Malaysia’s Fight Against ISIS: Bolstering Security and Preventing Extremism

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In 2014, fears emerged in Malaysia over the growing number of Southeast Asian nationals journeying to join the IS as foreign fighters. With the advancement of ISIS and the deterioration of the security situations of neighbouring countries, Malaysia has persisted in enhancing its record of counterterrorism success and a major Islamist attack within its borders has so far been thwarted. The chief of Malaysia’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, said that at least 53 Malaysians have learned to have joined ISIS in Syria. Moreover, ISIS has even formed a particular armed unit in Syria – known as Katibah Nusantara – made up solely of Indonesian and Malaysian nationals who have travelled to the region.

In reaction to the rise of ISIS in 2014, Malaysia quickly determined the risk and immediately set about strengthening and upgrading its counterterror efforts, as the government in Kuala Lumpur sought to construct upon its strong historical record in confronting violent extremism.

Firstly, lawmakers revised anti-terror legislation, superseding the outdated Internal Security Act with a raft of fresh measures. The new Security Offences and Special Measures Act had already been handed in shortly before ISIS emerged in 2014, counting to the existing penal code a range of conditions covering terrorism-related offences and crimes against the state. The listed crimes included violent attacks aimed at causing fear, in addition to encouraging terrorist acts and financing and maintaining or providing assistance to terrorists. The new laws allow judges to sentence those sentenced to terror offences to lengthy prison sentences and in some circumstances even the death penalty.

In 2015, Malaysia also presented the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act, providing the police greater powers to capture and detain individuals, as well as designating two confinement centres to house terror suspects.

The Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division states that it has detained IS suspects 59 in 2014, 82 in 2015, and 106 in 2016. In 2017, the number of terror arrests passed the one-hundred mark for a second consecutive year. The government also has one of the highest conviction rates for terror offences, with 101 individuals found culpable and sentenced in the last four years. Whilst these figures show an ever-rising threat, they also indicate the increased capability of the Malaysian authorities to respond in turn.

Malaysia has also sought to prevent terrorist financing – an area in need of modification after widespread criticism in the past. Malaysia enacted the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act back in 2001, which needed financial institutions to submit suspicious transaction reports (STRs) to the Malaysian Central Bank. Full enactment of these measures was initially weak. However, Malaysia’s adherence to global counter-terror financing standards has enhanced markedly, and in 2016 it was awarded membership to the international Financial Action Task Force, marking Malaysia as a country dedicated to cutting off funding for terrorist groups. These enhanced anti-terror finance capabilities add to the legislation already concerned, making Malaysia an unsuitable base for Islamist terror groups.

Moreover,  Suspected ISIS adherents deported from Turkey and individuals connected to ISIS planning to travel to the southern Philippines utilised Malaysia as a transit point.  In response Malaysia monitored, arrested, deported, and pushed suspected supporters of terrorist groups. Further, In 2019 From July to September, law enforcement declared the arrest of 16 suspects nationwide, which comprised 12 Indonesians, three Malaysians, and an Indian. The suspects were indicted for attempting to establish an ISIS cell in Malaysia and plan attacks in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia is often quoted as a leading example in the field of de-radicalization and has preferably shared its expertise and best practices with other nations. In the age of ISIS, Malaysia has also taken measures to combat radicalization online, spearheading a new regional initiative – the Digital Counter-Messaging Centre – founded in September 2016 to counter extremist ideology related to ISIS.

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