KNOWN just as E8, the Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division has been working behind the scenes since the 1990s in Malaysia’s battle against terrorism. Terrorist groups and cells ranging from al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah to Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia and, more recently, the Islamic State (IS) have been busted due to E8’s painstaking work.
Yet a misconception has persisted about how Malaysia was used as a launch pad for the Sept 11, 2001, attack on the United States. The division could not counter such allegations because information about its work had to remain classified for security reasons. Now, finally, after files have been unclassified, the head of the E8, Deputy Comm Datuk Ayob Khan, speaks to Sunday Star to set the record straight.
Can you comment on allegations that Malaysia was used as a launch pad for the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, and that local authorities were unaware then of the terrorists’ presence here?
This is definitely not true. In December 1999, the Special Branch received information from an American intelligence agency that nine Arabs, suspected to be al-Qaeda members, were in Malaysia. They were actually a unit that specialised in suicide attacks and bombings.
Based on that intel, we tracked down one of the operatives, Khalid Al-Midhar, who entered Malaysia on Jan 5, 2000. We were tasked with conducting surveillance at KL International Airport that night. We waited at the baggage carousel area and one of the officers spotted Khalid. Based on his mannerisms, clothing and movements, I would never have thought this man would eventually hijack an airplane and crash it into the Pentagon (in Washington DC).
We tracked Khalid’s movements in Malaysia, following him to Bukit Bintang (in Kuala Lumpur), where he met with three other operatives – Nawaf Al Hazmi, Salahsaed Mohamed Yousaf @ Khallad, and Suhail @ Abd Shorabi. All four stayed at a condominium in Sungai Long (Selangor) that belonged to Malaysian militant Yazid Sufaat. Khalid, Nawaf and Salahsaed flew to Bangkok and joined other terror cells to plan the 9/11 attacks.
We passed all information, including passport and flight details and photographs to an American intelligence agency. Unfortunately, that agency did not share the information with other US law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. If the agency had shared the information, pre-emptive measures could have been taken by US authorities to arrest the suspects as they entered the United States. This lack of coordination was highlighted in the “9/11 Commission Report” published by the US Government after the attack.
Thus, allegations that Malaysia was used as a launch pad and did not share intel with American authorities are simply false. Those who make the allegations should look at their own shortcomings first before blaming Malaysia.
Was the surveillance of Khalid the first success E8 had in battling al-Qaeda?
No, it’s not. In December 1995, we arrested Wali Khan Amin Shah, the man connected to the basement bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City on Feb 26, 1993. The blast killed six and injured more than 1,000 people.
Our investigations revealed that Wali Khan was close to al-Qaeda member Ramzi Ahmad Yousef and that both were hiding in South-East Asia. While Ramzi was eventually detained in Pakistan, Wali Khan remained elusive. However, through intelligence exchanges and cooperation with agencies in neighbouring countries, the division managed to track down Wali Khan on Pulau Langkawi where he was attempting to open an Arabic restaurant in Kuah in June 1995.
We counter-checked Wali Khan’s photograph with the FBI and confirmed his identity based on an injury to his right hand following a mishap while testing a bomb in Afghanistan. He was married but had two girlfriends – a Malaysian and a Filipina.
We caught him in Kuah on Dec 11, 1995, while he was distributing fliers to publicise his new restaurant. He did not resist arrest – in fact, he was shocked, and even cried.
This success prompted then US President Bill Clinton to send a letter of appreciation to our Prime Minister and the police, especially the division.
Other than al-Qaeda, what other terror groups has the division successfully fought?
Top of the list has to be Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
In 2001, we thought that militant activities in the country were under control. However, after we caught militant Yazid Sufaat on Dec 9, 2001, we uncovered a new terror group – the JI. The spread of this militant group’s influence came about from foreign militants who were part of Indonesia’s Pertubuhan Darul Islam (PDI). The history of PDI in Malaysia started in April 1985 when 20 PDI members fled to Klang to escape a clampdown by Indonesian authorities. At first, the group spread their extremist teachings within the Indonesian community there.
However, in 1993, a PDI faction broke away and formed JI, which included Malaysian recruits. JI pioneers include Abdullah Sungkar and the notorious Abu Bakar Basyir, who later became the face of the terror group. Both men were from Solo, Indonesia.
After JI was formed, Abdullah Sungkar set up the Luqman Nul-Hakiem school in Johor Baru to train the children of JI members. They began recruiting more Malaysians discreetly, with the ultimate goal of forming the Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara. Their first few Malaysian recruits were lecturers from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Skudai (Johor) and some Singaporeans. In 1999, Abu Bakar took over the mantle of leadership after Abdullah Sungkar died of complications from heart disease.
Since 1993, JI has been using Malaysia as a base for recruitment as well as a transit point for sending their cadets for weapons training in Afghanistan. Around 2000, we discovered that some 40 JI militants used Sabah as transit point on their way to Mindanao (the Philippines) for weapons training.
That same year, JI shifted its headquarters from Malaysia to Indonesia when Abu Bakar went back to Solo following the downfall of Suharto’s regime. More JI members headed the same way following the crackdown in Malaysia by the division from December 2001 onwards.
Among the locations which we know were targeted by JI were entertainment outlets in Bangsar in KL, the KLCC, embassies, and the Immigration HQ near the Johor Causeway.
Was the Special Branch the first security agency to uncover the JI network in South-East Asia?
Based on our surveillance of Yazid Sufaat which began in January 2000, it can be said that the Special Branch is the first agency to detect JI activity in the region. Singapore is also one of the earlier countries that managed to uncover and arrest JI members in December 2001.
We have also been credited by our counterparts in Australia with supplying information on JI that led to a major crackdown on the group in Australia.
Since operations against JI started in 2001, what weapons and explosives have been recovered?
We had multiple seizures but never shared them with the Malaysian public before this, as the operations were conducted under the Internal Security Act.
One of the most memorable raids was seizing a bomb consisting of a circuit board, remote control, and mobile phone, assembled by JI militant Dr Azahari Hussein in Felda Lengkap in Perak on June 17, 2003. We were led to the bomb by a JI suspect. To conceal it, Dr Azahari had buried the bomb underground along with 14 detonators.
Our intelligence revealed that Dr Azahari had mixed dangerous chemicals with explosive materials. So when we finally pinpointed the bomb’s location, no one was brave enough to open the lid, fearing it might be booby-trapped. Even the Hazmat (hazardous materials) team and bomb unit were having difficulties in opening the lid. Finally, the Teluk Intan Special Branch chief ordered everyone to clear the area and opened the lid. Thankfully, nothing untoward occurred.
On April 5, 2007, we recovered a bomb at the International Islamic University Malaysia following the arrests of two JI members. They were also responsible for making six pipe bombs and placing them in a rubbish bins located in front of entertainment outlets along Jalan Telawi 3 in Bangsar (KL). The bombs were supposed to go off on Dec 31, 1999, but we were lucky as some of their components were not working properly. We nearly had a “Bangsar bombing”....
The duo also targeted McDonald’s and other such outlets but, strangely, their first request after being caught was for fried chicken from the fast food joint!
Besides JI and al-Qaeda, what other terror groups have crossed paths with the division?
One of our successes would be busting the activities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group in Sri Lanka.
Beginning in 2009, we have arrested 25 LTTE militants. One of the most high profile of these was the arrest of high ranking leader Kumaran Pathma-natahan on Aug 5, 2009. We arrested him at a hotel in KL and later transferred him to the Putrajaya police headquarters to prevent any backlash from other LTTE members still in Malaysia. During his interrogation, Kumaran admitted that from Sri Lanka, he fled to Thailand and Singapore before making his way to Malaysia using a forged Indian passport. On Aug 6, 2009, we deported Kumaran to Sri Lanka.
Malaysia was once accused of being a transit point for Uighur terrorists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) originally based in Xinjiang, China.
We detected that ETIM has been operating in Malaysia since 2011 following the arrests of 17 Uighurs suspected of terrorism activities. The division has also arrested 32 other Uighurs believed to be involved with the ETIM and using Malaysia as a transit point for terror activities in a third country. We uncovered their modus operandi of entering Malaysia through a human trafficking syndicate. However, it must be said that there are also Uighurs who have entered Malaysia illegally to seek asylum.
We also discovered that the ETIM has cooperated with other terrorism groups, including the IS and Abu Sayyaf. It was the ETIM that was responsible for the bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok on Aug 17, 2015, which killed 20 people. Two Uighurs were arrested following the blast.
Some of the ETIM Uighurs have even used Sabah as a transit point as they head to the southern Philippines to join forces with an Abu Sayyaf cell led by fugitive Malaysian militant Dr Mahmud Ahmad. Our operations against the ETIM are ongoing.
Is there a comprehensive rehabilitation programme for militant detainees?
The rehabilitation of detained militants and religious extremists is organised by the police with assistance from various government agencies. The process begins with the detention order.
The detainees are placed under the supervision of the Prisons Department, which has its own rehabilitation programme involving discipline development (up to three months), personality enhancement (six to 12 months), and evaluation by the Prisons Department, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) and the police.
During detention in Kamunting (Perak), Jakim is roped in to conduct a series of rehabilitation programmes to instil an understanding of the true teachings of Islam. And former detainees with special expertise are also invited to deliver talks.
Who are among the scholars and ulama who have made a difference in rehabilitating militants?
Among those who have commanded respect from the detainees are Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia senior lecturer Abdullah Jalil, Islamic Strategic Research Institute senior fellow Engku Ahmad Engku Ali, and Home Ministry Islamic affairs officer Ustaz Zamihan Al Ghari.
The most outstanding among them was the late Prof Datuk Dr Muhammad Uthman El Muhammady, a fellow of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation. Despite his deteriorating health a few years ago, Dr Muhammad Uthman kept talking to families of detainees all around the country, in Johor, KL, Perak, Sabah, and Selangor.
A week before he died, he was still hard at work on his review of reading materials seized in various operations. His son, (International Islamic University lecturer) Dr Ahmad El Muham-mady, also greatly assisted us in the rehabilitation programme.
From 2001 to 2012, we conducted rehab for 289 militant detainees with a 97% success rate. Only seven of those detainees went back to militancy.
What other programmes are there for detainees?
The police is organising a special re-education programme for families of both detainees as well as militants who are still at large. They are invited for dialogue sessions at which all complaints and doubts about matters such as legal procedures are addressed.
The next step is the reintegration into society of former militants, which is vital in countering radicalisation and violent extremism. We have to ensure that ex-detainees are able to return to the mainstream of society. Among the steps taken is helping them secure jobs.
For the record, several senior JI leaders have become successful businessmen and own several companies. Some are lecturing and many returned to their initial workplaces.
We also extended financial help to those interested in setting up small businesses and encouraged the younger ones to continue their education.
One successful example of reintegration of militants is the case of 13 Malaysian teenagers who joined an Al Ghuraba JI cell operating in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2003. All 13 were escorted back to the country. Five of them eventually enrolled in universities, some have since become lecturers, a few joined multinational companies, and others became businessmen.
What is your advice to Malay-sians in the fight against terrorism?
The police, especially the division, cannot act alone. Members of the public, NGOs, as well as religious scholars must play their part. Families must be wary of their surroundings and report suspicious activities to us. The division will always be on guard.
As for the current IS threat, we have detained 294 militants since February 2013. The safety and security of everybody is our priority.