The arrests of 11 people in an anti-terrorist sweep in Malaysia provide a dramatic reminder of the mutation of the terrorist threat in the region. Unlike Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah and Kumpulan Mujahiddin Malaysia, which have left heavy footprints on the international, regional and national terrains, the new group appears to have emerged out of nowhere. The network drew on social media, including Facebook, to recruit about 500 members. Local universities were a prime target, suggesting that it wanted to attract and radicalise the educated young.
It is to the credit of the Malaysian authorities that they have nipped the six-month-old threat in the bud, before it could do intended harm by bombing Western interests in Malaysia and entertainment outlets. These are standard targets of terrorist ire, roused by the power of the West and the presence of "sinful" lifestyles associated with it.
The group bears witness to the way in which the terrorist threat can metastasise and assume deadly form after a period of dormancy in which the illusion of normalcy makes the spectre of terrorism recede from the public mind. The fact that the network sent members to Syria to fight the secular regime there suggests that its regional ambitions were not a pipe dream but were a part of a process in which the experiences of battle-hardened fighters in the Middle East would be translated into militant action back home.
International politics are an integral part of the terrorist agenda. The civil war in Syria provides militants from elsewhere ample opportunities to intervene, as they have done in conflict-ridden Afghanistan and Iraq. Zealots give political conflicts a religious dimension to bring societies into a terror group's sphere of influence. If for no other reason than this danger, peace and stability in the Middle East are essential in curbing the ambit of multinational terrorism. South-east Asia's security cannot be insulated from that of the Middle East, the core region in the global contest between order and terror.
A security source who said that an idea could not be killed - referring to the ideological motivations of the Malaysian terrorists - was right. However, it is equally important for terrorist groups to know that they, too, are up against ideas that cannot be destroyed. These include the fundamental belief in peace, constitutional politics and the possibilities of religious and racial coexistence. Every time a country disables a planned assault on these foundational values, it restates its claim to being on the right side of history.
As a Muslim-majority country, Malaysia has done just that by moving against the latest bunch of dangerously misguided zealots. It should keep up the pressure now.
This article was published on May 8 in The Straits Times.
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