Police in Malaysia arrested 14 people in October suspected of planning to join ISIS, including three 'key players'. These arrests bring to 36 the number apprehended in Malaysia on suspicion of trying to join ISIS. Earlier this year, police foiled ISIS-inspired Bali-style attacks on pubs, nightclubs and a Carlsberg brewery.
An estimated 20-30 Malaysians are known to have joined ISIS in Syria, though the real figure could be higher — the deputy chief of the police CT division admitted as much in August. A Malay-speaking unit was set up to fight in Syria, and Malaysians have been fighting for rebel groups in the country since the onset of the civil war. In May, a 26 year-old Selangor man, identified as Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, killed 25 elite Iraqi soldiers in a ISIS suicide car-bomb attack.
In the past months there appears to be a significant uptick on ISIS's campaign for Southeast Asian recruits. Social media, particularly Facebook, continues to be a key tool for ISIS's networking and recruitment. In July, direct recruitment appeals were made through a YouTube video. This month, an advert-style back-page photo in ISIS's glossy English-language magazine 'Dabiq' appeared with a photo showing three stoic-looking Southeast Asian men and a child.
The latest arrests, however, are no cause for panic. For one thing, they demonstrate Malaysia's functioning counter-terrorism capability. They have also prompted the country's defence minister to lobby for greater regional cooperation on the ISIS threat. Moreover, the current recruitment figures may be manageable. In fact, according to public estimates, Malaysia fares better than Belgium, Denmark or Australia on a per capita recruits basis.
But what remains worrying is how the Government responds. An ill-fitted response could stir greater support for ISIS in conservative enclaves of the country, where debate on the role of Islam in society and a louder lobby for stricter adherence of sharia law and hudud has increased recently. Several new ISIS-inspired Malaysian militant groups (ADI, Dimzia, BAJ and BKAW) have expressed their intent to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate and have sent fighters to Syria.
The Government must draw a strong but careful line in the sand on ISIS. This is complicated by domestic politics.
Fifty percent of Malaysia's 30 million people are non-Malay minorities and almost 40% are non-Muslim. Malaysia has in the past managed to navigate through potential ethnic and religious conflict (far better than its neighbours Thailand and Indonesia) but it has often done so by appeasing Muslim conservatives and jettisoning the interests of minorities. Stability is similarly challenged by a youthful population. With 48% of the population under the age of 24 (of which 29% are under 14), employment growth and social inclusion will apply pressure on government for years to come.
With Muslim-dominated parties and pro-Muslim policies disproportionately dominating the political realm, the role of Islam in the country has for decades been debated. These public debates have been spurred to appease conservatives but have also provoked wider debate in society.
In Malaysia's illiberal democracy, the United Malay National Organization is first and foremost a party that governs for the Muslim majority, with policies that reflect the influence that conservative groups and the strong Muslim business lobby have over it. Prime Minister Najib has since 2010 tried to dilute some of this influence and win more of the non-Muslim vote through his '1Malaysia' policy, a policy that has been under consistent pressure.
The authority of Najib's UMNO party is further challenged by conservatives, including in Sabah and Sarawak, attempting to install strict sharia law (following the footsteps of neighbours Aceh or Brunei). These conservative groups, including some in the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, are forcing Najib to walk a difficult line between appeasing conservatives and combating extremists.
A failed policy could push more youth to the extremes.
Thankfully, Najib's popularity received a boost on the back of his proactive response to the MH17 disaster. This may improve his ability to push through difficult policy. Similarly, Malaysia's new seat on the UN Security Council will appeal to the pride of Malaysians, particularly as it will pursue the worthy issue of child casualties in war as a UN Security Council member. It will also allow the Government to continue its strong peace-building image that was successful in negotiating the southern Philippines conflict.
But perhaps the strongest arrow in Najib's quiver will be proactive and inclusive domestic policies supported by Malaysia's 2015 budget. At the unveiling in October, Najib noted that 'the government gives importance to the development and improving the welfare of the rakyat (population) in Sabah and Sarawak' . With these words (both Sabah and Sarawak were mentioned over a dozen times each in the address) has come sizeable infrastructure money for development in the country's two eastern states, where the threat of extremism is perhaps largest. While a considerable portion of this cash will go to hard security ($200 million will go to bolstering security in Sabah), the long overdue infrastructure development of the eastern regions will do more to stem extremism than any number of boots and bullets.
Still, difficult times are ahead. In the very near future, as Najib tackles ISIS and domestic extremist groups, he will likely be drawn into a larger and far more perilous debate on religion and Islam in Malaysia. That debate risks waking a sleeping giant at a volatile time.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user shafraz.nasser