Malaysia fears Islamic State move into SE Asia

2018 attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines seen as proof of the terror group's threat to the region
Malaysia fears Islamic State move into SE Asia

Islamic State recruiter Aman Abdurrahman is led into a Jakarta court in May 2018. He was found guilty of inciting five deadly attacks and sentenced to death. Terrorism fears in SE Asia have resurfaced after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's death. (AFP photo)

Muslim countries in Southeast Asia are in danger of becoming Islamic State’s new center after it suffered major blows in the Middle East, including the death of its founder Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Syria.

Malaysian counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay issued the warning on Oct. 29, a day after the death of IS founder Al-Baghdadi was confirmed by US President Donald Trump.

Ayob Khan said the blow of losing Al-Baghdadi could prompt the terror group to relocate to the region and that Malaysian security forces remained on heightened alert for terrorism threats following the US raid on his hideout in Raqqa, Syria.

“IS will remain a dangerous group despite the loss of its leader and law enforcement agencies, especially the police, cannot afford to let their guard down,” the Petaling Jaya-based newspaper The Star reported him as saying.

“We have detected an IS plan to set up a new caliphate in the region since the fall of their stronghold in Raqqa in 2017.”

Terrorism experts believe the looming danger is likely to come from lone-wolf attackers and self-radicalized militants instead of a coordinated large-scale operation.

The apparent vacuum in the terror network’s central leadership raises the IS threat as lone-wolf attacks are typically harder to predict and can be deadlier should security forces fail to detect them, said Ayob Khan.

“IS cells might not be getting orders from their central leadership in Syria and Iraq anymore but this will not stop lone-wolf attackers from striking,” he warned. “Collecting intelligence is very important to prevent such attacks.”

He pointed to last year’s IS-inspired attacks in Indonesia and the southern Philippines as evidence of the group’s threat to the region.

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a political science lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia, said that while Al-Baghdadi’s demise would weaken IS in the short term, its power should not be underestimated.

“IS will enter into hibernation to regroup and they will come up with new strategies,” he said. “They will likely transform into a movement instead of an organization. I believe his demise has convinced foreign fighters even more that staying put in Syria is not an option.

“The push factor to leave is greater. There is a high possibility of reprisals, although it will not happen immediately.”

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government is working to bring home 40 of its citizens living in Syrian detention camps for suspected involvement in terrorism.

“A total of 40 out of 65 Malaysians detained in Syria have contacted us and told us they want to come home,” Ayob Khan said. “We expect the number of those who want to return to rise.”

Malaysian men brought home will be charged in court, while the women will be questioned first on the level of their support for the militants. Their children, he said, would be put into rehabilitation programs.

Sympathizers of Islamic State have grown in the region, where a more conservative brand of Islam has become more pronounced in recent years, helping militants and hardline Muslim politicians to wield political power.

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