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'The Threat Is Real': The Islamic State Is Trying to Influence Political Parties in Malaysia

Prime Minister Najib Razak has tabled a white paper detailing the reach of the extremist group in the South East Asian country, from which dozens have left to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Image by Mohd Lotfi Ariffin

The Malaysian prime minister has declared that the Islamic State is trying to infiltrate and influence political parties in his country, tabling a white paper which paints a disturbing picture of how far the organization's reach, aided by social media and international acolytes, now extends.

The white paper, Towards Countering Threats posed by Islamic State Militant Group, is only the third such document tabled to parliament in Malaysia's history, according to local newspaper the Straits Times.


Presented by Najib Razak on Wednesday, the extent of IS infiltration it reveals is expected to lead to an overhaul of counter-terror measures in the South-East Asian nation.

The need for a policy response to IS was summed up by the home minister, Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. He explained to journalists at a Q&A session in Kuala Lumpur that "Malaysian fighters are connected to foreign fighters," which meant the country was facing "a whole new level of threat."

"We discovered that the militants were trying to influence political parties through their members," he explained.

Andrin Raj is the managing director of the Stratad Asia-Pacific Studies Center, a think-tank that provides training and consultancy to the Malaysian defense forces, including the training of special forces in counter-terrorism.

"The threat is real," Raj told VICE News from Kuala Lumpur. "ISIS already has a platform in Malaysia, utilizing Jamaah-Islamiya and Darul Islam Sabah [two pre-existing militant Islamic groups] as well as sympathizers.

"ISIS will use these platforms to garner infiltration within political parties and government bodies, and this does not exclude the security agencies."

The ruling coalition, called the Barisan Nasional, has become increasingly worried about the close connections between Islamist parties and IS. The biggest party in the country outside the government is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (known as PAS), which boasts 1 million members.


PAS members have been among the 39 Malaysians to leave for Syria to fight with IS. When the most high profile of them, Mohd Lotfi Ariffin, was reported dead in September, PAS officials gave public tributes to a man who had been expelled from the party for militancy.

"We are sad and we offer condolences to his family, It was the path that he chose," said the party's chief press officer according to Malaysia Today. "We respect what he chose, the path to fight there."

Malaysian fighters have been active in Syria and Iraq. They have been involved in deadly attacks: a suicide car bombing which killed 25 Iraqi elite soldiers in May was attributed to a Malaysian former factory worker, Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, according to security think-tank the Lowy Institute.

Asked whether the threat of terror was greater than ever before, Raj said: "The threat has long been in Malaysia, but it was a conduit for jihadists moving within the region and not an operational theater. Yes, the threat now is at its height."

Malaysia's new status as an operational theater was demonstrated by the Sabah Incursion, the most serious jihadist assault yet on the country, which took place in March last year. It began when Islamic militants acting on behalf of a self-declared Filipino sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, entered the state of Sabah on the north-eastern coast of the island of Borneo.

The group of approximately 100 fighters managed to hold territory for three weeks against Malaysia's security forces, the daring and tenacity of the Islamists rocking the country's policy makers. Sabah has since become a target for IS sympathizers in Malaysia. Borneo is split between the Philippines and Malaysia, with dense jungles and porous border providing shelter for criminal and terrorist groups.


In July, Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist group based on the island, released a video in which they swore allegiance to Islamic State.

Abu Sayyaf, known for kidnappings and extortions, holds around a dozen hostages currently according to the Associated Press. Recently, they made headlines in Germany for the kidnapping of two German hostages, who were eventually released.

"The social media reach is at its height for ISIS," Raj said, explaining how the Islamic State was able to exercise such influence among the radical minority of Malaysians. He explained that although jihadists were still typically radicalized and recruited in person at extremist religious institutions, social media was an effective tool to spread propaganda, push messages and direct IS devotees.

Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke directly to the Malaysian people as he commended the white paper to the parliament. "The involvement of Malaysians in militant activities in the name of Islam have tarnished the country's image and affected the purity of Islam," he said.

A Sunni Muslim himself, Razak told Malaysia's Islamic community to resist the radicalizing influence of the Islamic State.

"We hope this will create more awareness on both sides of the political divide and among Malaysians as a whole," he said in parliament. "As of now 39 Malaysians have been identified to be involved in militant activities in Syria. I am worried that 40 more will face the same fate if the authorities do not arrest them.

"I urge all Malaysians especially youths and parents to reject this extremist ideology which can destroy the future of all. The peace and harmony achieved all this while is priceless and should be preserved."

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell