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Countering the visible and potent threat of Islamic State in Malaysia

The fall of the Islamic State’s (IS’) last stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019 marked the end of its so-called territorial caliphate. Despite IS’ military defeat and territorial losses, it remains a potent threat, including in Malaysia.

A 54-year-old Filipino electrician was among those detained for terrorism offences in Malaysia in June 2019.

A 54-year-old Filipino electrician was among those detained for terrorism offences in Malaysia in June 2019.

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The fall of the Islamic State’s (IS’) last stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019 marked the end of its so-called territorial caliphate. A total of 41,000 fighters were believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS, including 800 from South-east Asia.

Of these, 102 were Malaysians, some of whom have returned home and been dealt with by the authorities. Despite IS’ military defeat and territorial losses, it remains a potent threat, including in Malaysia.     


For one thing, IS is ramping up its activities in cyberspace to ensure continued recruitment of volunteers for terrorist operations. 

In April 2019, IS released a video featuring its leader, Abu Bakar Baghdadi, after five years of staying below the radar. In a bid to raise the deteriorating morale of IS fighters, supporters and sympathisers, Baghdadi urged them to drain their enemies’ resources and continue jihad until the day of judgement.

He underscored that the will to wage the war is more important than winning it. Hence, it is critical for IS supporters to seek revenge and the most effective way is through armed violence. IS supporters in Malaysia are using this narrative to exploit local issues and grievances, adding a new dimension to the country’s threat landscape.

Due to the new extremist narratives propagated by IS online, Malaysia’s threat landscape has subtly transformed. A key development is the efforts of pro-IS cells in Malaysia to exploit local issues like racial and religious tensions to launch attacks.

Given the complexities of the country’s ethnic and religio-political landscape, Malaysia’s social fabric is becoming increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to racial and religious tensions.

Malaysian pro-IS supporters continue to rigorously spread its narrative and recruit members online. In May, a 42-year-old contractor was arrested before his planned departure to Syria. He pledged allegiance to IS twice on Facebook and believed that Muslims who support and uphold democratic elections are infidels and thus permitted to be killed.

IS “capitalises on the perception that Islam is under threat in Malaysia”. In this context, the determination of IS’ supporters in Malaysia has proven to be effective as on May 13, Malaysian authorities nabbed a pro-IS cell.

The cell comprised a Malaysian, two Rohingya Muslims and an Indonesian. It had planned a wave of large-scale terror attacks and assassinations to “avenge” the death of fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim.

This plot was the first of its kind in which local grievances were exploited to inspire local and foreign militants to launch attacks in the country. The cell was planning to mount attacks on Christian, Hindu and Buddhist places of worship and entertainment venues at Klang Valley in Selangor state.

The cell had also planned to kill high-profile personalities who they believed had insulted Islam or not shown sufficient support for the faith.

Following the above-mentioned arrests, the Malaysian police are still searching for three more members of the cell, two Malaysians and one Indonesian, who remain at large. The involvement of foreigners, especially from South-east Asia, in local issues signals greater collaboration between local and foreign militants.

The trend of joint terrorist plots by local and foreign militants is likely continue in Malaysia, aided possibly by returning regional fighters looking to persist with their jihad.


Malaysian militants have improved their operational tactics and strategies as well.

The recently arrested Malaysian militants have shown the ability to deploy chemicals in the process of constructing explosives. For instance, Malaysian authorities arrested two local militants, Muhammad Syazani Mahzan and Muhammad Nuurul Aiman Azizan, with bomb-making skills on May 24 who conducted tests on their home-made explosives. 

They used Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) when putting together an explosive before testing it near their homes. As a highly impactful explosive, TATP has been commonly used by terrorists in Thailand and Indonesia. The most recent example of the use of TATP in the region was the coordinated Surabaya church bombings in Indonesia, in May 2018.

Both militants were reported to have undergone bomb-making training by Indonesian IS-linked militant group, Jemaat Ansharul Daulah, in Yogyakarta in 2018.

Malaysian police taking part in an exercise involving a mock terrorist attack in Kuala Lumpur in March 2018.   Photo: Malay Mail

Malaysian radicals will likely persist with engaging in militancy on their home soil. IS’ territorial defeat has not however whittled their desire to travel to Syria as seen by the ongoing attempts to physically join the terrorist group.

This illustrates the continuing traction of IS ideology, which transcends territorial losses. While the threat of returning fighters seems critical and immediate, local authorities must continue to maintain a close watch over homegrown terrorists who continue to be influenced by IS jihadist ideology.


In July 2018, Malaysia issued a conditional return offer to around 102 Malaysians who had left the country to join IS in Syria. This offer involved compliance with security checks, investigations, psychological examinations and counselling sessions with religious clerics to evaluate their level of radicalisation and psychological make-up.

Under the offer, all returnees will be interrogated but not all will be detained, subject to the outcome of investigations. After preliminary investigations, those who did not participate in militant activities or criminal offences will undergo a one-month government-run rehabilitation programme before they are re-integrated into society. Those found involved in criminal offences or militant activities will face court trials.

The process differs for women and children as these groups are largely assessed to have had no decision-making powers over their migration to Syria. Hence, their situation will be assessed on a case-to-case basis before the government decides on a suitable de-radicalisation process.

Hitherto, 11 Malaysian nationals have returned from Syria. Eight, all men, have been charged in court while the other three included one woman and two minor children. The woman has completed the rehabilitation programme and returned to her village where she is being closely monitored.

The Malaysian authorities are currently working with the Syrian authorities to bring back a group of 39 Malaysians detained in Syria, who have expressed their desire to return home.

Around 65 Malaysians still remain in Syria, including 17 children, who are scattered across three locations in Syria. As efforts continue to bring some of them home, others have chosen to remain in Syria or fight elsewhere instead of returning to Malaysia.

Those Malaysians who aspire to join IS but are unable to travel to Syria are now looking into going to Mindanao where militant groups have links to IS.

This is likely for two reasons. First, local Malaysian militants have strong ties with the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an IS-linked faction based in Basilan, with some having direct connections to its leader, Furuji Indama.

Members of ASG have recruited Malaysians to join the group. Furthermore, in 2017, the siege of Marawi by IS-affiliated militant groups alone witnessed the participation of about 30 Malaysian fighters who travelled to the conflict area.

Second, the close proximity between East Malaysia and the southern Philippines provides a convenient opportunity for returning Malaysian militants to continue their ‘jihad’ in the region. Sabah’s porous borders have been exploited numerous times by militants to travel between the two countries.


There are several key concerns that require greater policy attention in dealing with the current threat landscape in Malaysia.

First, Malaysian authorities should periodically review the efficacy of their one-month rehabilitation policy. For battle-hardened returnees, a one-month de-radicalisation programme is unlikely to be sufficient in reality.

A more extensive and rigorous de-radicalisation policy initiative would be needed to ensure the returnees’ successful and effective rehabilitation and reintegration into society. In this regard, it is also useful to draw lessons from other countries that have similar policies which have been effective.

Second, the government should consider calibrating their rehabilitation strategies according to the different profiles of returnees.

For instance, returning children who have been exposed to daily violence in Syria would require a customised de-radicalisation programme. This customised intervention is critical to address issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and disengagement from violence which could impede their psychological and attitudinal development, critical to their long-term reintegration into society.

Finally, amidst the increasingly polarised ethnic and religio-political climate in Malaysia, the Pakatan Harapan government should carefully manage issues centering on race and religion. Racial and religious issues, especially those which can be exploited to suggest Islam is under threat in Malaysia, can be scavenged by IS to keep its radical ideology alive among potential extremists in the country.  



Amalina Abdul Nasir is a research analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a special unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. This is adapted from a longer piece which first appeared in the school’s Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses. 

Related topics

Islamic State terrorism Malaysia Abu Sayyaf Group Jemaat Ansharul Daulah

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