ISIS eyes Malaysia's pool of professional talent

The strong pull of extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has raised deep concern among governments around the world, including in Singapore. In Malaysia, the factors that provide room for the growth of the militants are examined, while in Britain, there is debate on what to do with the returnees.

Growing conservatism, a reluctance to confront extremist views and the rise of social media have combined to make Malaysia fertile ground for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is taking an interest in the nation's pool of professional talent as it reaches out to potential recruits.

The seemingly hypnotic draw of the ISIS militant group has raised deep concerns in Malaysia, as it has in other countries, including Singapore, as ISIS fighters return to their countries with battlefield experience. They are also able to widen recruitment networks and agitate for violent regime change at home.

The Malaysian authorities have arrested 37 individuals in the country suspected of ISIS links since April. Alarm bells rang when last week's dragnet saw a senior government engineer being nabbed, which some say reflects the ISIS network's intentions to not just overthrow regimes, but also set up a nation-state.

"They want to create a success story. If they have enough professionals, then they aren't just a team of soldiers, but also builders of a so-called glorious Islamic state," Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, who heads the Global Movement of Moderates - a platform launched by Prime Minister Najib Razak to combat extremism - told The Straits Times.

Mr Saifuddin, a former deputy minister, is concerned that some civil servants could become "informers of secrets or will be groomed to be future administrators in conquered territories".

Another 22 Malaysians - including at least one architect and a doctor - are known to be already in Syria, with the actual total figure probably doubling that, Malaysian police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said. He has been tracking militants in the country since 1993.

"The ideology is the same whether it is Al-Qaeda, (South-east Asia's) Jemaah Islamiah, or even (Nigeria's) Boko Haram: Even though we are both Muslims, if you don't support my ideology, I can kill you," Datuk Ayob Khan told The Straits Times.

More Muslims in Malaysia have become deeply conservative owing to decades of political rivalry between opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which aims to turn the country into its version of an Islamic state, and the ruling Malay party Umno.

To attract the votes of Malay Muslims, who form 55 per cent of the country's 29 million-strong population, PAS and Umno have long fought to become the champion of Islam.

Umno, responding to PAS' long-held calls for hudud, or Islamic criminal law, embarked in the 1980s on an expansion of the government's Islamic bureaucracy, such as allowing the syariah courts to have the same legal powers as the civil courts, injecting Islam into the civil service and schools, and starting up Islamic banking and universities.

The authorities and many conservative Muslims now frown on any attempt to question the top- down administration of the official national religion.

Tellingly, the Islamic authorities "can issue fatwas, but they are keeping quiet" about ISIS, noted Mr Ayob Khan, referring to religious edicts.

"ISIS leaders say those who don't accept their decisions violate religious tenets and commit the offence of insulting the religion, which means their position is no different from that of religious leaders in Malaysia," former law minister Zaid Ibrahim wrote on Oct 7.

The appeal of deeper conservative values to young, tech-savvy Malays is evident in a July survey by independent opinion researcher Merdeka Centre.

Seventy-one per cent of all Malays support hudud, but the support climbs to 83 per cent for those in their 20s, while nine out of 10 Malays with access to online media and 86 per cent of households earning more than RM5,000 (S$1,950) a month are for the Islamic penal code.

On social media, some Muslims are openly expressing support for fellow Malaysians who proclaim to be "mujahideen" flying the ISIS flag in Syria.

One Malaysian in his 40s in Syria, who wanted to be known only as Abu Talhah, told The Straits Times on Facebook that his daily activities were focused on helping to establish an Islamic state. Besides taking up weapons, as he had done in Afghanistan during the 1980s Soviet war, he spends his time "upkeeping the base, reading the Quran and spreading our belief on Facebook".

Counter-terror chief Ayob Khan noted that the main medium for ISIS recruitment is Facebook, where it is estimated there are 13.3 million Malaysian accounts. "Now, in one week, you can be a member of a terror group," he added.

Malaysia has a bitter history of home-grown militancy.

The Jemaah Islamiah terror group was set up by hardline Indonesian Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in 1993 while he was on the run in Malaysia.

It is also known that part of the planning for Al-Qaeda's terror attacks in the United States on Sept 11, 2001 was carried out in a condominium outside Kuala Lumpur, with several of the plane hijackers hosted by former Malaysian army captain Yazid Sufaat.

Mr Ayob Khan said that combined with Malaysia's position as a halal hub, the country is now "not just tourist-friendly, but also terrorist-friendly".

This article was first published on Oct 20, 2014.
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