Malaysia’s Reckoning With the Islamic State

With ISIS being pushed out of Iraq and Syria, is Malaysia ready?

Malaysia’s Reckoning With the Islamic State
Credit: Olivia Harris, Reuters

In Malaysia’s bustling capital Kuala Lumpur, with its towering steel and glass skyscrapers and sleek, modern rail and highway networks, the call to prayer rings out from a mosque on a quiet side street just several doors down from a Hindu temple.

With a population of around 1.6 million, much of which is employed in the finance and real estate sectors, Kuala Lumpur is the heart of a country that has embraced shopping malls and almost entirely eradicated poverty. Malaysia’s mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian residents – Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus respectively – all work and worship on the same streets, allowing the country of 31 million inhabitants to be upheld as a symbol of cosmopolitan multiculturalism and tolerance.

But simultaneously, the world’s most regressive and ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim group is increasingly targeting this majority-Muslim nation. As U.S.-allied forces drove extremists from the Islamic State (ISIS) out of major parts of their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq, the militants ramped up their efforts in Southeast Asia and declared Malaysia a part of their dominion. Most recently, the extremist group named Malaysia’s anti-terror chief, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, one of its main targets, calling on its adherents to “awake now and finish off Ayob Khan,” according to social media messages and media reports.

In response, Malaysian authorities have doubled down on the group’s online recruitment efforts and launched security measures to prevent terrorist attacks at home.

Police have arrested more than 300 individuals over the past four years for suspected links to the Islamic State, and shut down numerous pro-ISIS websites. But experts say the government’s efforts have failed to prevent a significant number of Malaysians from fighting for ISIS in diverse countries such as the Philippines and Iraq, and that more efforts will be needed as ISIS militants return home to Malaysia.

“The amount of Malaysian suicide bombers we have witnessed in both Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017 can be described as noticeable and is intrinsically the result of the domestic [ISIS] propaganda campaign in Malaysia,” says Tomas Olivier, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert at the Netherlands-based consultancy firm Twickelerveld Intelligence and Investigations.

“The sheer amount of Malaysian foot soldiers in the Middle East is also remarkable.”