Kuala Lumpur — A plot to kidnap a head of state by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a serious and worrying event, one that should jolt citizens into extra vigilance – but not so in Malaysia.
When Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamid told Parliament police had foiled a plot by ISIS to kidnap the country’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, it was greeted with disbelief and ridicule by large segments of the urban population.
“ISIS wants to kidnap Najib? OMG! By all means do,” tweeted Syedsigaraja.
“ISIS wants to kidnap Najib? Netizens don’t believe you, Zahid. We demand proof,” tweeted AmenoWorld.
Zahid, who is also the deputy prime minister, said the militants had additionally trained their sights on himself, as well as the defense minister.
“On January 30, 2015, there were plans by 13 people linked to Daesh [ISIS] to kidnap the country’s leaders including the prime minister, the home minister and the defense minister,” Zahid said in Parliament on March 8.
The militants had also planned to carry out attacks in the administrative capital, Putrajaya, where explosives had been prepared and tested, according to Zahid.
“I don’t believe any of this,” said a property researcher who declined to be named.
“This is just a red herring to divert attention from 1MDB,” she added, referring to state-investment firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
The public’s skepticism, in a large part, reflects Najib’s loss of moral authority following allegations of corruption surrounding 1MDB, where he chairs the advisory board. 1MDB amassed USD$9.6 billion of debt in just five years.
Najib’s reputation took a further beating last year when the Wall Street Journal reported US$680 million made its way into his personal bank account through a complex web of banks, companies, and other entities linked to 1MDB.
Najib has denied all allegations, saying the money was a “political donation” from Saudi Arabia and the attorney general’s office cleared him of all wrongdoing in January.
“Diverting attention from 1MDB” has become a common refrain with Malaysians, frustrated and angry at the country’s state of political affairs at a time of economic downturn.
In the minds of urban, middle-class Malaysians, Najib is a tainted leader.
Their suspicions of him was further reinforced when he sacked his Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin last year for questioning him over 1MDB and the “political donation.”
A leader’s loss of moral authority leads to a loss of trust from the public. A distrusting public makes for an indifferent public. And indifference is the last thing that Malaysia needs in its fight against ISIS.
For one, the plot to kidnap Najib and his ministers is real. Thirteen men were arrested in connection with the plot, two of them air force soldiers. The arrest of military personnel should set off alarm bells as such people are trained, ready-made combatants for ISIS. Moreover, they have access to weapons. Add to that, four terror plans were foiled by police last year.
To date, a total of 160 ISIS suspects have been arrested since 2014, according to Malaysian police, while 46 have gone to Syria to join ISIS. Another 18 have been killed fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq; six of them died as suicide bombers.
One of the suicide bombers, 26-year-old Mohd Amirul Ahmad Rahim, blew himself up in ISIS’ capital Raqqa in northern Syria on December 26, 2015.
Before he died, Amirul wrote a will decreeing that his pregnant Malaysian wife and their two-year-old son remain in Syria to continue the “jihad,” according to his father-in-law in an earlier interview with The Diplomat.
Amirul’s 25-year-old wife gave a chilling testimony, that many Malaysians eagerly signed up to become suicide bombers.
“People queue up to register as a suicide bomber… and many Malaysians have registered themselves to become a suicide bomber, according to my daughter,” said Amirul’s father-in-law.
The willingness of Malaysians to become suicide bombers reflect ISIS success in recruiting and radicalizing people from the country.
The counterterrorism unit of Malaysian police intelligence arm, the co-called Special Branch, has done a tremendous job in preempting attacks, identifying and arresting ISIS returnees from Syria as well as blocking many from going to Syria in the first place.
Prior to the emergence of ISIS, Special Branch was instrumental in keeping Malaysia safe from terror attacks following 9/11, even as its close neighbor Indonesia suffered devastating attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202, the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing, 2004 Australian Embassy bombing and others.
Jemaah Islamiyah, Al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia branch, was blamed for all the attacks.
Malaysians tend to forget that the mastermind for all the attacks in Indonesia were Malaysian fugitives Dr. Azahari Husin, an expert bomb-maker, and Noordin Moch Top, a charismatic recruiter and strategist. Both men have since been killed by Indonesian police.
To date, Malaysia has not suffered a single major terrorist attack, a situation which many in the country take for granted. ISIS is an issue that makes big headlines, but has little impact in people’s minds.
Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay, Special Branch’s counter-terrorism chief, who works tirelessly together with his team to track down ISIS suspects, constantly warn against the threat of lone wolf attacks.
“No one in this world can guarantee 100 percent that there will be no attacks,” said Ayub.
Against this background, it is crucial for the public to understand the dangers posed by ISIS. But in a country where the prime minister is perceived to be tainted, the people are indifferent to any dangerous schemes that ISIS may be plotting.