Combatting Violent Extremism Under Malaysia Madani

By Jason Loh

The recent incident in Ulu Tiram on May 17, during which two policemen on duty were killed in a hacking and shooting attack by a lone wolf domestic terrorist, represents a grim reminder of the real and on-going threat of violent and militant extremism in the country. 

According to the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Razarudin Husain, the terrorist is believed to have meticulously planned the attack beforehand despite acting alone. 

The initial link or ties to the violent extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah or JI (as it’s popularly known) was later clarified by the PDRM to be attributed to the lone wolf’s father.

Be that as it may and despite the (so-called) “low-level” incident – in consonance with the overall security situation based on past experience and current threat assessment – Malaysia Madani can’t afford to underestimate or treat the danger and risk of violent extremism (manifesting in the open) not seriously enough. 

Terrorism experts such as R Paneir Selvam have pointed out that incidents like these can’t and shouldn’t be viewed in isolation (“Terrorist attack at Ulu Tiram police station a significant threat to national security”, Focus Malaysia, May 20, 2024). 

Malaysia is certainly no stranger to domestic terrorism (albeit including those with links to regional-wide groups), even though we’ve been simultaneously shielded from the high death tolls, mayhem and destruction caused by sophisticated-type bombings and large-scale attacks like the 9/11 and 7/7 events in New York (2001) and London (2005), respectively. 

As highlighted by R Paneir Selvam, in October 1980, the Batu Pahat police station in Johor was attacked by sixteen members of the extremist group Kumpulan Nur Zaman. 

The attackers launched a violent assault on the police station, leading to a bloody confrontation. In the ensuing chaos, eight assailants were shot dead and 23 individuals, including 14 policemen, sustained injuries. Additionally, the Guar Chempedak police station in Kedah was targeted by a religious extremist group in 2001 in an attempt to steal weapons which resulted in injuries to two policemen.

Other than those incidents, there was the July 2000 siege and arms heist in Kampung Sauk, Kuala Kangsar, Perak conducted by militants associated with the Al-Maunah group. For those old enough to remember, this event is probably the most memorable of all due to the extensive coverage it received.

And who could forget the infamous Al-Arqam movement, which drew its membership primarily from among the urbanites? 

The movement grew in prominence from the 1980s onwards until the government finally banned it in 1994. Whilst there were no recorded incidences of violent extremism involving Al-Arqam, the movement under the leadership of Ashaari Mohammad certainly harboured ambitions of establishing an Islamic State in Malaysia. Authorities also discovered the existence of a Tentera Bardar which had been secretly training in Thailand.

We shouldn’t forget too that only a few years ago, certain segments of our society were gripped and enthralled by ISIS (Islamic State in Syria), also known as Daesh and ISIL/Islamic State in the Levant (see, “Why Does Malaysia Have an Islamic State Problem?”, John Hudson, Foreign Policy, September 9, 2015). 

For a “brief period”, sympathy and admiration for the group even became “mainstreamed”. This was because a former Prime Minister went so far as to encourage his (then ruling) party members to emulate the bravery of ISIS fighters!

Back then, ISIS had made deep advancements (mimicking the blitzkrieg of the Nazis in the early stages of World War Two) in extending their territorial gains from eastern Syria, where it’s capital Raqqa was based, to parts of western Iraq. 

At one point, ISIS seems to be on the verge and cusp of capturing Baghdad.

According to statistics provided by the PDRM, 90 Malaysians were involved with ISIS in various roles between 2013 and 2019. Some of these individuals even became brides and wives of foreign ISIS fighters. 

Despite the seemingly miniscule figure, Malaysia’s enlistment rate is higher than Indonesia’s which only has a slightly higher number since our population is less than one-tenth of that country (“Malaysia’s ISIS conundrum”, Joseph Liow, Brookings, April 21, 2015). 

By extension, we could also extrapolate a higher effective degree of support and sympathy in Malaysia compared to Indonesia, i.e., in reference to those who didn’t join but either actively or passively supported ISIS.  

Active supporters contributed funds and stored ISIS publicity materials (logos, virtual paraphernalia, documents, recordings) on their laptops as expressions of allegiance and for propaganda purposes, etc. Some supporters were also preparing to go abroad. 

At the peak of its territorial conquest between late 2014 and 2015, it’s roughly estimated that there were approximately 50,000 ISIS sympathisers (i.e., including the passive supporters) overall in Malaysia (“Malaysia minister: 50,000 ISIL sympathisers in country”, Al Jazeera, December 12, 2015).

In 2016, ISIS launched a grenade attack at the Movida nightclub in Puchong on the orders of top Malaysian operative Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi in which eight people were injured. The PDRM arrested the terrorists involved (nine locals and three foreigners). 

All in all, the police have arrested and detained active supporters both pre- and post-Movida nightclub bombing – from 2013 until the present-day. 

Nonetheless, we need to do more to stay vigilant and pro-active in pre-empting the threat and resurgence of violent extremism. 

It’s noteworthy that Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Zahid Hamidi has called on the PDRM to intensify surveillance and bolster intelligence efforts (“DPM Zahid wants PDRM to redouble monitoring, surveillance of terrorist activities”, Astro Awani, May 27, 2024).

However, as pointed out by terrorism expert Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi, the root causes of violent terrorism also need to be given particular attention and focus (see, e.g., “Islamist Violence in Malaysia: Reflections from the Pre-GWOT Era with Special    Reference to the Memali and Al-Mau’nah Cases”, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism/SEARCCT’s Selection of Articles 2020). 

The religious and ideological crux of violent terrorism must be intensively and extensively tackled by Malaysia Madani to ensure that the distorted and perverted worldview and ethos are effectively combatted (see also, “‘Post-Daesh’: Tackling Misperceptions in Malaysia”, Muhammad Sinatra, SEARCCT’s Selection of Articles 2020). 

This is also where certain religious and ideological underpinnings of non-violent extremism – in their misinterpretation, misconception and distortion of the textual bases and sources – overlap with violent extremism. 

Specifically, the focus must shift from merely a wrongful and perverted interpretation of jihad towards the doctrine and practice of declaring a fellow Muslim as disbeliever or infidel (kafir) based on political/ideological differences (kafir-mengkafir) aka (also known as) takfiri and khawarij.

By inclusion and extension, the doctrine and practice of politicising the theological and religious term “kafir”, which expresses a bifurcation or division that presupposes and implies a dualism between kafir dhimmi (non-enemies/non-hostiles) and kafir harbi (enemies/hostiles), should also be addressed. 

In other words, such a fundamental attitude can’t simply be constrained, restrained and kept under the lid. 

For the State to adopt what could be termed as a “complacent” attitude (for lack of a better term) would be a grave mistake. 

Malaysia Madani must outright reject such an approach and take decisive action (pro-active and resolute). 

For here, there’s no alternative.

This is because the route to violent extremism (at least in the long-term) begins with non-violent extremist underpinnings, or the “overlap”. That is, non-violent underpinnings enhance the susceptibility to violent extremism. The former provides the underlying justification and legitimacy for the latter.

Even where violent extremism is kept under control (as is the case of Malaysia), non-violent extremism may not (necessarily) be (again as is the case of Malaysia – as proxied by parameters of the current political polarisation and in reference to the dynamics of the 15th general election even though the extent and depth may be geographically constrained to certain parts of the country for now).

When and where non-violent extremism flourishes, therein lies the conditions for a future where violent extremism may hold sway one day. 

We just need to look at some countries as living examples.

Even if Malaysia remains free from the situation which has engulfed the other countries concerned (whereby extremism breeds violence), political polarisation solely and exclusively driven by religious extremist sentiments will be too deep and entrenched in our society. 

It’s a harbinger of regressive and negative impacts on nation-building and national development, including on the future of our Federation vis-à-vis the Borneo territories of Sabah and Sarawak (especially with regards to the latter). 

Malaysia Madani is well-poised and well-positioned due to the leadership of Prime Minister YAB Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim who’s an eminent Islamist himself and the breadth of the governing coalition to strike a balance between the two extremes of the polar opposites. 

At times, this balancing act will be delicate and might even be ever so near-precarious. 

However, the Madani unity government is able to combat violent extremism and radicalism more effectively precisely because of this balance.  

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research

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