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No neutrality in espionage: Why is Malaysia tangled up in a spying case in Norway?

Asking the Kremlin would be a good start.

The Malaysian passport is considered to be among the top 10 globally (Sporran via Getty Images)
The Malaysian passport is considered to be among the top 10 globally (Sporran via Getty Images)

News reports emerged last week that the Norwegian authorities had recently detained a man identified as a Malaysian citizen in Oslo for alleged espionage. It was confirmed that while the individual was not alleged to be spying for Malaysia, it was believed he was not working alone. His exact affiliations remain unknown. The episode has put a spotlight on Malaysia’s relationships with the West amid escalating tension between the West and both Russia and China.

For some time now, the Norwegian Police Security Service and Norway’s military intelligence agency, Etterretningstjenesten, have identified Russia and China as significant security threats. Worry has intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given the potential for Russian intrusions in the High North and regions such as the Baltic states, Finland and Poland. These concerns existed even before the invasion. Iran and North Korea are also considered potential threats from Norway’s perspective.

Member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and their partners have also seen an uptick in publicly reported espionage activities. In March, Poland accused six foreign nationals of espionage and sabotage linked to Russia. More recently, UK authorities arrested a parliamentary researcher on allegations of spying for Beijing. The media oscillates between sensationalising these incidents by evoking James Bond/le Carré era comparisons, or downplaying them altogether as mundane. However, beyond the drama, the standout element often overlooked in these incidents is the distinctive identities and nationalities of the individuals involved.

While spies often operate under “official cover” (i.e.: as purported diplomats), intelligence agencies typically backstop their operatives’ non-official covers to enhance their credibility and authenticity. Foreign citizenship can add an extra layer of disguise. To navigate counter-intelligence challenges, intelligence agencies have been known to adopt multi-faceted strategies. Apart from deploying sleeper agents, they might acquire foreign citizenship, use borrowed foreign passports, or even recruit spies from third countries – who may in some cases not be aware whose cause they are ultimately serving.

Recruiting agents from unexpected regions seeks to exploit blind spots in target intelligence agencies, as these operatives might be overlooked or underestimated.

However, even deep covers can sometimes be compromised or falter under intense scrutiny. For example, last year, Norway arrested a Brazilian academic, Mikhail Mikushin, also known as José Assis Giammaria, on charges of illicit intelligence activities, suspecting him to be a Russian national.

The 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was executed by an Indonesian and a Vietnamese woman who both believed they were part of a prank. There was also a snatch-and-grab incident, again in Kuala Lumpur, allegedly orchestrated by Israel’s Mossad using Malaysian recruits, although Mossad’s involvement remains questionable.

The method of recruiting agents from unexpected regions seeks to exploit blind spots in target intelligence agencies, as these operatives might be overlooked or underestimated. Such strategies not only conceal the identity of the sponsoring nation but also complicate investigative and prosecutorial efforts by providing plausible deniability.

The specifics known so far about the arrest in Norway and the target of surveillance point to two likely culprits as potential recruiters of the alleged Malaysian citizen: Russia or China. The arrest suggests a potential shift towards recruiting agents from countries associated with the non-aligned movement to enhance plausible deniability. Malaysia, one of the 120 nations opting not to side with major power blocs or participate in unilateral sanctions of Russia, remains steadfastly neutral on the Ukraine conflict, even after Russia’s illegal invasion. But neutrality might not be enough to ward off external interference or influence.

Research that I co-authored last year offers insights into Malaysian public perceptions online of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and what drives pro-Russia sentiment. While these findings may appear to have little bearing on national decisions or political leadership, it is still crucial to understand these motivations for public opinion when considering how Malaysia is perceived internationally – and how intelligence agencies might see an opportunity to exploit this reputation.

Leading Malaysian figures such as former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad often demonstrate a discernibly anti-West stance. For example, Mahathir questioned the findings of the Dutch Safety Board, which held Russia accountable for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in 2014 in Donbas, Ukraine. Conversely, others such as local MP Wong Chen advocate for peace without addressing the further global implications of Ukraine conceding to Russia.

According to the latest Passport Index, Malaysia boasts the ninth-strongest passport in global power standings, granting its bearers the privilege of easier travel and potentially reduced oversight – an advantageous trait for intelligence operations. While the recently detained individual may have been leveraged for this advantage, the allegations against him could impact the standing of other Malaysian passport holders in the future. Additionally, Malaysia’s Penal Code section 126 explicitly prohibits acts that harm its relations with friendly nations.

Countries might want to re-evaluate their non-aligned positions to side-step incidents that could potentially strain diplomatic relations. Although it’s unclear who initiated the contact and if the motivation was financial or ideological, the Malaysian agent detained in Oslo could potentially face up to ten years in prison, especially considering Mikushin’s precedent and the stipulations of section 122 of the Norwegian Penal Code, which addresses “aggravated intelligence-gathering activity targeting state secrets”. The arrest in Oslo highlights how effortlessly smaller nations can unwittingly become entangled in seemingly unrelated remote disputes.

In February, Malaysia took a significant step to back a UN resolution demanding Russia’s departure from Ukraine. As global dynamics become more volatile, with intensified intelligence operations and clandestine actions, non-aligned nations must recognise that their position won’t necessarily keep them out of distant conflicts.

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