What’s Behind Malaysia’s Latest Mass Terror Raid?

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What’s Behind Malaysia’s Latest Mass Terror Raid?

‘Operation Joker’ reflects serious concerns by the government about the extent of the Islamic State threat.

What’s Behind Malaysia’s Latest Mass Terror Raid?
Credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller

Over the weekend, Malaysian security forces conducted a mass raid at a popular shopping district in the country’s capital, netting over 400 potential suspects. The move is part of a wider effort by Southeast Asian state to boost its readiness to confront the threat of terrorism as the country prepares for a major regional sporting tournament and the ruling party inches closer to an election expected to be held within months.

As I have noted previously, Malaysia, which is one of just two Southeast Asian countries that is part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has already been vigilant in response to the terror threat (See: “How Serious is the Islamic State Threat in Malaysia?”). Hundreds of Malaysians and dozens of foreigners have been arrested in the past few years, and the government has been working with neighboring states and other partners to boost wider cooperation as well (See: “Exclusive: US, Malaysia and the War Against the Islamic State”)..

Mass raids and arrests are not uncommon in Malaysia with respect to a wide range of security concerns including piracy, drugs, terrorism, and illegal immigration (the country, which has a population of 32 million, is estimated to have over two million undocumented migrant workers, and nearly 6,000 are believed to have been arrested in a mass illegal immigration crackdown since July).

But this latest mass raid is part of a broader effort by the Malaysian government to secure the country amid growing terror concerns ahead of the 29th iteration of the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) which will kick off on August 19. Amid the recent series of terrorist attacks in London and Paris as well as incidents closer to home in Indonesia as well as most recently in the southern Philippines, the government appears to be taking no chances, even though some of its actions have raised rights concerns.

Last week, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that the government had been taking a series of steps to tighten security ahead of the games. This included setting up a designated anti-terrorism task force for the SEA Games, holding a series of exercises with a counterterrorism focus to boost readiness, and operations to root out potential terror suspects. Over 12,000 police personnel are expected to be on duty for the SEA Games.

Zahid, who is also Home Minister, had also expressed concerns that an estimated 16 Islamic State-linked suspects were believed to be loose in the country after they had been deported to Malaysia from Turkey to prevent them from joining the war in Syria, without Ankara first sharing this intelligence with Kuala Lumpur. Though Malaysia is sometimes selected as a destination of choice for these individuals as it offers visa-free travel, Malaysian officials have been warning that proper attention should be given by the countries concerned to high-risk suspects, as they, along with returning Malaysian Islamic State militants, can pose a national security threat.

Accordingly, this past weekend, Malaysia’s security forces began what Special Branch Counterterrorism Division Head Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the country’s top counterterrorism official, said was a series of “large scale operations” targeting major cities and towns, including the Klang Valley.

The raid, dubbed Operation Joker, saw around 200 personnel from a range of agencies, mostly police, searching the streets and apartments around Masjid India, a popular shopping area. It also featured the rare use of radiation detection devices on loan from the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the SEA Games.

Ayob told reporters that the crackdown had netted 409 people in total, but had not found any of the 16 ISIS-linked individuals. Operation Joker did, however, detain a Pakistani who appeared to be the head of a passport forgery syndicate, after he was found with 62 passports from various countries, RM 40,000 and other foreign currencies, and a machine used to forge Immigration Department stickers.

Of the other 409 netted, 133 were detained on suspicion of immigration violations, while the remaining 275 had been released after their backgrounds were checked against both the Special Branch’s Lookup database as well as the Interpol Foreign Terrorist Fighter Database. Nationality-wise, most of them were Bangladeshi, with Indians, Pakistanis, making up the rest.