Malaysia has in the past month uncovered more than a dozen militants of different affiliations and nationalities - ranging from Malaysians training to fight in Syria and Somali men in the Al-Shabaab terror group, to a Sri Lankan lone wolf and three Turks caught with a bomb-making guide in one of their cellphones.
The spate of arrests has raised concerns about whether Malaysia's lax immigration rules to attract tourists and foreign students are turning the country into a terrorist magnet.
Yesterday, the Malay Mail newspaper reported that police last week nabbed three terror suspects said to be from Turkey, with one having a bomb-making manual in his mobile phone and a photo with the words "Al-Qaeda Inspire Magazine".
Police sources told The Straits Times yesterday that the trio could be of Uighur descent, a Muslim-minority ethnic group in China, who had used fake Turkish passports.
This followed the arrest last week of a Sri Lankan national for alleged involvement in planning attacks on American and Israeli consulates in India.
And on May 8, police detained a Somali who is on the Interpol wanted list for alleged links with Al-Shabaab, a Somali terror group with connections to Al-Qaeda. Police are looking out for other suspected members in Malaysia.
Added to this are the 11 Malaysians arrested this month for training to fight in Syria's civil war.
Police sources told The Straits Times that while militants have, like in the past, used Malaysia as a transit point, the police have often been successful in thwarting their plans.
"Malaysia is just a transit point for terrorists and we work with international counterparts to thwart their operations," said a police officer, who declined to be named. "It doesn't mean Malaysia is a terrorist nest."
Malaysia has over the years relaxed its immigration rules as it tries to woo tourists and foreign students. After the terror attacks in the United States on Sept 11, 2001, Malaysia wooed Middle Eastern tourists and college students, who had faced closer scrutiny when trying to enter the US and Europe.
African students have also been wooed in the last decade, with Malaysia banking on its lower cost of getting a degree than, say, in Singapore or Australia.
"Part of the challenge of counter-terrorism for Malaysia is that the country has a welcoming immigration stance, for better or for worse, which tends to get abused," Ms Elina Noor, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told The Straits Times yesterday.
Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS), a government agency set up to process student visas, said students undergo a strict screening process and visas can be renewed only annually with proof of academic performance. But EMGS chief Yazid Abdul Hamid acknowledged that it does not want to over-regulate and turn prospective students away.
The government wants to have 200,000 foreign students by the year 2020. Currently, there are 95,000, with the bulk from China, Indonesia and African countries such as Nigeria.
In recent years, there have been multiple cases of foreign students being caught in criminal activities or working as club hostesses, prompting calls for a stricter vetting process. Students with alleged terrorism links could be the next trend, analysts warned.
Still, Somali students like Mr Abdisalam Mohamud, 25, who has been studying in a private university here since 2008, have defended the community, who are mostly students. "If we knew there were Al-Shabaab members in our midst, we would have turned them in to the authorities," he told The Straits Times.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said that while Malaysia has credible counter-terrorism capabilities, it needs tougher laws. "Without preventive detention, Malaysia is increasingly facing a monumental challenge to fight extremism," he said.
This article was published on May 20 in The Straits Times.
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