Asia Defense

The Youth Battle in Malaysia’s Islamic State War

Radicalization among the young continues to be a challenge for the Southeast Asian State.

Prashanth Parameswaran
The Youth Battle in Malaysia’s Islamic State War
Credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller

Like many other countries in the Asia-Pacific, Malaysia continues to struggle with how to tackle the challenge posed by the Islamic State (ISIS). Though there tends to be an overwhelming focus on the military dimension of the threat, it is in fact much more complex and multi-faceted, as I have tried to highlight previously (See: “Malaysia Battles the Islamic State Insider Challenge”).

This week, the youth dimension of this war was in the spotlight. At a meeting, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi emphasized the importance of preventing extremism and radicalization in society in general but also focused specifically on the youth as a group of concern. According to Zahid, who is also home minister, around 80 percent of the arrests that the Malaysian police have made since September last year have been of people under the age of 40.

Zahid’s comments are not surprising. The youth make up a significant proportion of Malaysia’s overall population. Though Malaysia’s official statistics tend to divide the population age structure into three groups (0-14 years; 15-64 years; and 65+ years) and recent years have shown an increase in the average median age in the country, data from 2013 indicated that children and youth (0-24 years) made up around 46 percent – or just under half – of the total population.

Other Malaysian officials have also warned about the threat from youth radicalization and efforts are underway to fashion a response to the challenge. A case in point is the study on youth radicalization conducted by the Ministry of Youth and Sports through the Malaysian Institute of Youth Research and Development (IYRES), the Malaysian police, and the Prisons Department. The study, which had been carried out since mid-2015, included insights gleaned from youths detained for their involvement with ISIS to determine root causes for radicalization as well as recommendations for the government to adopt.

Zahid indicated that some of the measures proposed by the ministry study would find their way into government policy in some form or another, though they would of course have to be integrated into ongoing initiatives among other key stakeholders as well. He emphasized that though the Malaysian government’s approach would emphasize preventive measures, such as creatively optimizing social media to disseminate narrative content, it would also include other measures focused on advocacy and education.

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Zahid’s signal was important in this regard. It acknowledges the concerns of some Malaysian officials who have emphasized the need for a well-rounded government approach toward countering ISIS, rather than one that overly focuses on security measures. It also attests to the complexity of the threat that the group poses to countries like Malaysia, which do not expect this challenge to go away anytime soon.