The arrest of a female suspect who allegedly planned an attack near Kuala Lumpur on Election Day marks the first time a woman assumed a lone-wolf role in a terror plot in Malaysia linked to the Islamic State (IS), a senior police official said.
The case underscored a current trend by IS to use women as field operatives in the country, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the chief of the Royal Malaysia Police’s counter-terrorist special branch, told BenarNews.
“Before, we had heard about the participation of women in IS, mainly carrying out simple tasks, either going to Syria and marrying a terror group member … or being used as a mediator to channel funds to other members abroad,” Ayob said.
“But this time around, for the first time, we arrested a female ground operative that took on a task to launch lone-wolf attacks in the country.”
The woman arrested on May 9 on suspicion of plotting to bomb a polling site in Puchong with an explosives-rigged vehicle had also intended to target non-Muslim worship sites with car bombs, he said.
The 51-year-old woman, whose name has not been released to the media, is a mother of two and the first female leader of a pro-IS militant cell in the country, Ayob told BenarNews.
The suspect’s terror-related activities were unknown to her husband, but she had been communicating with more than 600 people through chat groups on her Facebook page and WhatsApp account, he said.
The police counter-terror chief declined to reveal how many people the woman may have recruited for the IS cause, citing the sensitivity and integrity of the investigation.
“[T]he woman we arrested was in communication with IS cell members in Europe, gathering information on how to conduct a lone-wolf attack,” Ayob added without giving details about the locations of those European operatives.
At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, Ayob amplified his warning about the threat posed by a new trend of women taking on a frontline role in IS terrorist activities.
“In the past, most of the women were arrested because they played a secondary role as supporters to their husbands – collecting money, propagating salafi ideology. Some managed to go to Syria,” Ayob said, according to Channel NewsAsia.
“Now they have moved to phase two. They are radicalized and have started to instigate others to conduct attacks in Malaysia,” he added.
Harder to detect
Ahmad el-Muhammady, a terrorism analyst who advises the Malaysian police in efforts to rehabilitate radicalized people, suggested that authorities in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia should be on guard for the threat of women playing a more active role in terrorism.
“It’s possible that more women have been recruited as front-line fighters but have yet to be detected,” Ahmad told BenarNews, alluding to recent suicide bombings in Indonesia.
In mid-May, in the days following the foiled terror plot in Puchong during Malaysia’s general election, at least 27 people were killed – the perpetrators among them – in a series of suicide attacks carried out in and around Surabaya, Indonesia, by whole families that included mothers and their small children.
Stopping women from acting as field operatives in IS terror plots will be a challenge for the authorities, according to Ahmad, because female militants are harder to detect and are generally perceived as being less suspicious than men.
In Malaysia, about 400 people, including 43 women, have been arrested in recent years on suspicion of being involved with IS.