WHO’S NEXT AF­TER WAN­NDY?

From Syria to Iraq, it is hard to pre­dict his suc­ces­sor; re­port­edly, many Malaysians in IS ter­ri­to­ries have died in bat­tle, writes

New Straits Times - - Opinion - NUR AZLIN MO­HAMED YASIN

THE death of Muhammad Wan­ndy Mo­hamed Jedi is ex­pected to strengthen the dis­rup­tion of sev­eral ter­ror­ist plots in Malaysia by the self-styled Is­lamic State. While the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and re­cruit­ment of IS mem­bers are due to many fac­tors, one key driver has been the pres­ence of re­cruiters on­line. Un­til his death, Wan­ndy had been a prom­i­nent re­cruiter of sup­port for his threats against the coun­try.

Wan­ndy’s death in­di­rectly capped Malaysia’s Spe­cial Branch suc­cess in dis­rupt­ing sev­eral ter­ror­ist plots by IS. More than 250 IS mem­bers and sup­port­ers have been ar­rested in Malaysia over the past five years, no­tably since the grow­ing promi­nence of IS in the Syria con­flict.

The 26-year-old Wan­ndy trav­elled to Syria with his preg­nant wife in Jan­uary 2015. He had nar­rated on his so­cial media ac­count that he had made the travel through But­ter­worth and then to Thailand, Turkey and even­tu­ally Syria. Wan­ndy had been an on­line supporter even be­fore he mi­grated to Syria.

How­ever, he was iden­ti­fied in early 2015 af­ter he ap­peared in a 30-sec­ond video where he was seen smil­ing whilst hold­ing the head of a be­headed IS vic­tim. Since then, his sup­port­ers had been fol­low­ing him on­line via his sev­eral on­line monikers which in­cluded “Abu Hamzah al Fateh”, “Abu Sayyaf al Mal­izi” and “Wakasilu Hu­ruhara”.

Wan­ndy and his wife were ac­tive on so­cial media. They shared their life sto­ries in IS ter­ri­to­ries and prop­a­gated the IS ide­ol­ogy to jus­tify their ac­tions. They por­trayed life with IS as one filled with bless­ings, of­ten post­ing heart­warm­ing pic­tures of their fam­ily and friends, show­ing ca­ma­raderie among IS mem­bers.

With their sup­port­ers, they ap­peared warm and friendly. With his ad­ver­saries, Wan­ndy was ag­gres­sive. He re­leased threats and showed off his mil­i­tary skills. He was al­ways up­dated on coun­tert­er­ror­ist de­vel­op­ments in Malaysia.

As the mas­ter­mind be­hind the Movida at­tack in Pu­chong, Se­lan­gor in June 2016, Wan­ndy was first to an­nounce the per­pe­tra­tors to be two mem­bers from the “Junud Khi­lafah Wi­layah Mal­izia”.

Both at­tack­ers were ar­rested and sen­tenced to 25 years’ jail. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions show that Wan­ndy was in­volved in sev­eral other IS cells in Malaysia in­clud­ing the “Al-Qubro Gen­er­a­tion” and “Kumpu­lan Ga­gak Hitam”. Other re­ports likened him to IS In­done­sian mil­i­tant in Syria, Bahrun Naim, and sug­gested that they were work­ing to­gether to net­work op­er­a­tives in Malaysia and Indonesia. Such co­op­er­a­tion would as­sist in the trav­els of mil­i­tants. Both were pur­ported to be part of IS’ ex­ter­nal op­er­a­tions unit re­spon­si­ble for at­tacks out­side of IS ter­ri­to­ries.

When news of Wan­ndy’s death first seeped into the ji­hadi on­line com­mu­nity, his sup­port­ers sought his wife’s words for con­fir­ma­tion. She an­nounced on April 30 that the news was cred­i­ble. She ex­plained that she had iden­ti­fied Wan­ndy’s body her­self. While his sup­port­ers were quick to ac­cept the news as it was told, Malaysian au­thor­i­ties were doubt­ful ini­tially.

No pic­ture of Wan­ndy’s body was re­leased. There were spec­u­la­tion that he might have staged his own death with the plan to re­turn to Malaysia and es­cape be­ing tar­geted by Amer­i­can drones. This is espe­cially so af­ter he was listed as the “most wanted” ter­ror­ist by the United States in early April.

There were also re­ports of him si­phon­ing off money from Malaysian op­er­a­tives and of him hav­ing trou­ble with the IS lead­er­ship be­cause of the ab­sence of a suc­cess­ful at­tack in Malaysia.

Con­fir­ma­tion of his death on May 8, though, does not com­pletely ban­ish the ex­pand­ing IS net­work in Malaysia. The IS ide­ol­ogy has spread, pro­vid­ing fer­tile ground for a re­place­ment of re­cruiters and co­or­di­na­tors. They could be lo­cated in IS ter­ri­to­ries like Wan­ndy or even on home ground.

From Syria to Iraq, it is hard to pre­dict his suc­ces­sor. Re­port­edly, many Malaysians in IS ter­ri­to­ries have died in bat­tle. Those be­lieved to be alive have been ab­sent on­line for at least a year. These in­clude Malaysians known on­line as “Fud­hail Omar”, “Akel Zainal” and “Za­har”. Known as the “cook”, “drum­mer” and “for­mer Malaysian sol­dier” re­spec­tively, they have been in Syria since 2014 and 2015. They were once very ac­tive, hav­ing thou­sands of fol­low­ers on­line. Their ta­per­ing pres­ence on­line started in 2015 when so­cial media com­pa­nies started shut­ting down their ac­counts. This raised con­cerns as to whether they are now op­er­at­ing on en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms.

The Malaysians in IS ter­ri­to­ries who are on­line to­day are wives of IS mil­i­tants. They show no ag­gres­sive ap­proach to re­cruit or rad­i­calise and use the on­line plat­form more as an on­line diary where they jot their thoughts and emo­tions. How­ever, this does not rule out their ca­pa­bil­i­ties for ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion.

The case of Malaysian “Dr Shams”, has shown how women can be ef­fec­tive re­cruiters. In 2014 and 2015, “Dr Shams” manned her own blog where she shared tips on how to travel to Syria, to in­quir­ing rad­i­calised in­di­vid­u­als. On home ground, avid IS sup­port­ers and Wan­ndy’s fans too, rep­re­sent a pool of in­di­vid­u­als who could be in­spired to fill in his shoes in their strife to con­tinue their per­ceived bat­tle.

The key chal­lenge to­day is in keep­ing up with the com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms re­cruiters and sup­port­ers are us­ing. The last five years have al­lowed these like­minded in­di­vid­u­als to find each other via open and pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms such as so­cial media. To­day, our ad­ver­saries have largely moved on to en­crypted plat­forms and pos­si­bly, even the real-world.

Ter­ror­ists know no ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries or lim­i­ta­tions in their op­er­a­tions. This is seen in their in­ter-link­ages such as those in ter­ror­ist groups in this re­gion. Their net­works are global, their tar­get au­di­ence tran­scends com­mu­ni­ties from dif­fer­ent fields and in­dus­tries, and their com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­ploits all means avail­able to­day and to­mor­row.

The multi-pronged ap­proach very much called for in the fight against ter­ror­ism is ur­gently needed. How­ever, this mul­ti­pronged ap­proach can only be at­tained through in­ter-agency co­op­er­a­tion which has real chal­lenges. Po­lit­i­cal mi­lieu and dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests of states, po­lit­i­cal par­ties, se­cu­rity, tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion agen­cies are among our bar­ri­ers to work­ing to­gether. Un­til we push for a change, our weak­nesses re­main our ad­ver­sary’s play­ing field.

The writer is an As­so­ciate Re­search Fel­low at the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Po­lit­i­cal Vi­o­lence and Ter­ror­ism Re­search (ICPVTR), a unit of the S. Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (RSIS), Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, Sin­ga­pore

The Malaysians in IS ter­ri­to­ries who are on­line to­day are wives of IS mil­i­tants. They show no ag­gres­sive ap­proach to re­cruit or rad­i­calise and use the on­line plat­form more as an on­line diary where they jot their thoughts and emo­tions. How­ever, this does not rule out their ca­pa­bil­i­ties for ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion.

FILE PIC

The bombed out ve­hi­cle that was car­ry­ing Muhammad Wan­ndy

Mo­hamed Jedi. Wan­ndy’s death in­di­rectly capped Malaysia’s Spe­cial Branch suc­cess in dis­rupt­ing sev­eral ter­ror­ist plots by the Is­lamic State.

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