Malaysia wor­ried about re­turn­ing IS mil­i­tants


The Nation - - ASEAN PLUS -

THE FALL of Is­lamic State (IS) in Raqqa, Syria, has brought a new men­ac­ing pos­si­bil­ity – that Malaysian mil­i­tants, some hard­ened with bat­tle ex­pe­ri­ence, may re­turn home.

“For­get about Marawi city [in the Philip­pines], it is over. You must look at Raqqa. That war is over. Where are the Malaysian mil­i­tants go­ing and where are they?” a Malaysian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer asked.

On Oc­to­ber 17, af­ter a four-month bat­tle, the US-backed al­liance of Syr­ian Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers said they had taken full con­trol of Raqqa, the de facto cap­i­tal of IS’s so-called caliphate.

On Oc­to­ber 23, the nearly five­month-long IS siege of Marawi city in the south­ern Philip­pines also came to an end. Two Malaysians – for­mer Univer­siti Malaya lec­turer Dr Mah­mud Ah­mad and for­mer Se­layang Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil of­fi­cer Muham­mad Jo­raimee Awang Raimee – were killed in the bat­tle to turn Marawi city into an IS caliphate.

Deputy Home Min­is­ter Nur Ja­zlan Mo­hamed said Malaysia knew that IS fight­ers had been flee­ing Iraq and Syria for some time.

“They have been look­ing for a safe haven to re­group and re­build their ca­pa­bil­i­ties to set up Is­lamic states in other parts of the world and SEA, es­pe­cially Malaysia, In­done­sia and the Philip­pines are at­trac­tive tar­gets be­cause of a large and po­ten­tially sym­pa­thetic Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion,” he said.

Nur Ja­zlan said the re­turn of such fight­ers with bat­tle­field train­ing and weapons han­dling ex­pe­ri­ence pre­sented a dan­ger­ous and dif­fi­cult chal­lenge to counter-ter­ror­ism (CT) units strate­gi­cally and tac­ti­cally.

“They may be in­spi­ra­tional to new re­cruits and able to or­gan­ise new at­tacks. The ad­di­tional chal­lenge for the CT units is to lo­cate where they are, pre­vent their re­or­gan­i­sa­tion in this re­gion, deny ac­cess to heavy and mass de­struc­tion weapons, and an­tic­i­pate the lo­ca­tion and tim­ing of fu­ture at­tacks,” he said.

If the Malaysian mil­i­tants flee Syria, they are un­likely to di­rectly head home, an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer said.

“They will ei­ther go to Pak­istan or Thai­land and head into In­done­sia. Then, they may take a boat to sneak into Malaysia via the back­door and prob­a­bly re­port a lost iden­tity card to get back their iden­tity card,” he said, adding there were Malaysians who went to Syria and Iraq who might be un­known to the po­lice, who could be dan­ger­ous as they were used to fight­ing.

“They may want to get in­volved in any lo­cal is­sue just to con­tinue their killings. Their mind­set is dif­fer­ent from be­fore they left Malaysia. They could be trig­ger-happy,” he said.

Zachary Abuza, an ex­pert on South­east Asian pol­i­tics and se­cu­rity at the US Na­tional War Col­lege, said there was still IS-con­trolled ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq, where many IS mil­i­tants would con­tinue to fight.

“Some will try to es­cape, but there are few ways out that are amenable to them. My guess is that most Malaysians and South­east Asians there will con­tinue fight­ing,” he said.

In­ter­na­tional Is­lamic Univer­sity Malaysia lec­turer and ter­ror­ism re­searcher Mas­zlee Ma­lik agreed, say­ing Malaysians were not likely to re­turn home.

“They are go­ing to re­main there. We need to un­der­stand their ide­ol­ogy of hi­jrah [mi­gra­tion]. It is a life com­mit­ment. Again, we need to un­der­stand they are not mer­ce­nar­ies,” he said.

Mas­zlee said that even af­ter the col­lapse of Raqqa, the no­tion of an Is­lamic State still ex­ists.

“They are go­ing to re­main there to fight un­til their last breath. IS ter­ri­tory is not only Raqqa and Mo­sul. The dis­tance be­tween the two is very vast. These peo­ple can go any­where in be­tween to live with the Be­douins and other Arab tribes who live in those places be­tween Iraq and Syria,” he said.

Zachary said if the mil­i­tants re­turned home, most likely via Turkey, they could be caught. “I would be more con­cerned about them try­ing to get to places like Min­danao, which is a more per­mis­sive en­vi­ron­ment. Malaysia has ar­rested many sus­pected mil­i­tants who have tried to re­turn. Bad odds,” he said.

“But those who do slip through have mil­i­tary train­ing, hard­ened ide­ol­ogy and the pedestal of hav­ing fought along­side IS mil­i­tants,” he said.

Zachary said he was more con­cerned about lone wolves, or those who stayed in the re­gion and went to Min­danao or other bat­tle­fields.

“Those guys are harder to track. Lo­cal borders are far more por­ous. The num­ber of South­east Asians who went to Iraq and Syria was never that large, mainly be­cause the lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges of get­ting there. That is not true within South­east Asia,” he said.

Nur Ja­zlan said Malaysian and other for­eign ter­ror­ist el­e­ments had been mak­ing their way to South­east Asia.

“We have been track­ing them through in­tel­li­gence ex­changes with do­mes­tic, re­gional and global en­force­ment agen­cies,” he said.

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