Countering terrorism on Malaysia’s borders

Internal threats have hampered the overall effectiveness of Malaysia’s border security in the past. Given that the threat of violent extremism in Southeast Asia has not abated, the Malaysian government and its security agencies, while they combat another wave of COVID-19 infections, cannot afford to leave gaps that may be exploited by opportunistic militant groups. 

On 17 May 2021, five members of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) were gunned down by police in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.

The Sabah incident comes after two recent terror incidents in Indonesia. In March 2021, there was a suicide bombing at a Catholic cathedral in Makassar as well as a shootout at police headquarters in Jakarta. 

One of the factors that may compromise border security in the Malaysia and hence facilitate the movement of militants is corruption and radicalisation among border and security officials.

In 2015, 70 Malaysian army personnel were discovered to have ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. In 2016, a Malaysian immigration scandal captured global media attention after 37 immigration officers were found guilty of meddling with the Malaysian immigration system. 

‘Corrupt officials and syndicates’ were still exploiting the Immigration Department’s passport issuance system in 2019.

In response, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission conducted a nationwide operation in 2020 codenamed Ops Selat. Subsequently, 39 immigration officers were arrested for receiving bribes to certify the entry and exit of foreigners. 

These ‘insider’ threats — the security apparatus being linked to militant groups and bribery among civil servants — exhibit the vulnerability of Malaysian border security.

Militant groups are now leveraging the inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 to spread extremist ideologies and gain recruits. Such groups use online propaganda to reach people who are spending more time online. 

Despite its territorial losses, there has been a spike in IS’s online activities and several Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, have reported an increase in IS recruitment efforts.

A Malaysian woman captured the attention of Indonesian security in April 2021 for propagating IS ideology over WhatsApp and Facebook. Since the suicide bombing in Makassar, members of her WhatsApp group have been deliberating on plans for future attacks.

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In 2019, Malaysian counter-terrorism authorities noted the new trend of women being used as suicide bombers in Southeast Asia. This came after the arrest of a Malaysian housewife who plotted an IS suicide bombing during the 2018 Malaysian general election. While her operation was foiled, she communicated with over 600 people on social media prior to her arrest.

In September 2020, another Malaysian was sentenced to imprisonment for spreading extremist propaganda. This propaganda included videos that reportedly urged Malaysians to ‘wage war against the Royal Malaysian Police and the Malaysian government’. This and other selected cases illustrate that IS continues to radicalise individuals and attract lone-wolf attackers through its online content.

Those Malaysians who are currently seeking to join IS but cannot travel to Syria are considering going to Mindanao in the Philippines. Malaysian militants have strong connections with the ASG, an IS-linked faction based in and around Jolo and Basilan. The 2017 siege of Marawi alone involved 30 Malaysian fighters.

The ASG has launched some of the Philippines’ most devastating terror attacks, operating from their stronghold in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines since the 1990s. They also frequently operate in inadequately policed sea areas bordering Malaysia and Indonesia. The close geographical proximity between the southern Philippines and East Malaysia has long provided Malaysian militants with the opportunity to pursue regional jihad.

This problem of insufficiently policed maritime areas is not exclusive to the state of Sabah. Several ‘rat trails’ have been recently detected along the coastal areas of Johor through Malaysia’s Ops Benteng, an integrated operation involving several border control agencies launched in 2020. Sea areas are challenging to patrol, so analysts believe that illegal border crossings via Johor’s waterways are conducted through hidden routes. 

Furthermore, several Malaysian immigration officers (in Johor among other states) were charged under Ops Selat for corruption, money laundering and bribery to secure the passage of foreign nationals in 2021.

The growing ideological threat from religious extremist groups in Indonesia makes Johor a precarious crossroads for the spread of extremist ideology, as radicalised Malaysians can easily move to Indonesia or Singapore via Johor. 

A recent case which illustrated this was of a Malaysian working in Singapore who was arrested for planning to travel to Syria with his Singaporean wife to take up armed violence for IS in July 2020. He actively propagated IS ideology on social media and radicalised his wife, who had been conducting religious classes with an accreditation from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

In January 2021, Malaysian Counterterrorism Chief Normah Ishak declared that COVID-19 movement restrictions had ‘flattened the curve of terrorism in Malaysia’. But Malaysia cannot afford to lower its guard. The country is an ongoing ‘source, transit point and destination country for terrorist groups’ including IS, ASG, al-Qaeda, and Jemaah Islamiya. 

Given the porousness of the tri-border region in Sabah and the vulnerable waters of Johor, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines need to ramp up measures to counter the infiltration of their state agencies by militant groups. Regional cooperation and security depend on continued vigilance and cooperation among all countries involved.

By : Piya Raj Sukhani (Research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) – EAST ASIA FORUM

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