-torn region.
Rating his branch’s performance as “good,” Ayob conceded that it “can always do better.”
“We have crippled 6 IS attempts to create chaos in the country this year and seized caches of weapons and IEDs from suspects, who were mostly lone wolves who were awaiting directives to launch attacks on individuals and buildings,” Ayob said, noting that five terrorist plots were foiled in 2015.
Security analyst Ahmad El-Muhammady commended the Royal Malaysia Police’s counter-terrorist special branch for a “remarkable” track record in combating the problem over many years, but he warned that the threat of terrorism wouldn’t go away in the new year.
“The threat of terrorism in Malaysia is constant. It does not go away,” Ahmad, who assists Malaysian authorities in de-radicalization programs, told BenarNews.
He said the so-called “lone wolf” threat was the most difficult to stop, and added that Malaysian IS members still communicate with people in their home country.
Police have accused Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, who left for Syria in January 2015, of recruiting the people who threw the grenade at the Movida nightclub in Puchong on June 28. Authorities also blame him for allegedly orchestrating a foiled terrorist plot targeting Malaysian Independence Day celebrations in August.
“The possibility of local elements operating independently - this is the hardest target…,” Ahmad said.
Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with Bower Group Asia, a risk consulting firm, said Malaysian authorities have done a “tremendous job” in combating terrorism.
“But with terrorism, we cannot depend on the authorities alone and need greater public awareness, which I think we are severely lacking,” he told BenarNews.
“Malaysians, especially Malays, still assume the country is safe from attacks because we are a Muslim country but terrorism is blind to race and faith.”