FOLLOWING the “defeat” of al-Qaeda and Isis, the general assumption is that terror threats would no longer be significant.
The reality is different, however.
On Jan 6,2020, al-Shabaab, the Somali-based terrorist group, attacked a Kenyan military base close to the former coastal holiday destination of Lamu, Kenya.
On Jan 18, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were seriously wounded when an al-Shabaab suicide bomber targeted Turkish and Somali officials in Afgooye, Somalia.
Recently, Deputy Home Minister Azis Jamman said that a local militant group is working closely with the terror group Abu Sayyaf which operates in the Philippines and Sabah’s east coast areas, mainly kidnapping foreigners for ransom.
Earlier this month, five Indonesian fishermen were abducted from waters off Lahad Datu by six gunmen. Police in Sabah have yet to receive any ransom calls for these individuals.
Why can’t terror attacks be prevented? Aren’t the countermeasures taken by the various global intelligence agencies effective in dismantling terrorist goups internationally?
By nature, terrorists are unpredictable, making them dangerous to deal with. In the London Bridge attack in November last year (pic), Usman Khan who had earlier been released from prison for terrorist-related offences stabbed five people, killing two. At the time of the attack, he was attending an offender rehabilitation conference.
Khan was a staunch supporter of Al-Muhajiroun, a militant cell identified by British intelligence and security agencies, and a personal friend of its co-founder, Anjem Choudary, who is deemed as one of the UK’s most notorious radical Islamist preachers.
Even though the senior members of Al Muhajiroun, including Choudary, are under strict surveillance, they still appear to be conducting their activities undetected. According to the UK intelligence agencies, they are using Internet forums for recruitment purposes and have regular smaller group meetings in discreet places.
One of the biggest tasks of the intelligence and security forces is to monitor the activities of hate preachers and dubious religious NGOs who normally hide their activities under the veil of religion. Unless security agencies and religious authorities collaborate and cooperate to tackle the threats posed by these preachers and NGOs, terrorism-related incidents will never be eradicated.
Terrorists are “innovative” people who adjust their methods according to their needs. They do not require huge funds or a big group to coordinate attacks like the Sept 11, Bali and Mumbai attacks. Most of the present attacks are self-funded, involving unconventional weapons like knives, vehicles and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
In May last year, the director-general of MI5 warned of the threat posed by groups sympathetic to Isis. He said that Isis propaganda is still effective in inspiring people even though the possibility of potential terrorists to travel to Syria has been restricted. The attempt of Al-Muhajiroun to recruit returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) and sympathisers to achieve its objective is distressing.
Last October, Bukit Aman’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division (E8) chief said that 40 of the 65 Malaysians detained in Syria had contacted the police about wanting to return home. The Malaysian men who are brought home will be charged in court and the women will be assessed for their level of ideological influence, he said, adding that their children would also go for rehabilitation programmes. The question is whether the de-radicalisation programme is functioning well and can rehabilitate the supporters and sympathisers of the terror groups.
In my opinion, these hardcore and extremist individuals are immune to rehabilitation and reform. There are no comprehensive rehabilitation programmes that can completely reform such individuals. Security and intelligence agencies must accept this hard-hitting fact and always be alert and pre-emptive in their approach.
One measure, albeit extreme, is to designate a place for hardcore supporters, sympathisers and terrorists where they can be monitored. They also need to be isolated from society and given limited access or contact with family members. Unless there is significant progress in rehabilitating these persons, the authorities should not consider releasing them back into society.
This can be seen as cruel and against the fundamental rights of a person but the peace and security of a nation should be paramount.
Another counter-terrorism measure is to use artificial intelligence (AI). Terrorists are very skilful at using the Internet, especially social media, to spread their propaganda for recruitment and fundraising purposes. As such, intelligence agencies must develop AI systems to identify, monitor and counter such activities. The agencies could also use AI to locate members of sleeper cells.
Having more robust border security measures in place supported by well-trained officers at vulnerable borders such as Perlis, Kelantan and Sabah is also vital to prevent terrorists from easily entering the country.
Efforts need to be taken to ensure terrorists do not acquire materials including biological weapons like viruses, bacteria, fungi or other toxins. As can be seen in the coronavirus outbreak in China, the effects of biological weapons can be catastrophic.
Terrorism is not just about religion, as terrorists are also being brainwashed by their recruiters in the name of ideology. I am therefore urging the relevant authorities to step up efforts to protect the people and nation as a whole instead of just focusing on a small number of persons who are misguided by false ideologies and misinterpretation of religious texts.
R. PANEIR SELVAM
Institute of Crime and Criminology
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