KUALA LUMPUR: The Islamic State (IS) remains the biggest terror threat for Malaysia in 2018 - despite the militant group losing most of its territories in the Middle East - as its ideology continues to attract new recruits, says the Royal Malaysian Police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.
The sombre assessment comes even as the number of terror suspects arrested in Malaysia for 2017 declined to 105 from 119 in 2016, according to the police.
Malaysia also foiled five terror plots in 2017. This brings the total number of terror plots disrupted by the police from 2012 to 2017 to 19.
“I rank Islamic State as the number one threat (for 2018) as its ideology has spread all over the world. Even though they no longer have any territories, they still receive strong support and have many sympathisers,” Ayob, head of Special Branch’s counter-terrorism division, told Channel NewsAsia.
Asked whether Malaysians were still being recruited by IS, he said “yes”.
“The reason for that is due to IS’ powerful propaganda … their fight for an Islamic Caliphate which is said to be the true practice of Islam attracts the interest of Muslims all over the world to … support their struggle,” Ayob added.
To date, 53 Malaysians are in Syria while another 34 died fighting for IS. Of the 34, nine died as suicide bombers. Another eight have returned home, said Ayob, adding that they have all been arrested.
SOUTHERN PHILIPPINES - THE NEW JIHAD ZONE
Malaysia also faces a serious threat from Mindanao island in southern Philippines where pro-IS groups seized control of the city of Marawi in May 2017 and held on to it for five months before the military wrestled back control.
More than 1,100 people were killed in the battle which drew foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East.
“Marawi in the Philippines is the second biggest threat because IS is expanding its power to the Southeast Asia region. People are joining them (pro-IS groups) in Philippines because the location is nearer and easier to access compared with Syria,” said Ayob.
“At least five Malaysians have gone to Mindanao to join terror groups there,” he added.
Malaysians played prominent roles in the Marawi siege. Amongst them was former university lecturer Mahmud Ahmad who helped plot the take-over of Marawi as well as facilitating the funding for the battle to a tune of US$1.5 million.
In the first half of this month, Malaysian police arrested 16 men who were planning to go to Mindanao to join the pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
THE JERUSALEM CONTROVERSY - A MAJOR TERROR RISK FACTOR
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which triggered massive protests across the Muslim world, is another terror risk factor.
“The Jerusalem issue will inspire people to wage jihad because the (militants) believe the Dajjal (great evil figure) will emerge from a Middle Eastern country before the final phase of the end of the world,” said Ayob.
TERROR SUSPECTS ARRESTED DECLINED IN 2017 FOLLOWING DEATHS OF TWO LEADING MALAYSIAN IS FIGURES
Compared to the 119 arrests last year, the 105 terror suspects arrested in 2017 represent the first decline in four years, according to the police.
Forty one have been charged in court.
The decline is due to increased pre-emptive measures taken by counter-terrorism police as well as the death of two leading Malaysian IS recruiters in Syria in 2017, said Ayob.
“Many active (IS) recruiters like Muhammad Wanndy and Zainuri Kamaruddin have been killed. E8 (Special Branch’s counter-terrorism division) has also been carrying out pre-emptive measures which prevented existing terror cells from expanding,” Ayob added.
According to Ayob, terror suspects arrested recently came from small cells with less than six members, unlike Muhammad Wanndy’s terror cell which was known as “Black Crow” that comprised of more than 50 members.
“They (IS suspects) are also finding it hard to enter into Syria’s conflict zones. They are also very careful in their movements and communication to avoid being arrested,” he said.
Malaysians make up 52 of the 105 arrested this year, while the remaining 53 are foreigners, according to police.
Filipinos comprised the largest group of foreign terror suspects. Twenty five of them were arrested, while Indonesians made up the second largest group. Twelve of them were picked up.
Some of the Filipino terror suspects are pro-IS Abu Sayyaf members, according to police. The rest of the terror suspects come from Yemen, Bangladesh, Iraq, Maldives, China, Palestine, Albania and Morocco, they added.
INTERNATIONAL TERROR GROUPS SEEK SAFE HAVEN IN MALAYSIA
To date, police said Malaysia has arrested suspects from regional and global terror groups including Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf Group, East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Islamic State of Iraq and others.
The militants see Malaysia as a transit zone and a potential safe haven.
“Members of foreign terror groups are here either to transit or to try to make Malaysia a safe haven,” said Ayob.
According to Prof Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington DC, foreign terror groups come to Malaysia because of the lax visa requirements for countries from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
“They (foreign terror groups) have always come to Malaysia … firstly, no visa requirements for OIC countries; and (due to) the record of few (foreign) arrests, terrorists of all persuasions feel that Malaysia is a great place to pass through to try to cover their tracks,” said Abuza who specialises in terrorism and insurgencies in Southeast Asia.
In 2016, the Malaysian cabinet rejected a proposal from the National Security Council to introduce visa requirements for those originating from the Middle East.