This year was promising to be a particularly brutal one. Islamic militants have increasingly taken their terror campaigns to the streets of major Western cities – Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and the Lindt cafe siege in Sydney – with chilling effect.
Then, as the traditional “killing season” approaches in Afghanistan and Iraq, further attacks aimed at the Anzac Day parade in Melbourne were foiled, another 17 people were arrested in Malaysia for planning a series of high-profile kidnappings and terror-styled strikes, and two gunmen were shot dead in Texas after opening fire on a cartoon contest featuring right wing politicians and pictures of the Muslim prophet, Mohammad.
Malaysian police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said the 17 men were believed to have been inspired by the “Takfiri ISIL” terrorist group, with attacks planned for Kuala Lumpur and the nearby capital Putrajaya. Raids on police stations – to obtain weapons – and banks – for cash – were also planned.
Takfiri refers to Muslims who denounce apostasy. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levanth (ISIL) – led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – is often shortened to the Islamic State, or IS.
Authorities in Malaysia have struggled with regional and home grown Islamic terrorist outfits that first emerged in unison with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and began asserting themselves in the late 1990s, intensifying in the aftermath of the 9/11 strikes on the United States.
That has changed with militias associated with the self-anointed Islamic State (IS) stepping into a power vacuum across Iraq and Syria, supplanting influence once held by al-Qaeda, and inspiring young Muslims around the world to emulate terrorists strikes with tragic consequences.
The strategy in Melbourne was allegedly based on the killing in London of the British soldier Lee Rigby, in May last year. He was run down by Islamic preachers The Asia-Pacific’, who then butchered him.
In Melbourne, five men aged 18 and 19 from the city’s working class Southeastern suburbs were arrested and three were charged for planning a terrorist attack and weapons-related offenses. Back in London, a 14-year-old boy was arrested after he was linked to the same plot.
Analysts said both attempts were timed for significant dates. Anzac Day is revered in Australia while ASEAN leaders were preparing for their latest summit in Malaysia when police say terrorists were planning to strike against a long line of high profile targets and people.
“These are Islamic State inspired attacks, not that different from the types of attack bin Laden once tried to encourage through video messages from the mountains of Afghanistan in the years that followed the 9/11 strikes on New York and Washington,” one analyst, who declined to be named, said.
He added that prominent dates, major events, and community meets that can be used to deliberately taunt Muslims were attention grabbing for home-grown Islamic fanatics willing to use terrorist-style tactics in pursuit of their religious and political agendas.
“Anecdotal evidence would suggest this type of planning is on the increase, with IS militancy tapping into – either directly or indirectly – the disaffected youth through the Internet. Disaffected youth are an easy target for a recruitment drive and they live everywhere.”
The latest Malaysian arrests also were made as parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Bill granting special powers to a five-to-seven-man board including the ability to detain suspects for up to two-years or under five year restriction orders that can be renewed indefinitely.
Decisions made by the board will not have any judicial oversight.
Gavin Greenwood, a risk security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates, said the Malaysian arrests had to be placed within the context of a bitter internal struggle that has dominated domestic politics since the last election in 2013.
“It is not possible to assess anti-terrorist detentions in Malaysia, and therefore accurately assess the nature and credibility of the threat posed by Islamic extremists due to a number of factors,” he said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has witnessed an escalation of factional brawling within the ruling UMNO party, largely led by former leader Mahathir Mohamad, who reckons Najib is incapable of winning the next national election due in 2018. Najib won the 2013 polls despite garnering less than half the popular vote.
Mahathir has also backed hardline Islamic religious groups when it politically suits him. Some have carried out campaigns like banning the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. Just over half the country is Muslim.
Greenwood said efforts to marginalize or remove Najib included attacks by the conservative and reactionary wing of UMNO to undermine his position by portraying him as weak on security issues.
“The other problem with assessing the validity of the threat from Islamic extremists in general and IS in particular is that under counter terrorist legislation and detention without trial the charges remain untested in open court and are therefore only represent the executive’s view as whether the accused are guilty or not,” he said.
The Australian ANZAC Day related-arrests follows a similar pattern to the Malaysian ASEAN case.
“The difference is that the charges against the suspects will the tested in open court where they will hopefully reveal the true extent of the threat or whether it’s just another case of security theater,” Greenwood said.
Most countries, whether in the West, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, are having trouble containing home-reared IS adherents – men and women – and preventing them from taking up arms with IS on the frontlines or striking out against perceived injustices at home.
Intelligence gatherers have estimated that more than 20,000 people from about 50 countries are now fighting with IS, nearly a fifth were nationals or residents of Western countries.
Keeping tabs on them is getting harder. There have also been reports that IS has split into more than 23 smaller branches and its troops no longer take their orders under a single command structure that was previously headed by al-Baghdadi.
There have been reports that al-Baghdadi was wounded and is currently incapacitated, however, this has not impacted on IS ability to inspire its supporters. Given their antics over the past six months and a business-as-usual approach, further attacks should be expected.
Luke Hunt can followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt