This series explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read Read more ...
On March 26, 2016, the Associated Press reported that over the past two years, the Malaysian police had arrested more than 160 people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Just a few days earlier, police had detained 15 alleged members of ISIS whom they suspected of trying to obtain bomb-making ingredients in preparation for launching attacks. Those arrested ranged in age from 22 to 49 and included four women, a police official, an airplane technician, a mosque cleric and a student.
Since the January 15 gun and bomb attacks in neighboring Jakarta, Indonesia, and the March 22 coordinated bombings of the Brussels airport and metro station, Malaysian authorities had been on a high state of alert and were clearly taking no chances in this case. Yet the circumstances leading to the recent arrests in Kuala Lumpur were not the first signs of ISIS-related activities in Malaysia. Intelligence reports indicate that no fewer than 30 Malaysians had arrived in Iraq and Syria to join ISIS in 2014.
Malaysian authorities are especially concerned about the spread of ISIS-inspired violent extremist ideology of jihadi Salafism to the country’s Muslim community, particularly among youth. On July 2, 2014, police revealed that Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, a senior lecturer at University of Malaya (UM) was among five individuals wanted for militant activities.  Mahmud is alleged to have used his position as an academic to lure students into militant activities. Sundry shop owner Mohd Najib Husen was also suspected of trying to recruit youths for ISIS.
This essay discusses ISIS recruitment methods that target Malaysian youth and critically examines the measures that the authorities have thus far put in place to counter them.
ISIS Recruitment Targeting Malaysian Youth
Under the National Youth Policy (NYP), Malaysian 'youth' are currently defined as those aged 15 to 40. By year 2018, the government plans to introduce the Malaysian Youth Policy (MYP), whereby a person between the ages of 15 to 30 will be considered a ‘youth.’ Thus, for the purpose of this essay, ‘youth’ will refer to those below the age of 30.
ISIS has employed several methods to lure Malaysian youths to join jihad in the Middle East, notably social media and usrah (small discussion groups) in local schools, colleges and universities. ISIS has employed social media to target mainly the student population. In one recent instance, a 14-year old school boy was recruited to fight alongside militants in Syria. According to chief assistant director of the counter-terrorism division of the Royal Malaysia Police Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, “We found that among those targeted by the recruiter was a Form Two student. The recruiter was communicating with this boy through Facebook, coaxing him to join IS in the war-torn country (Syria).” Ayob stated that the reason teenagers are targeted is that they can be easily misled and manipulated; recruiters provide youth with distorted interpretations of Qur'anic verses to legitimize the fight against the authorities in Syria. Another example is that of Syamimi Faiqah, aged 20, a former student at the International Islamic University College of Selangor, who, having been enticed via Facebook, left for Syria in October 2014 to join ISIS.
Among Malaysian students, ISIS is targeting those attending institutions of higher learning, in particular. On December 24, 2014, police nabbed two university students who were about to leave for Syria to join ISIS, including a 27-year-old woman who had married an ISIS fighter through Skype. The female suspect studied at a private institution in the Klang Valley. The second suspect, a 22-year-old male student of a public university in Perlis, was arrested at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Both suspects reportedly gained sympathy for the ISIS struggle after watching the latter’s propaganda video on YouTube.
ISIS has also used usrah—small groups comprising fewer than 10 members who meet regularly to discuss and learn about Islam—as a means of recruiting students. As Taib argues, “Usrah, as a method of entrenching the ‘dakwah persona’ is effective in forming close-knit communities of dakwah activists with a mission to proselytise and Islamise society.” If usrah is the sustenance, its camps can act as recruitment platforms for not only new dakwah candidates, but also new recruits for
According to Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, law enforcement units have launched a full-scale investigation to determine whether a National Service (NS) trainer arrested in December 2015 for trying to join ISIS had influenced NS trainees while working in Pahang. Police are also looking into whether there are other militant elements in NS camps and whether such usrah is being used for nefarious purposes.
In yet another case, Muhamad Razin Sharhan Mustafa Kamal, aged 24 at the time of his arrest in Beirut, Lebanon in 2012, admitted that he had attended an usrah led by the former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainee Yazid Sufaat, who had had jihad experience and had received military training in Afghanistan. Kamal said that he, together with all the attendees of the usrah, had discussed the topics “The Key to Heaven” and the “System of Democracy” for one hour.
ISIS recruitment efforts targeting Malaysian youth are aimed at inducing them not simply to join the fight, but also to help finance it. Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the assistant director of the Police Counter-Terrorism Group, described the method of raising funds employed by ISIS youth supporters in Malaysia:
We know that before this, many militants wanting to fight in Syria would sell off their belongings or were sponsored to go over (there) by ISIS supporters in the country … Lately, however, the trend of taking personal loans from banks is on the rise. They include young militants, especially those in the early 20s. Those with low credit ratings will apply for personal loans for as low as RM$5,000 (USD$1,400).
On November 27, 2015, police detained two ISIS sympathizers, aged 23 and 28—civil servants working in Kuala Lumpur—for channeling funds to new recruits planning to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS. Deputy Inspector-General of Police Noor Rashid Ibrahim stated that police were conducting an investigation of a shop in Bandar Baru Bangi reportedly selling militant-themed merchandise, in order to determine whether profits from the business were being used to fund terror activities. The Star reported that the shop was selling flags, T-shirts and caps, in addition to clothes bearing the symbols of militant groups, especially ISIS and the Taliban. When the shopkeeper, a young Malaysian in his 20s was asked why he was selling the merchandise, he replied flatly, “I am doing this for Allah and if I am doing it for Him, I shouldn’t be afraid.”
In March 2015, ISIS released a two-minute video on YouTube entitled “Education in the Caliphate” featuring at least 20 Malay-speaking boys, possibly including Indonesians. The footage depicted the youth attending religious classes and engaging in weapons training in ISIS-held territory in either Iraq or Syria. The video—the first to have been produced by ISIS in the Malay language—appeared aimed at expanding the group’s reach in Southeast Asia. It heightened the concern that ISIS recruitment efforts could spur increased support among Malay-speaking young people and further radicalize Muslim fundamentalists. These developments have prompted Malaysian university officials and government authorities to put in place an array of counter-recruitment measures as well as to contemplate additional steps they might take.
1. Monitoring and Educating Local Education Institutions
Local universities are vigilantly monitoring students’ activities in an effort to prevent their recruitment by militant groups in countries of conflict. President of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) Rais Yatim stated that the management and staff of the university’s security division should check on students’ background and curb the increasingly aggressive actions of militant groups in enticing the young through Facebook.
The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM), a federal agency under the Prime Minister’s Department, has made schools, universities and other youth-oriented spaces their new ‘battlefront.’ At universities nationwide, JAKIM identifies Muslim student leaders to assist it in disseminating the true meaning of jihad through the Sunni Islamic lens and in conducting various anti-violence and anti-militancy campaigns on campus. A list of Islamic scholars and preachers across the country was compiled under a program called the National Convention of Preachers, with the aim of coordinating the task of clarifying the real meaning of jihad. JAKIM also launched a campaign called ‘#Mahasiswa Islam Tolak Keganasan’ (Muslim students reject violence) at the National Muslim Undergraduate Leadership Convention 2015 at the Islamic Training Centre in Bangi, Selangor.
Deputy Education Minister Chong Sin Woon announced in January of this year that the police and other security agencies would begin holding briefings for school children, including in Islamic (pondok) schools, in order to raise awareness of the dangers posed by ISIS.
2. Shuttering Websites
In an effort to combat ISIS recruitment of Malaysian youth and others, the police decided in October 2014 to shut down pro-ISIS websites. At the time, there were about 12 locally registered websites used by militant recruiters, which were known to have glorified several terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and to have been responsible for convincing a number of Malaysians to join militant outfits. The police now work with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to monitor sites that are used not simply to recruit fighters but that also promote terrorism and extremist beliefs. Other recruitment tools used were Yahoo Messenger and WhatsApp.
The MCMC’s Head of outreach and engagement division, Eneng Faridah Iskandar, argues that it is important to counter the ISIS propaganda narrative online:
The narrative used is positive—it’s about renewing their religion, to be a better person and sometimes people get swayed by those sentiments and when the brainwashing starts, that’s when young people who have that tendency and those who want to rebel or be different will be snared.
Eneng asserts that the authorities, including the Islamic Departments, will need to work together to develop content specifically crafted to provide accurate information about ISIS and jihad—information that is both accessible and interesting for young people. MCMC’s Click Wisely initiative was established by the MCMC to run workshops and programs in the community, including at mosques and for the children and youths in their community during school holidays. Through this program, young people are called to participate in conversations about ISIS that explain why the latter’s members are called ‘terrorists’ and what they have done.
3. Legal Measures
The government has also produced a White Paper to strengthen existing laws such as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA), Prevention of Crime (Amendments and Extensions) Act 2013 (POCA) and the Penal Code to specifically handle militant activities. Therefore, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act (SMATA) were tabled in the Parliament, while several other bills were amendments to existing laws. POTA would allow authorities to detain suspects indefinitely without trial. It would create a five-to-eight member Prevention of Terrorism Board to make decisions on detention or restriction orders as well as a Registrar containing fingerprints and photographs of persons detained. On the other hand, SMATA would enable authorities to seize travel documents of citizens or foreigners believed to be engaging in or abetting terrorist acts. Several amendments to existing laws would also tighten restrictions in this regard. For example, a proposed amendment to the Penal Code would make it an offense to receive training from terrorist groups and other perpetrators. POTA was passed by the Parliament on April 7, 2015 and is now in force. These laws do not specifically target youths. Nevertheless, several youths have been prosecuted under these laws for terrorism’s related offences. In the case of Public Prosecutor vs Mohd Syafrein Rasid (2015), the accused, aged 26, was charged under Section 130J of the Penal Code for attempting to support and become a member of ISIS. The accused was influenced to support ISIS after watching the war in Syria through Facebook and joining several WhatsApp groups by sharing information about ISIS in Syria. He then decided to travel from Malaysia to join ISIS but was caught at the Immigration counter at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
4. Countering the Ideology of Jihad
JAKIM has set up a inter-agency Jihad Concept Explanation Action Committee. According to JAKIM Director-General Othman Mustapha, “The committee’s aim is to formulate a clear plan of action to address misconceptions about the concept of jihad (holy war), including conducting various programs on the ground in collaboration with the National Blue Ocean Strategy to ensure a more structured and comprehensive implementation.” The agencies involved in the committee include the Home Ministry’s Malaysian Civil Defence Department, Prime Minister Department’s National Security Council (NSC), Police, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM), Al-Hijrah Media Corp, and the Institute of Islamic Strategic Research Malaysia (IKSIM). JAKIM also works closely with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and local universities in tackling the ISIS propaganda narrative online.
The National Fatwa Council issued a fatwa (edict) declaring that the call of jihad and martyrdom in Syria is un-Islamic, and the Muzakarah (the Council’s dialogue committee) has affirmed that death on the battlefield is futile, as an individual who loses his life in this manner will not be recognized as a martyr (syahid).  Meanwhile, JAKIM has sought to present an accurate, life-affirming meaning of jihad through Friday sermons, website, television, seminars, talks and leaflets.
Countering ISIS Malaysian Youth Recruitment in Perspective
In the face of mounting evidence that ISIS efforts to recruit Malaysian youth constitute a significant and growing threat, university and government officials alike, as described above, have taken or proposed various counter-measures. Though the authorities deserve, and have received credit for some actions, they have come under fire for others. For example, Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch’s Asia division deputy director, has warned that POTA will re-open a “Pandora’s Box for politically motivated, abusive state actions” that had been a feature of the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960 and the Emergency Ordinance (EO) laws.
Others have focused their criticism not on the Malaysian government’s overreach or potential abuse of its authority but rather on its having done too little. The concepts ‘1-Malaysia’ (emphasizing ethnic harmony, national unity, inclusivity and efficient government) Wasatiyyah (moderation)—both proclaimed by Prime Minister Najib Razak—are regarded by some as mere political slogans with no clear agenda for building social cohesion and defeating terrorism and extremism. Similarly, JAKIM and the Islamic Departments were criticized for not doing enough to counter the
In sum, while the ISIS threat to Malaysia appears to be manageable and relatively under control at the present time, it is nonetheless clear that ISIS has deployed a relatively sophisticated and modestly successful recruitment strategy that targets youth, particularly those enrolled in institutions of higher learning. In light of these developments, it is urgently necessary for the Malaysian government, university officials and others to join forces in continuing to develop and refine an array of counter-recruitment measures.
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