This week, Malaysia’s army celebrates its 83rd anniversary under the theme of unity. But for its new chief Zulkiple Kassim, preserving that unity is far from easy, especially in the wake of the ongoing infiltration of the country’s armed forces by the Islamic State. Indeed, the Islamic State’s insider challenge is arguably among the most difficult for countries like Malaysia to confront.
There is little doubt that the Islamic State is a serious and growing problem for Malaysia (See: “How Serious is the Islamic State Threat in Malaysia?”). Abroad, Malaysian police estimate that there are around 60 Malaysians currently in Syria fighting for the Islamic State, which is said to have a Malay unit dubbed Katibah Nusantara. At home, Malaysian officials have foiled no less than 14 terror plots which pointed to efforts to not only conduct attacks, but secure financing, acquire an arsenal of weapons, and explore foreign targets to establish an Islamic State in the country. Around 119 Malaysians were arrested in 2016, which was a rise from 85 in 2015, 59 in 2014, and just four in 2013.
But for Malaysian security officials, what is alarming is not just the size or scale of the problem, but the nature of the threat which has grown to include an important insider dimension. Islamic State recruits have included not just ordinary citizens, but also civil servants, airport personnel, and even members of the security forces, particularly attractive targets because of their training and expertise (See: “The US, Malaysia and the War Against the Islamic State”). Indeed, just last month, Malaysia’s airport security was again under scrutiny after the arrest of a security guard who was planning to go to Syria to join ISIS – the second such case in two years.
Malaysian defense officials have in the past contested the extent of this insider challenge, especially for the country’s military, arguing that this is a case of just a handful of people at a time, rather than the dozens of personnel sometimes reported (See: “Has the Islamic State Infiltrated Malaysia’s Military?”). But in truth, they too have expressed concerns privately and at times publicly about the nature of the problem itself, even if this may only be a case of a few bad eggs rather than the infiltration of a significant part of the organization or its top leadership.
On Monday, Malaysia’s army chief Zulkiple Kassim highlighted this challenge once again. In an exclusive interview with national news agency Bernama, Zulkiple said that he worried in particular about the ability of the group to influence military personnel through social media. Zulkiple said this carries a “very high” risk since they would be able to spread it around within the organization.
Of course, Malaysia is also actively trying to confront this challenge. Officials have stressed that steps are being taken to ensure greater scrutiny during recruitment and better monitoring of personnel to detect such tendencies before they take hold. There are also ongoing measures to counter radicalization once it occurs, including working with religious authorities to rehabilitate soldiers. Zulkiple mentioned some of this in his interview, especially collaboration between the Army and the Religious Corps of the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces.
Yet as he and others in the Malaysian security forces are well aware, given the danger of even just a few military personnel succumbing to the ideology of the Islamic State, this will always be an uphill battle for the country when confronting the insider challenge that the group presents.