Combating terrorism through community engagement: Experiences from Malaysia and Indonesia

Umma Atiyah Ahmad Zakuan and Seniwati


After the fall of ISIS’s headquarters in Syria in 2017, many of its jihadis returned to their home countries, and some have also made their way to third countries for settlement. It is a rather innocent conception to suggest that ISIS radicalization and extremism are eliminated following the fall and the dismantling of ISIS in Syria. Some experts believed that the return of ISIS fighters is one of the biggest threats facing by the countries in the world. An estimated 41,000 jihadis had travelled to join the self-claimed Caliphate, and of that number, 1,000 of them were from Southeast Asia. Some of them were already planning to stage attacks at home. The experts also believed that with the failure in the Middle East, the Southeast Asia region will be the potential ground for breeding ISIS ideology, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, which have the world’s largest Muslim populations (Desmond Ng, 25 July 2019). It is evident when recently several planned terrorist attacks in Malaysia were successfully stopped by the authorities. Indonesia has also introduced various measures to deal with the continuous and increasing threats of terrorism in the country. Both countries have taken measures involving the non-state stakeholder through a policy of community engagement. It seems that the governments realize that, to combat terrorism, community must be incorporated in its operation.

Terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia

Terrorism in Malaysia

Malaysia has confronted eminent forms of insurgency and terrorism threat since the 1940s, starting from the Malayan Communist Party until 1989 (Samuel, 2016). Since that time, the militant jihadi movements have been growing steadily and in power since the early 1970s (Raj, 2015). This happened when Malaysia witnessed a number of Malaysians involved in the armed struggles along with the Mujahedccn against the Soviet in Afghanistan. When the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the Malaysian mujahedccn returned, equipped with military knowledge, skills in armed fighting and their deviant Islamic ideology (Ahmad El-Muhammady, 2018).

In addition, the countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, had become a strategic base for international terror groups, such as Al-Qaeda. This has contributed to the establishment of many local extremist or militant movements in Malaysia. The Malaysia Home Ministry has identified 13 separate militant groups which had planned (or attempted) a violent takeover of the national administration since the late 1960s. These groups are Tcntera Sabilullah (Holy War Army) formed in 1967, Golongan Roha-niah (Spiritual Group) established in 1971, Koperasi Angkatan Rcvolusi Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Revolutionary Front-KARIM) founded in 1974 in Kuala Lumpur, Kumpulan Crypto (Crypto Group) emerged in 1977 in Penang, Kumpulan Mohd Nasir Islam (Mohd Nasir Ismail Group) founded in 1980 and operated in Johor, Kumpulan Rcvolusi Islam Ibrahim Libya(Ibrahim Libya Islamic Revolution Group) set up in 1985 in Kedah, Kumpulan Jundullah (Jundullah Group) was formed in Kelantan in 1987, Kumpulan Mujahidin Kedah (Kedah Mujahiddin Group) formed in 1988 in Terengganu, Kumpulan Pcrjuangan Islam Perak (Perak Islamic Movement Group- KPIP) established in Kedah in 1986, Kumpulan al-Arqam (al-Arqam Group) founded in 1968 in Kuala Lumpur, Kumpulan Persaudaraan Ilmu Dalam Al-Maunah (Brotherhood of Al-Ma’unah Inner Power) formed in 1999 and started in Perak, Kumpulan Militant Malaysia, discovered by the Malaysian police in 1995 in Kedah and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) established in 1993 in Johor and Negcri Sembilan (Mohd Mizan Aslam, 2009).

Since the rise of ISIS, the radical group has expanded its sphere of influence and it has become a growing threat across West and North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in a period of just 18 months. The former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said that a total of 34 militant groups from around the world have reportedly pledged allegiances to the ISIS group (Lederer, 2016). This also meant that some radical groups in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia, have officially pledged their allegiance to ISIS.

Hafiza Nur Adeen Nor Ahmad (2016) stated that a study conducted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2016 reported that there were between 300 and 450 Malaysians and Indonesians fighting in Iraq and Syria, with over half having joined ISIS. Malaysia has been a significant source of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, relative to the size of its population, producing six times the proportion of the number coming from Indonesia. Many Malaysians joined factions such as Ajnad al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. As of October 2014,22 Malaysians had reportedly joined Ajnad al-Sham in Syria. As of May 2015, 154 Malaysians were reported to have joined ISIS, with 67 in the war zone. Malaysian fighters have been trained as snipers and as suicide bombers for prime missions. It is also revealed that 8 out of 12 suicide attacks were conducted by Malaysians within the Southeast Asian militant group, Katibah Nusantara.

Since 2013, the challenge emerging from ISIS militancy has become the fastest-growing threat to Malaysia. There is no sign to the end of this terrorism threat in the near future as long as the conflicts in Syria remain

Combating terrorism through community engagement 109 unresolved (Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 2016). There were numerous terror plots made by ISIS affiliate groups in Malaysia. However, the RMP was successfully stopped at least 14 terror plots by the groups. For instance, in 2015, Malaysian police successfully arrested ISIS militants at Hutan Lipur Gunung Nuang in Hulu Langat while they were making bombs to attack several key areas in Klang Valley (Teoh, 2015). Moreover, the alleged militants had planned to attack on multiple sites in Kuala Lumpur, such as Hindu temples and police stations, before Malaysia marked its 59th Independence Day in 2016 (Iyengar, 2016) and there was also a plan to bomb the police district headquarters in Perak (Farik Zolkepli, 2017). Nevertheless, the bombing in Movida nightclub was the first successful attack in Malaysia (Lourdes, 2016).

Despite the dismantling of the ISIS headquarters, ISIS is still active and it is anticipated that it will be more aggressive in its operations. It is not only that there are still significant numbers of the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, but many returned to their home countries. Governments also concerned on how to integrate the female and child returnees to their home countries. Some foreign jihadis, rather than going home, have chosen to locate elsewhere, including in the SEA region. It is unknown whether their actions have been taken under the instructions of the ISIS leaders. In addition to these returnees, there are already radicalized citizens, both known and unknown to the local authorities. These have created serious concerns in many countries, including in the SEA region (Barretts, 2017: 12).

In more recent developments, in September 2019, the Malaysian authorities arrested 16 people with suspected links to ISIS plotting attacks in the country, targeting unnamed political figures and non-Muslim groups. There were twelve Indonesians, three Malaysians and an Indian woman who were being held across the country, including the capital Kuala Lumpur, and Sabah. They were accused of trying to recruit members and collecting funds. One of the Malaysians from the same group planned to stage attacks on politicians and non-Muslim groups in the country due to various increasing negative comments towards Islam, suppressing the faith, and for insulting the Malays in the country (Al-Jazeera, 26 September, 2019). With the death of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 the authorities in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia would expect retaliation by ISIS loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by local individuals who have been radicalized via the group’s powerful online propaganda (Perry & Latiff, 2019).

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