Malaysia: Extremism and Terrorism

 On May 17, 2021, Malaysian police carried out a raid on suspected Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members in Sabah, on the Malaysian portion of Borneo. A shootout ensued that left five militants dead, including Mabar Binda, an ASG sub-commander on the Philippine government’s wanted list. Earlier on May 8, Malaysian authorities arrested eight suspected ASG militants in Sabah. Philippine military officials said they provided information that helped lead to the arrests. According to Philippine marine brigade commander Col. Hernanie Songano, the members of the Philippine-based terrorist group were planning to use Sabah as a hub for kidnap-for-ransom activities and to facilitate the travel of foreign fighters to the southern Philippines. A Malaysian police commissioner, however, claimed that the ASG detainees were not engaged in kidnap-for-ransom when they were captured, but were in hiding after escaping a military operation in the southern Philippines. Among the arrested was a sub-leader of the Sulu-based faction of ASG, Sansibar Bensio, who was allegedly previously involved in deadly clashes with the Philippine military and the kidnap of foreign citizens. Philippine authorities had initially claimed that Binda was among those arrested, but the Sabah police commissioner later clarified that he and several others had escaped the arrest operation. (Sources: Reuters, Bernama, Associated Press, Rappler)

On November 20, 2019, Malaysian authorities released Yazid Sufaat from the Simpang Renggam penitentiary in Johor and sent him to his home near Kuala Lumpur. Sufaat, a U.S.-educated biochemist, has served a string of jail sentences for his involvement with both ISIS and al-Qaeda. The former army captain, now aged 55, rose to notoriety when he was jailed in 2002 for his exploits in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was a leading figure in al-Qaeda’s push to develop weapons of mass destruction, including anthrax for use as a biological weapon. In January 2000 Yazid provided lodgings in his flat for al-Qaeda operatives who took part in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur of senior leaders from the group, including two September 11 hijackers, to discuss future terror plots. He was released in 2010 but sent back to jail in 2013 for recruiting ISIS members to fight in Syria. In 2017, he was again released, only to be rearrested shortly afterwards when it was discovered he had been recruiting fellow inmates for al-Qaeda while in jail. His latest release raises concerns among U.S. terrorist experts who believe there is no solid evidence that Sufaat has abandoned his extremist creed. Malaysian authorities have some safety measures in place as Sufaat will be required to report to local police twice a week and can only leave the vicinity of his house with written permission from the Selangor police chief. These specific measures were aimed at preventing Sufaat from reoffending and carrying out further recruitment. (Sources: Arab NewsSouth Morning China Post)

Malaysia faced a domestic communist insurgency beginning in the 1930s when the country was part of the British colonies and protectorates. Communist insurgents formed the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which sought to overthrow British colonial rule. Even after Malaya independence in 1957 and the establishment of the independent state of Malaysia in 1963, the CPM continued to call for militant struggle, and violent activities intensified during the 1970s and 1980s. The CPM and Malaysian government negotiated a peace agreement on December 2, 1989, and the last holdouts of the communist insurgency laid down their arms in 1990. By the late 1990s, Malaysia came under threat from domestic Islamic extremist group Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM)—comprised of Malaysian fighters from the Soviet-Afghan war—and regional terror groups such as Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Philippines’ Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). (Sources: New Zealand Journal of Asian StudiesCentral Intelligence AgencyGlobal SecurityMalay Mail OnlinePatterns of Global Terrorism)

In January 2000, several al-Qaeda operatives—including perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—gathered in Kuala Lumpur for training. Osama bin Laden sent four operatives to the capital city to train for a suicide operation in either the United States or Asia. Kuala Lumpur-trained operative, Walid Muhammad Salih bin Roshayed bin Attash (a.k.a. Tawfiq bin Attash) helped bomb the USS Cole warship in Yemen in October 2000. Two others, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were the first of the 9/11 hijackers to settle in the United States in early 2000. The fourth trainee, Abu Bara al-Yemeni, was encouraged by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to launch an attack using commercial passenger planes. (Source: 9/11 Commission Report)

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Malaysian government cracked down on KMM and JI activities in the country. Some KMM and Malaysian JI members fled to Indonesia to avoid arrest. Since the start of conflict in Syria in 2011, former members of both KMM and JI are believed to have joined Syrian jihadists in their fight. Malaysian networks of these extremist groups are believed to support ISIS, according to Southeast Asian terrorism analysts and a regional study completed for the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Sources: Global SecurityMalay Mail OnlineUSAIDSEARCCT)

Analysts believe that Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, is at high risk for terror threats, citing reports of thwarted attacks as early as August 2014. Regional terrorist groups such as the ASG continue to pose a threat to Malaysia’s northern state of Sabah and Malaysian maritime security. Mass arrests of suspects allegedly involved in terrorism have also raised concerns of an imminent threat in the country, as Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 100 individuals for ISIS-related activities. Following a deadly ISIS attack in neighboring Indonesia on January 14, 2016, and a subsequent arrest of a suspected suicide bomber in Kuala Lumpur, then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered police to heighten security. (Sources: Deutsche WelleReutersCNNCNBC)

In October 2015, the United States selected Malaysia to host a regional center to counter ISIS online propaganda, underscoring closer counterterrorism cooperation between the two governments. In September 2015, Malaysia joined the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. Malaysia has also implemented U.N. resolutions, such as the resolution to address the threat of foreign fighters. Malaysia has met with Indonesia and the Philippines to address regional security concerns. Beginning in 2016, the three governments met several times to discuss maritime cooperation, culminating in a March 2017 agreement to launch joint patrols of the Sulu Sea to safeguard ships’ crew from piracy and kidnapping. (Sources: The StarMalay Mail OnlineThe DiplomatBenar NewsU.N. Press CenterWall Street JournalDaily-Sun)


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