The threat of terror group Islamic State must never be underestimated, down played or politicised, says the Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division chief.
THE recent terror attacks in Ankara, Turkey, and Berlin, Germany prove that the threat of the Islamic State (IS) terror group remains a clear and present danger, putting the authorities on alert on Malaysian shores for similar strikes. With lone wolf attacks a major concern here, a lot is resting on the shoulders of the nation’s security forces, none more than Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division. After at least 14 thwarted terrorist plots and 264 militants behind bars, the division’s head DCP Datuk Ayob Khan
sits down with Sunday Star to discuss the current state of the IS threat in Malaysia and why certain segments of Malaysians are still joining the terror group.
Q: One of the most well-known Malaysian militant in Syria is Mohamad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi. He has been known for giving out orders to terror cells in Malaysia to carry out attacks. Can you explain the role of this particular IS figure and is he still in Syria despite the bombings of major IS strongholds by allied forces?
He is definitely high on our wanted list. We discovered that he is responsible for ordering at least three terror attacks, including the bombing at the Movida nightclub. Our intelligence showed that he is still in Syria. This particular militant has been a menace for quite a while and is known to be very vengeful. We have been fortunate so far in thwarting 14 terror plots, of which at least three were ordered by Mohamad Wanndy. Thus, we have to be alert on any terror chatter, especially involving Mohamad Wanndy.
> What is his normal modus operandi in issuing orders to cells in Malaysia?
Normally, Mohamad Wanndy will use an intermediate from a terror cell to communicate with another terror cell to make it harder for authorities to track their movements and activities. With that method, if one terror cell is detained, its members only know one part of the plan and not the whole picture. We have detained a few IS militants in Malaysia, who use the “dead drop” method, whereby a militant would leave a weapon or plans at specific place and another will pick it up.
> Aside from Mohamad Wanndy, are there other Malaysian IS leaders emerging to issue orders?
We identified militants Mohd Rafi Udin and Zainuri Kamaruddin as the two who have stepped up and issued orders to others in Malaysia. Earlier this year, Mohd Rafi Udin was featured in an IS video, calling for attacks against secular governments and its leaders. These are some of the ones we know. Our latest intelligence indicated there are more personalities emerging, recruiting, planning and ordering cells in Malaysia.
> So far how many Malaysian militants are in Iraq and Syria?
We have identified 60 Malaysians over there right now. From that number, six of them joined Katibah Nusantara (the Malay speaking wing of IS) but two of them have since been killed while fighting against the Syrian army.
> What are the roles normally played by Malaysians in the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq?
Most of them are fighting the Syrian army and providing training to new recruits. There are some Malaysians who were assigned to be snipers while others became suicide bombers. Those who are not involved in clashes are given general work as guards protecting their camps. Women are usually placed at IS shelters to teach Islamic knowledge and to take care of the children of other fighters.
>There is some rumblings that these fighters are eager to come back due to IS losing ground in its strongholds of Mosul and Dabiq. Do you anticipate them to return?
At this moment, I don’t think they are heading back to Malaysia. Unlike the fighters of other countries, such as from Europe, Malaysian fighters are pretty resolute in going through with the false jihad promoted by IS. Not only are they not coming back, some of them, who are involved with Katibah Nusantara have become more active in fighting.
There was one militant who died after blowing himself up. His wife didn’t come back, but instead married an Egyptian fighter. In truth, for most of them, there is no way back. Most Malaysian militants who went to Syria are on a one-way trip. There is no intelligence indicating they are returning.
>Recently, there were rumblings of a possibility that IS is looking to set up a new terror network in South-East Asia. Do you feel that it is likely?
Definitely there is a possibility. If it happens, the terror group will use its different cells and splinter groups in the region, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines. In November 2015, we received intelligence that fugitive Malaysian militant and former University Malaya lecturer Dr Mahmud Ahmad was actively training with the Abu Sayyaf Group as well as taking part in terror operations in the southern Philippines. Dr Mahmud, also known as Abu Handzalah aims to form the South-East Asian faction of IS. He has performed the bai’ah or the oath of allegiance to the terror group. In Indonesia, one of the emerging important militant is Bahrun Naim, pulling the strings of militants in the country all the way from Syria. We believe it is the ultimate aim of all these different factions in IS to unite. If they do, it will definitely become much more dangerous for all.
That is why all security forces must stay on their toes and keep their guard up as we cannot afford any slip up. Intelligence gathering and sharing among the security forces is a must as again the IS threat is still a clear and present danger.
> Touching on the recent terror attacks overseas, namely in Ankara, Turkey and Berlin, Germany – both incidents are labelled as “lone wolf” attacks. You have touched on the dangers of such attacks in the past, do you feel given the recent attacks, such warnings is warranted?
It doesn’t take a whole group or terror squad to launch attacks. Like I said before, it only takes one suicide bomber, or a gunman or a driver to launch an attack. One man or attacker is enough to incite chaos. An attacker armed merely with a knife or a gun can disrupt safety and security. Any IS militant can carry out an attack at any moment, that is our biggest fear. Lone wolf attacks are much more dangerous as it is harder to detect compared to a mobilisation of a group of people. This year, we have stopped and prevented some lone wolf attacks from happening. The latest being a planned attack on our National Day which had multiple targets including Batu Caves and police stations. We managed to thwart these planned attacks based on good intelligence.
>The Counter Terrorism Division have been successful in detaining IS militants and sympathisers since February 2013. Are there still Muslims in Malaysia joining this terror group and planning attacks in Malaysia?
We have conducted continuous operations against IS cells in the country since February 2013 and those arrested have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. However, there are still many Muslims influenced by their brand of false jihad. Not only that, there are those who planned attacks in Malaysia while others still tried to seek safe passage to Syria to join the main troops of IS.
> Why do you say that more people are joining IS?
It is alarming to say the least. Based on statistics of arrests alone, the trend of people joining IS is going upwards. In 2013 there were four people but it increased to 59 in 2014 and 85 last year. However, the total of those arrested has spiked drastically to 119 this year. In terms of prosecution, a total of 122 suspects have been charged. 62 militants have been found guilty while 38 have been detained under the Prevention of Crime Act (POCA) and 18 under Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). We have never ceased from our duties of collecting intelligence as well as conducting raids and arrests. However, IS will continue to pose a significant threat if other agencies, especially the religious authorities and departments do not play their part in curbing the spread of the “Salafi Jihadi” ideology, which is an extremist form of teaching.
> How bad is the effect of this “Salafi Jihadi” ideology?
This year alone we recorded seven cases involving Malaysians who managed to head to Syria to join the IS. One of them is a student at a public institution of higher learning. We managed to detain four other college/ university students who attempted a similar feat. Such development is worrying and might have been due to efforts from certain parties in spreading the Salafi Jihadi ideology under the guise of the rightful teachings of Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah. These same parties would question the actions of the police and decisions made by the National Fatwa Council in 2014, which stated that the IS terror group followed the Salafi Jihadi ideology. The council also prohibited the involvement of Malaysian Muslims with the terror group.
> How prevalent is the spreading of the Salafi Jihadi idelogy by these “experts”?
There are certain individuals, who are supposedly “religious experts” and popular on social media with thousands of followers and often invited to speak at events hosted by NGOs, private and public institutions of higher learning as well as government departments. These “experts” will often paint an indirect picture that the struggle by the terror group is a just cause. For example, when members of the audience such as college and university students ask whether it is warranted for Muslims to join IS, these experts will often say that if Muslims are being oppressed then it is a must for other Muslims to give assistance. Such answers clearly shows that this person promoted and encouraged Malaysians to follow the false ideology of the IS and fight in Syria despite that there being a fatwa (by the National Fatwa Council and international religious scholars) that clearly prohibits Muslim Malaysians from joining IS in Syria. The so-called Jihad in Syria promoted by IS is twisted, misleading and full of lies.
> Can you elaborate further on these experts?
These experts often question police operations against suspects who have links with the Salafi Jihadi idelogy such as Al-Qaeda members, Jemaah Islamiah, Darul Islam and IS. One of them also questioned the detention of Dr Aiman Al- Dakkak, who is a senior leader in Al-Qaeda in October 2010. Dr Aiman is responsible for recruiting Universiti Islam Antaranbangsa Malaysia (UIAM) students and he also planned to launch an attack on Batu Caves. Two of his followers, who are also UIAM students, were involved in a plan to attack an aeroplane. They have since been detained and deported to their home countries in early 2010.
The same “expert” used the justification that he was one of Dr Aiman’s students and had known him well in defending the latter. He further justified his argument by stating that Dr Aiman was a kind man and subtle in handling his usrah (talks) in UIAM. However, the reality is Dr Aiman is wanted by a few countries for being involved in Al-Qaeda and had escaped the Arab countries and hidden in Malaysia. The actions of this expert in questioning the police’s action with lame and unprofessional arguments shows his level of ignorance and paved the way for the spread of Salafi Jiadi in Malaysia.
>Can you explain the characteristics of those spreading Salafi Jihadi?
Based on our investigations and my own experience, most individuals responsible for spreading Salafi Jihadi are often gentle in nature. I have interviewed Jemaah Islamiah members in Indonesia involved in Bali bombing, namely Mukhlas, Imam Samudra and Amrozi. The interviews were conducted in February 2003 after they were detained by Indonesian authorities. Firstly Mukhas seemed to be well mannered and he was soft spoken but again, if we analyse the character, it is hard to believe these individuals were responsible for recruiting and influencing JI members to perform acts of terror. But if being soft spoken is the basis questioning the actions of the police on those spreading Salafi Jihadi ideology, then surely Osama Bin Laden was “not” a terrorist.
>Besides actions by the police, what are the other ways to combat the menace of this Salafi Jihadi teaching?
It is a must for every party to play their part, especially institutions of higher learning, government departments, mosques and NGOs. They must thoroughly vet those invited to speak on issues relating to terrorism, especially issues of the Salafi Jihadi ideology. Nowadays, there are a number of methods that can be used to check the background of such individuals, including analysing their talks through Youtube, Facebook, speeches and their writings. Based on the various methods, we can gauge their leanings. In the context of IS, it is clear that their beliefs are based on twisting the words of Al-Quran and Hadis. It is apt to check and double check the false Jihad promoted by IS with the various state Religious Departments as they have issued relevant fatwa on beliefs that are not in line with the beliefs of Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah practised in Malaysia.
Organisers of talks on religious issues must also abide by the fatwa and decree by the sultans as well as the respective state religious departments, which prohibit certain individuals from giving talks at any given state. So far, eight states have prohibited some individuals, who are popular on social media and supposedly championing Al-Quran and Sunnah. Such individuals were discovered to have spread teachings that were not in line with the common teachings of Muslim in Malaysia. Among the distorted teachings and beliefs promoted by these rogue personalities are labelling the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, citing the Yasin verse and berzikir (a form of devotion) as “bidaah” (prohibited), deviant and an offence that one can be executed for.
> What is your take on the Salafi Jihadi issue in a nutshell?
In my opinion, as long as the spread of the Salafi Jihadi ideology is not stopped decisively by all parties, then the threat of IS and other terror groups with the same ideology will not dissipate. In fact it will grow further.
>What is your outlook on the threat of IS and the challenges to overcome it?
Safety and security is always our top priority at PDRM, especially the Counter Terrorism Division. We are working diligently to ensure that the country remains safe, but we need the cooperation of others to continue to safeguard Malaysia from any threat, foreign or domestic. The threat of IS must never be underestimated or down played. When it comes to matters of security, it must never be politicised or used as an issue to further an agenda.
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