Somali group eyeing Malaysia as terrorist base

KUALA LUMPUR - Members of a Somalian terror group have been entering Malaysia by pretending to be private college students and tourists, reports in the media say.

Analysts warn that lax security measures for visitors make the country vulnerable to terrorists seeking to set up a base in the region.

Malaysia's Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Unit has been tracking six Al-Shabaab members - a group linked to the terrorist Al-Qaeda network - who entered the country several weeks ago, The Star newspaper reported yesterday, quoting unnamed police sources.

The group had planned to set up a base in Malaysia for terrorists hiding from the authorities, the sources said. They added that the police are monitoring those still in the country, while some have left.

"More arrests are expected soon. The police have to act fast before this terrorist group gains a foothold in the country," the English-language daily quoted a source as saying.

Police on Thursday arrested a 34-year-old Somalian for his alleged connections with the terrorist group. The man is also wanted by Interpol for alleged terrorist links.

The arrest followed the recent detention of 11 members of a Malaysian militant network which has sent fighters to Syria, and which police say has links to Syrian and Philippine militant groups.

Analysts say the government's policies in recent years to make Malaysia an education hub for foreign students, as well as to boost tourism, have led to more relaxed immigration enforcement.

Mr Shahriman Lockman, a security analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said the presence of foreign nationals with alleged links to Al-Shabaab highlights a constant tension between Malaysia's economic and security imperatives.

"On the one hand, the government wants to attract foreign students and tourists into the country. On the other hand, there is growing realisation that such economic targets shouldn't come at the expense of security considerations," he told The Straits Times via e-mail yesterday.

Malaysia aims to have 200,000 foreign students enrolled in its 60 private colleges and universities in six years' time.

There are about 95,000 foreign students now, according to the latest government statistics. They are mostly from China, Indonesia and African countries such as Nigeria. There is also a big presence of students from the Middle East, including Iran and Yemen.

Meanwhile, the tourism sector is the country's second-largest foreign-exchange income earner after the manufacturing sector, with revenue of RM65.4 billion (S$25.2 billion) last year.

The government last year tried to control the quality of foreign students entering the country by tightening screening processes and placing a moratorium on education licences to admit foreign students, after multiple cases of students caught working as club hostesses or being involved in drug trafficking and crime.

Ms Choong Pui Yee, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, said Malaysia has been more vigilant on counter-terrorism in recent years, as seen by the arrest of high-profile terrorist suspect Mas Selamat in 2009.

"But tracking down terrorism nests in Malaysia is harder, as these individual suspects may be using Malaysia only as a transit point and hold legitimate visas which enable them to travel in and out more easily," she said.

Mr Shahriman said that despite this, Malaysia is unlikely to impose stricter immigration controls.

"The allure of having more foreign tourists and students - who bring not only money, but also help to improve university rankings - is strong enough to ensure that Malaysia remains welcoming towards visitors, including those from some of the more troubled parts of the world," he said.

This article was published on May 10 in The Straits Times.

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