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Malaysia Faces an Unfamiliar Threat

6 MINS READJun 2, 2017 | 09:35 GMT
The scene after a hand grenade was thrown at a restaurant in Malaysia's central Selangor state in June 2016.
(MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
In Southeast Asia, the jihadist threat has centered on the Philippines and on Indonesia, rather than on Malaysia. But that doesn't mean the country is safe.
Forecast Highlights

  • Leadership changes in the Malaysian jihadist network will give the otherwise ineffectual movement an opportunity to regroup.
  • Security forces in the country will have to redouble their counterterrorism efforts to stay on top of the evolving jihadist landscape there.
  • Because terrorist attacks are such a rarity in Malaysia, even a modest one could cause considerable chaos and distress.

In Southeast Asia, the jihadist threat has centered on the Philippines and on Indonesia. Nearby Malaysia, on the other hand, hasn't had the same problems with extremist attacks. The majority-Muslim country has served as a logistics hub and recruiting center for various extremist groups operating in the Philippines, and a steady stream of Malaysians have been turned back on their way to fight with the Islamic State in Syria. Over the past few years, moreover, authorities have uncovered dozens of plots in Malaysia, suggesting the country is home to an active network of radicalized jihadists. But it has yet to experience the kinds of violent attacks that periodically rock its neighboring states.

Recent developments, however, suggest that Malaysia's jihadist threat environment is changing. On May 8, the country's national police chief announced that Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, a Malaysian jihadist recruiter based in Syria, was killed in an airstrike on Raqqa in late April. Five days earlier, investigators in the country revealed that they had arrested six suspected terrorists over the past month for allegedly smuggling weapons in from Thailand, ostensibly in preparation for an attack. The incidents offer a cogent reminder that Malaysia is no less susceptible to jihadist violence, despite its relative inexperience with it. In fact, its historically low incidence of attacks may prove to be a disadvantage.

Something Short of Spectacular

The news of Wanndy's death could create more opportunities for jihadists targeting the country. Wanndy, though a prominent and influential jihadist figure in Malaysia, wasn't a terribly effective leader. Under his guidance, the Islamic State's biggest achievement in Malaysia was an attack on the Movida nightclub near Kuala Lumpur on June 28, 2016. (Gangs linked to the Islamic State have also conducted numerous kidnappings for ransom in Malaysia's Sabah state, but since the groups hailed from the Philippines, they are not considered a domestic threat.) Early that morning, two assailants tossed a grenade into a crowd gathered outside the bar, injuring 8 people. The incident was so similar to previous criminal acts in the area that police were hesitant to label it a terrorist attack until the Islamic State took responsibility for it. The strike — the Islamic State's first in Malaysia — was hardly the kind of spectacular, shocking attack that terrorists strive for. Wanndy even distanced himself from the incident, claiming the attackers, who were each sentenced to 25 years in prison earlier this year, were merely "supporters."

Jihadist threats in Malaysia

Police have arrested dozens of suspected Islamic State members and have disrupted several attack plots connected to Wanndy in the months since. In December 2016, authorities detained seven people who were in contact with Wanndy for allegedly conducting surveillance on an international school in preparation for an attack. The suspects were also planning attacks against entertainment venues in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca — targets similar to the Movida bar. By the time police disrupted the plots, they were still in the early stages of the attack cycle. Few weapons were seized, suggesting that the plotters hadn't made it past the planning and surveillance phases.

An Opportunity Arises

Early interception is ideal for counterterrorism forces because it reduces the risk of violence. And in this case, it suggests that authorities were monitoring Wanndy's communications with his followers in Malaysia. Investigators knew that Wanndy was using the Telegram chat app to reach the suspects and routinely cited their correspondence with him. In addition, Malaysian authorities appear to have been using aggressive intelligence collection to identify his co-conspirators in Malaysia while cooperating with foreign partners to track down Wanndy himself in Syria. The United States added the Malaysian jihadist leader to its Specially Designated Global Terrorists list in late March, and a month later, he was allegedly killed in a targeted drone strike.

Terrorist Attack Planning Process

Given that his location and communications were compromised, Wanndy and his followers would have been hard-pressed to coordinate a successful attack. But his death could give jihadist networks in Malaysia a chance to regroup and to find a new, perhaps more effective leader. As his survivors forge new channels of communication, they may have a temporary edge on intelligence collectors. In nearby Indonesia, remnant factions of jihadist groups have gone on to stage attacks after investigations broke them up. And the emergence of new leaders in Bangladesh's jihadist movement gave rise to new networks that carried out a series of suicide attacks on security forces in March and April. Since the Islamic State wasn't having much success in Malaysia under Wanndy, the group has nothing to lose from a shake-up. The country's security forces will need to ramp up their counterterrorism efforts to prevent the pattern from repeating itself in Malaysia.

Checking the Blindspots

The suspects arrested for smuggling weapons from Thailand is another cause for concern for Malaysia's counterterrorism forces. Malaysia, like most Southeast Asian countries, heavily regulates firearms, and gun violence is rare there. Even so, those with the right connections can access firearms on the black market. Southern Thai rebels allegedly supplied the suspected jihadists with weapons. Though Malaysian and Thai authorities aggressively patrol their shared border, where an insurgency has been raging sporadically since 1948, they can't possibly catch everything. The aspiring attackers managed to exploit a blind spot in intelligence collection to procure weapons, advancing their plot further in the attack cycle than other jihadists in the country got in their own planning.

Of course, authorities thwarted the attack nonetheless. But just because previous plots have been detected and averted doesn't mean future attacks will also fail. Replacing Wanndy could be the change Malaysian jihadists need to succeed. The country, after all, is home to a relatively open society rife with soft targets. Furthermore, its ethnic diversity creates the same kinds of political rifts that terrorists have exploited in other predominantly Muslim countries. And given the rarity of terrorist attacks in Malaysia, even a modest strike there would likely attract the level of media and political attention that assailants desire. Indonesia, by contrast, took the attack in Jakarta in January 2016 in stride, having weathered far more severe strikes in the previous decade. No matter the shortcomings among Malaysia's jihadist groups, they have capabilities enough to sow terror in the country.

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