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From KMM to IS: A transnational Islamist extremism movement

The Malaysian authorities are calling the domestic threat posed by Islamic State a unique phenomenon, unprecedented in the country’s history.

Certain accounts reveal that some suspected militants and terrorists in Malaysia have collaborated with the Abu Sayyaf Group, an IS affiliate in the Southern Philippines, for financial and training purposes. Photo: Reuters

Certain accounts reveal that some suspected militants and terrorists in Malaysia have collaborated with the Abu Sayyaf Group, an IS affiliate in the Southern Philippines, for financial and training purposes. Photo: Reuters

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The Malaysian authorities are calling the domestic threat posed by Islamic State a unique phenomenon, unprecedented in the country’s history.

However, closer scrutiny of Malay IS members and sympathisers reveals a striking similarity with a previous group — Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), whose members and sympathisers were arrested in 2001-2002.

Both groups employ terrorist tactics, both champion the formation of a transnational Islamic Caliphate and, in some cases, their members are actually one and the same, with arrested IS personnel revealed as former KMM members.

Both groups successfully carried out their first attacks in the state of Selangor — IS claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on a nightclub in Puchong, while KMM was accused in 2001 of committing a robbery at the Jalan Gasing Southern Bank branch in Selangor. This suggests that IS is merely the latest iteration of a decades-long movement for transnational Islamic extremism with deep roots in Malaysia, fuelled in part by the growing politicisation of Islam.

The Islamist extremist movement is as old as Islamic tradition itself and has been a fringe of the mainstream Muslim community. In spite of this, it is deemed modern by some due to its burgeoning in the 1970s, with Al-Qaeda as its global pioneer. It is critical to understand the social and cultural roots, and the fostering factors that allowed for its global accreting popularity.

KMM is the most prominent home-grown Islamist extremist group in Malaysia’s history. It was formed in 1996 by Zainon Ismail, who was previously aligned with the opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia. Heavily influenced by Salafi-Wahhabi tenets, many KMM members fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s.

KMM preached the need for “true” Islam and, despite its provinciality, advocated the establishment of a transnational Islamic Caliphate as postulated by Abu Bakr Naji in the “Management of Savagery”, a document considered the backbone of IS’ strategy. This suggests that IS is just another avatar of the global Islamist extremist movement, and that rising Islamisation in Malaysia might assist its growing popularity.

Over the last two years, the Malaysian authorities carried out approximately 170 arrests of individuals and foiled their plans to attack national and foreign interests, rob banks, kidnap high-profile people for ransom, and raid armed forces’ installations for weapons.

In light of this, the Malaysian officials introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act in April 2015, whose provisions, such as detaining suspected terrorists for up to two years without trial, have their roots in the draconic Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA was repealed in 2012 after being stringently employed against the communist insurgency from 1948 until 1989, and later on groups such as KMM and Jemaah Islamiyah Malaysia.

Official statements reveal that the majority of arrested individuals are from the peninsular states of Selangor, Kedah, Terengganu, Perak, Kelantan and Johor. The suspects, whose ages range from 20 to 50, come from all social classes and have some or no religious training. Interestingly, approximately 70 of them hail from the country’s military ranks. Some accounts also revealed they collaborated with the Abu Sayyaf Group, an IS affiliate in the Southern Philippines, for financial and training purposes.

 

LESSONS TO BE LEARNT

 

The Malaysian government has declared IS an exceptional, unprecedented terrorist threat for the country and denounced the group for its use of abhorrent brutality. Yet, this conclusion appears questionable as the current detentions resemble the string of the 2001-2002 arrests of KMM members and sympathisers.

The KMM arrests were carried out under the provisions of the ISA, with most individuals being Malay graduates of Islamic institutions in Pakistan, India and Egypt, hailing from the aforementioned states of Selangor, Kedah, Terengganu, Perak, Kelantan and Johor. Official accounts revealed the group trained many of its members in the Southern Philippines camps of Abu Bakar and Hudaibiyah. In need of military proficiency, some of its members, such as Zainuri Kamarudin, also joined the askar wataniyah, the reserve unit of the Malaysian state army.

KMM attempted to overthrow the government, assassinate politicians, attack Muslim “apostates” who converted from Islam and kill United States Navy members stationed in Kelang and Lumut Port. Most of the group’s terrorist activities were carried out by its Selangor cell, also known as K3M, which collaborated closely with the Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda.

Malaysian security officials claimed that KMM has become a defunct organisation. Yet, the current situation suggests the contrary.

Many of those arrested for links to IS plots are former KMM members who had been imprisoned under the ISA. This is also the case for some Malays who are fighting in the IS ranks: In May, former KMM member Zainuri Kamaruddin became the new head of Katibah Nusantara, IS’ South-east Asian combat unit. Moreover, batches of IS and KMM members have hailed from the same states, with the Selangor cells the most trenchant in their terrorist intentions.

Both KMM and IS members travelled or attempted to travel abroad to join a fight for the ummah. Some were trained in Southern Philippines or, to the dismay of the Malaysian authorities, by the Malaysian army itself, to the extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish between defectors and infiltrators. Finally, and perhaps most revealing, both batches advocated for a transnational Islamic Caliphate to be established by means of an identical strategy.

The striking similarity between the KMM and the IS episodes in Malaysia implies that IS represents just another embodiment of the quixotic transnational plea of Islamist extremism.

This continuity also highlights that the roots of transnational Islamist extremism are intrinsic, not extrinsic, to Malaysia’s socio-political environment. A potential explanation could be the politicisation of Islam which creates the adequate environment for a semiotic and ideological quest for the “right” Islam.

Moreover, the ruling United Malays Nasional Organisation’s co-opting of the hardcore Salafi Ulema in order to gain more legitimacy appears as an ill-judged policy since the Salafis, being fairly popular, extend vitriolic attacks on mainstream Islam. Perceived as having the government’s support, their rhetoric blurs the distinction between pristine and dangerous “Islam”.

As such, the current operational, kinetic counter-terrorist approach to this unresolved social and cultural problem will simply result in another temporary retreat of the movement until other favourable opportunities reappear. It took 15 years and IS to re-ignite Islamist extremist tendencies in Malaysia, but the current situation only belies deeply entrenched social dynamics.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Aida Arosoaie is a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University.

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