With the number of Islamic State-linked arrests in Malaysia this year already 20 times higher than what it was in 2013, the country has relied on building up its human intelligence base as well as monitoring online communications to crackdown on militants.
Malaysia arrested only four Islamic State-linked militants in 2013 but that number jumped to 59 the following year, with 109 arrested in 2016 , according to the head of the national police’s counter-terrorism division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.
“This year alone, so far we have arrested 82 suspects and I’m very sure by the end of this year it will surpass more than we arrested last year. It won’t stop,” he told Channel NewsAsia in an interview on Sunday.
Since 2013, more than 340 terror suspects have already been detained.
“A SHORTCUT TO HEAVEN”: WHY MALAYSIANS ARE JOINING IS
Mr Ayob blamed the spread of salafi jihadi ideology as one factor attracting more people to extremism – what he calls “the misinterpretation of Quran verses that justify their terrorism against non-Muslims or Muslims who are not with them”.
“The main attraction for Muslims to join this group is they feel by joining Islamic State, you will die as a martyr, you will get 72 angels,” he said.
“Some of them are also having social problems, extramarital activities … so they want to find a simple way, a short cut way to heaven you see.”
The counter-terrorism official says people are leaving for Syria and Iraq in the spirit of Muslim brotherhood, believing they have to combat alleged atrocities against Sunni Muslims.
Many do not view Muslim-majority Malaysia as Islamic enough, so they “migrate” to those Middle Eastern nations instead, he added.
People joining Islamic State come from all walks of life, however, from PhD-holders to ex-army personnel.
“It’s not like Jemaah Islamiyah last time,” said Mr Ayob.
“With Islamic State, most of them come from various backgrounds: that’s why we are having problems identifying them at the early stages.”
Despite statistics showing more joining IS, Malaysia could be viewed as a success story when it comes to disrupting terror activity on homeground, with frequent arrests and a high conviction rate.
As of mid-October, 101 suspects were convicted out of the more than 340 terror suspects detained since 2013. It has also foiled 19 terror plots since 2013 – with only one minor attack at a pub last year, injuring 8 people.
So what does Malaysia think it is doing right in its counter-terrorism strategy?
1. STRONG INTELLIGENCE
Top of the list for Mr Ayob was a strong emphasis on intelligence collection.
“Human intelligence is very important because by recruiting live sources you can use them to peneterate into terrorist cells or terrorist groups to collect intelligence,” he said.
“Second one is with regards to intelligence collected through technical equipment or technical aspect, such as the monitoring of social media, the monitoring of the internet, the monitoring of communication.”
Mr Ayob could not elaborate on how his “live sources” work for security reasons but he says they are crucial when it comes to cracking down on Islamic State.
“Last time with Jemaah Islamiyah, it was easy – they have their emir at every state, every district. So once you’ve arrested the leader, you will get everything else too,” he said.
“But now when you talk about IS, it’s small cells maybe comprised of 3 or 4 people so they are not well-structured (so) that’s why I say we need to have strong intelligence.
“Without strong intelligence, we can’t tackle the problem.”
Countries like the United States and those in Europe may have more money and expertise in intelligence gathering but Mr Ayob says Malaysia may have an advantage “because we are Muslims, it is much easier for us to engage and penetrate because we are speaking the same language”.
Collaboration and cooperation with their intelligence agencies and those in the region, however, have been integral to Malaysia cracking down on terror suspects, particularly foreign fighters.
The public has also been a crucial source of information.
“Most of the suspects arrested at the airport, that’s based on information from friends and family members … their family members, their colleagues, they’re aware these suspects were involved in terrorist activity,” said Mr Ayob.
“We need the public to feed us with any information even if it seems small, so we can explore it further.”
Gathering intelligence online has been a way to keep tabs on terrorists too. Although it has gotten harder with messaging apps implementing encryption technology.
“This is the main problem that all intelligence agencies are having as it’s almost impossible to penetrate if they’re using Whatsapp or Telegram,” he said.
“That’s why live sources is very important.”
2. PREVENTIVE LAWS
Malaysia has rolled out a host of laws in recent years to aid with the conviction and detention of terrorists including the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, the Prevention of Crime Act (POCA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act 2015 (SMATA).
Most of these acts allow for preventive detention ranging from 28 days to two years. Those convicted could face life imprisonment or the death penalty.
The laws have been met with cynicism from human rights activists and opposition figures who fear they could be abused, arguing for everyone’s right to a fair trial.
Authorities, however, said the legislation is necessary and suspects are able to challenge judgements made under POTA and POCA.
“I do agree sometimes we have the need to balance out,” said Mr Ayob.
“Sometimes when we want to carry out operations, we do not have enough evidence to charge them.
“But if you have evidence, the disruption part must be done – you must disrupt them so they don’t carry out attacks in Malaysia”.
It is not only local attacks that the laws are intended to prevent.
SMATA allows the immigration department or the ministry of home affairs to suspend or revoke travel documents if there is reason to suspect someone is travelling to foreign countries to participate in terror activities there.
Between 2013 and mid-October 2017, 101 out of at least 346 detained suspects have been convicted using the Penal Code with 44 detained under POCA and 26 under POTA.
“The high conviction rate sends a clear message to other potential terrorists that authorities are serious in addressing any threat they posed and hopefully will deter them from taking next steps,” said Mr Ayob.
3. EDUCATION AND REHAB
Malaysian police have actively engaged religious authorities and education institutions to help dispel the spread of salafi jihadi ideology.
“We need efforts by our religious authorities to explain to the public about the misinterpretation, the misquotation of certain al-Quran verses,” said Mr Ayob.
“We have done a lot of engagement with institutes of higher learning, education as well to share with them the threat of salafi ideology.”
He says there may be a need to include modules in the school curriculums addressing the dangers of extremism as well.
Malaysia had rolled out a rehabilitation program for terrorists involved in groups like Jemaah Islamiyah too with a “97 per cent success rate” which they are using now on those detained for links to Islamic State, to ensure those arrested for terror-linked activities do not continue down the same path once released.
Out of 229 suspects detained between 2001 to 2012, only seven relapsed under that program, according to Mr Ayob. However, he said not enough time has passed to assess the impact of this model on IS militants.
“They share similar ideology but are from different backgrounds,” he adds.