Exclusive: US, Malaysia and the War Against the Islamic State
Image Credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller

Exclusive: US, Malaysia and the War Against the Islamic State


It has happened quickly and quietly. But over the past few months, Malaysia has cemented itself as one of the key American partners in the ongoing war on the Islamic State.

This is not a natural or easy position for the Muslim-majority nation to take. U.S. and Malaysian counterterrorism approaches differ in some significant ways, and aspects of American foreign policy in the Middle East – including lingering memories of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks – remain deeply unpopular in Malaysia.

But Kuala Lumpur’s current commitment, which was highlighted recently during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the country for the latest round of Asian summitry, reflects the seriousness of the Islamic State threat both generally and for Malaysia in particular.

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The Threat

U.S. officials estimate that over 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries have now coalesced around Iraq and Syria, about double the number that went into Afghanistan during the 1980s that came from just a handful of nations.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, told reporters in a special briefing on the Islamic State on November 20.

Meanwhile, Malaysian officials say they have arrested over 100 citizens suspected of links to the Islamic State, with 39 identified as traveling to the Middle East to join the grouping. Alarmingly, recruits have included not just ordinary citizens, but lecturers, civil servants, and even security forces. With several deadly plots already foiled domestically and reports of militants seeking to unite groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to form a Southeast Asian branch of the Islamic State, some officials say it is only a matter of time before a major attack occurs.

“I think the Paris situation can also be transplanted here, in Southeast Asia,” Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, admitted to Reuters in an interview last week, referring to coordinated terror attacks in the French capital on November 13 that killed 130 people.

He was speaking before a series of meetings held in Kuala Lumpur which Malaysia led as this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Those meetings saw tougher security measures and a heavily armed police presence amid unconfirmed reports of an imminent terrorist threat, with more than 4,500 soldiers deployed or on standby, in addition to thousands of police.

Joining the Global Coalition

On September 29, Malaysia, together with Nigeria and Tunisia, were officially welcomed as the three new members of the now 65-strong, U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL amid a summit meeting of the group in New York hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama. That was a significant development as it meant one of Southeast Asia’s three Muslim-majority countries would be part of the Coalition in addition to Singapore (Indonesia and Brunei, the others, have yet to join).

What that exactly entails, however, is less clear. At this point in time, The Diplomat understands from sources familiar with the matter that Malaysia has only been welcomed as an observer and supporter of the coalition. But moving forward, U.S. officials are hoping that Kuala Lumpur will become a member and subsequently a co-lead in one of the five existing coalition working groups, each of which correspond with a particular strategy or approach: political-military; foreign terrorist fighters; counter-finance; stabilization support; and counter-messaging.

For now, Malaysia has determined that it would do best within the counter-messaging group – currently co-led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Put simply, counter-messaging seeks to erode ISIL’s appeal by exposing the group’s message of hate and violence while presenting an alternative and inclusive vision of hope for a better future. The idea, the then-special presidential envoy for the Coalition General John R. Allen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, is to “defeat ISIL as an idea.”

That sort of role fits Malaysia well. It dovetails with Najib’s idea of a Global Movement of Moderates, an approach that emphasizes moderation to realize world peace and harmony which he called for in an earlier United Nations (UN) speech back in 2010. The Malaysian government has been taking steps to realize this vision. As Najib detailed in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Malaysia had convened an international group of Sunni and Shia scholars in Kuala Lumpur to define what an actual Islamic State should look like based on centuries of Islamic thought, emphasizing principles like justice, compassion, and humility. In May, the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation and Google also organized the Content Creators’ Workshop on Countering the Narrative of Violent Extremism.

The Malaysian government has also emphasized the Islamic State issue during the country’s ASEAN chairmanship this year and will continue to do so next year, including by hosting an international conference on deradicalization in January (See: “Malaysia to Host New Conference to Tackle Islamic State Challenge“).

In return for its Coalition membership, The Diplomat understands that Malaysia will be entitled to several benefits, including access to the so-called Coalition Collaboration Workspace (CCW), an online, private portal that offers a secure work-space for exclusive use by coalition partners. Getting full access to that will require, among other things, identifying a point of contact back home in Malaysia to correspond with the Coalition secretariat and access the CCW.

A New Data Center

As part of its counter-messaging focus, Malaysia has also agreed to set up a joint messaging center with the United States known as the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Center (RDC3) (See: “US, Malaysia to Set Up New Center to Counter Islamic State by End of 2015”). In doing so, the Southeast Asian state will become the hub for coordinating and driving counter-ISIL messaging activity in the region.

As of now, few specifics have been publicized. General Allen, the then-special presidential envoy, said in his testimony to Congress that Washington intends to use lessons learned from the Sawab or “Right Path” Center it has set up with the UAE in Abu Dhabi to set up new messaging centers in Malaysia in addition to Nigeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia with the OIC, and in Brussels with the EU.

Several issues still need to be resolved. The United States and Malaysia have agreed to split the cost, with Washington happy to help provide some technology and other expertise. Still, some estimates of the construction of the facility, one Malaysian official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Diplomat, run up to a few billion dollars, which is quite a hefty price tag.

Another issue is where exactly the facility would be located and which agencies will be involved, including the Home Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism (SEARCCT), which was finally set up in 2003 during the years of George W. Bush following controversy about the extent of U.S. involvement.

“We are still deciding on the specifics,” the official emphasized when pressed for further details including a realistic timeline. “It will take time.”

Visa Waiver Program

Another important part of ongoing U.S.-Malaysia cooperation on Islamic State is the visa waiver program (VWP). While the program itself is about eventually enabling Malaysians to travel to the United States without a visa for 90 days for tourism and business, there are several components along the way that tie in to cooperation on the Islamic State as well.

Last week, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Malaysia, Washington and Kuala Lumpur inked the second of two documents which are vital prerequisites to Malaysia’s participation in the VWP. The document, called the Preventing and Combating Serious Crime (PCSC), provides for the mutual exchange of relevant information, including biometric and DNA data, for law enforcement purposes.

“The data will be used fully by PDRM [Polis Diraja Malaysia or Royal Malaysian Police] in studying the suspect list to determine terrorists or suspected terrorists in the country and foreign terrorists suspected of using Malaysia as a transit,” Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi explained in Kuala Lumpur after overseeing the signing ceremony with Home Ministry Secretary General Alwi Ibrahim and U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun.

When Zahid, who is also home minister, visited the United States last month, the two sides had signed the other key agreement – Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 6 (HSPD) – an arrangement that helps establish appropriate procedures for access to and exchange of terrorist screening information critical to protect against terrorism.

Yet problems still remain. Part of the issue, The Diplomat understands, is differences over how both countries report the same information that will be shared, such as whether to include only convicted criminals or suspects more generally.

Malaysia will also have to comply with certain conditions. These include uploading information about stolen passports to Interpol within 24 hours (no small feat, officials say, given the time needed to gather and transmit the information back to Kuala Lumpur and input it into the database), and figuring out which of the agencies involved will take the lead in uploading that information back in Malaysia. Currently, the High Level Committee established to monitor Malaysia’s progress is headed by Zahid, but involves ministries such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, the Royal Malaysian Police, and the Department of Immigration.

“On our end, we still have a lot of work left to do,” one Malaysian official told The Diplomat.

Still another issue is Malaysia’s record on human trafficking, which is linked to the VWP. While the Southeast Asian state was upgraded in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report earlier this year, U.S. officials have been stressing that improvements on trafficking will be needed in order for Malaysia’s full admission into the VWP (See: “US Upgrades Malaysia in Trafficking Report: Boost for TPP, Blow to Rights?”).

“If you have a big trafficking issue, that speaks to the vulnerabilities of the candidate country,” Yun, the U.S. envoy, told The Star, a Malaysian daily, earlier this year. As if to underscore the centrality of the trafficking issue in ongoing U.S.-Malaysia cooperation, Obama himself visited a refugee center that included victims of human trafficking during his trip to Malaysia.

Malaysian officials privately admit that there are still challenges in spite of the efforts the country has undertaken thus far.

The Road Ahead

While issues remain, there is little doubt that with a series of moves Malaysia has emerged as one of Washington’s key partners in the war against the Islamic State and that the issue has become a central pillar of ongoing U.S.-Malaysia cooperation.

“Malaysia is part of the coalition to fight (Islamic State) and can be extraordinarily helpful on issues like countering the destructive and perverse narrative that’s developed,” Obama acknowledged Friday following his meeting with Najib.

What the future holds, however, is less certain. Part of this will be determined by how the Islamic State threat itself evolves and how central it remains to both countries. Leadership also matters. It is an open secret that U.S.-Malaysia relations, which were elevated to the level of a comprehensive partnership last year, have advanced in no small part due to the personal relationship that Najib and Obama enjoy, with the two leaders even golfing together in Hawaii last December.

But with Najib’s political future hanging in the balance amid an ongoing corruption scandal and Obama’s second term winding down, that relationship is approaching its end. That is important for an area like counter-terrorism because small shifts in the way Kuala Lumpur deals with rights or how much Washington chooses to push its Southeast Asian partner on freedoms can make a big difference in how much cooperation is realized.

For now at least, the two sides are happy to emphasize the importance of the substantial cooperation they do enjoy.

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