An officer from the K9 Unit searching the home of suspects with links to the Islamic State group in Kuala Lumpur last month. (FILE PIC)

THE threat of the enemy within Malaysia by extremist groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), linked to the Islamic State (IS), present a clear and present danger. The recently exposed ASG and IS operatives apprehended last month by the Malaysia Counterterrorism Unit are sufficient proof that there is an enemy in the midst of Malaysia.

Among those arrested were not only Malaysians, but also Palestinians, Algerians, Moroccans, Syrians, Iraqis and Filipinos. What are their motives and reasons for operating here? The answer: to encourage, energise, activate extremist religious sentiments, and to carry out acts of terrorism on behalf of IS in Malaysia.

In addition to these are the home-grown terrorists, who have been recruited and indoctrinated by the Indonesian-Malay IS arm, Katibah Nusantra, through social media as well as videos released by IS from 2015 to this year. These radicals and extremists have grown in number since the days of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). These extremists are prepared to carry out violent attacks on the nation’s people and property in the name of jihad, which can be translated or interpreted as either a “holy war” or “struggle”.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has declared that IS is a major threat to Malaysia and the people. Who exactly are these enemies in the midst? What are the dangers they pose? What are the reasons they become violent and how does one counter these threats? Can the public, local government and law enforcement agencies root out and prosecute these threats?

Extremists in the country identify themselves with jihad as a struggle on behalf of Islam and it’s a religious duty to carry out acts of violence based on extremist ideologies purportedly attained from Salafist and Wahhabi teachings. These individuals are found in communities, often part of clandestine terrorist “sleeper cells”, awaiting orders from abroad or to act on their own accord where they see fit. They have either been exposed or radicalised abroad or locally through various means of indoctrination.

The threats to Malaysia, based on violent extremism, are suicide attacks, preplanned bomb and car ramming attacks. These threats can be difficult to thwart and they are difficult to contain, unless prior intelligence is available. These can be carried out as “lone wolf” attacks. They are especially hard to identify because of their isolated lifestyles and the ability to plan and act without being part of a group. This form of extremism is especially dangerous as it is harder for law enforcement to curtail it as the plans are not divulged to anybody else; only the perpetrators know of it.

Countering violent extremism (CVE) is complex as it is shaped by terrorism with a variety of grievances from all sectors of society. The community is the first-line of defence in CVE and this has been proven by the actions already taken by the relevant authorities. The authorities have also ascertained the threat and root causes through engagement with the local Muslim community. By doing so the authorities can identify and intervene to either thwart or reverse the threats. Currently, the authorities engage with former convicted JI members who have been de-radicalised to assist and provide information, intelligence and expertise.

One of the reasons that the Malaysian authorities are able to infiltrate the Muslim community is because many of the personnel involved are of the Malay race and they are easily accepted into the community. The threat, hence, is easier to curtail and identify based on individual’s radicalisation.

However, sometimes law enforcement agencies may not monitor an individual further if he is not seen to be progressing in his radicalisation and this can be risky as he or she can surface later as a perpetrator. An example — the former JI operative whose family was operating a food stall within the High Courts compound some years back. Authorities later realised that his wife was supporting terrorist activities.

Administrating CVE strategies involves all relevant government agencies, primarily the Counter-terrorism Unit and agencies specified by the Home Ministry, which include the religious agencies and prisons department, to pursue specific programmes within their expertise, using and improving existing programmes and initiating new ones to counter the threats of extremism. All other agencies, non-governmental organisations and internationally recognised counterterrorism organisations which provide security that have an indirect link towards CVE should also be incorporated in the system.

Community policing for CVE should also play a vital role as
it involves engaging and building relationships with the community to fighting crime and curtailing extremism. However, more needs to be done in addressing the
community, as there lacks education on terrorism and the threat is seen lightly by most Malaysians.

It has also been noted that many organisations in Malaysia do not engage in terrorism awareness programmes or train their people in countering the threats of terrorism. Stakeholders and organisations have a direct obligation towards the safety of their workforce and to prepare them for such threats in the future.

It can only be hoped that from a positive perspective a new form of interest can be developed to carry out governmental and community level training on anti-terrorism measures to counter and if possible to neutralise the enemy within. This can be achieved through the support of the government, organisations and community leaders through effective and affordable means.

The writer is the Southeast Asia Regional Director for the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professional-Centre for Security Studies, Kuala Lumpur and is also a National Security and Counterterrorism Expert

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