Is Malaysia risking another round of JI-style geopolitical turmoil with ISIS returnees?

The threat of extremism among Malaysian ISIL returnees will be far from over.

The recent collapse of the ‘Caliphate’ in Syria – where the so-called of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is battling for survival in its last enclave on the border with Iraq – has prompted Malaysia to allow the return of its citizens engaged in the criminal activities of the terror organisation.

Al Jazeera reports that Malaysian police Special Branch counterterrorism principal assistant director Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay recently confirmed this as well as explained that all 11 adult returnees (the other 12 returnees are children) will face interrogation and scrutiny regardless of whether they face detention. Ayob Khan added that adult returnees found to have been involved in ISIL’s militant activities will be charged with terrorism crimes.

It appears the Malaysian authorities are banking on their ability to turn around Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees as a guarantee that it will be successful in killing the roots of terror in the hearts and minds of the returning ISIL members.

However, recent terrorism crimes by ISIL returnees in Indonesia are a vivid reminder of what we are dealing with.

In a mid-Mar incident, a woman, who’s husband had been arrested by the Special Forces counterterrorism squad, became a suicide bomber. The bomb she unleashed took the life of her toddler and rocked 155 houses in Sibolga, North Sumatra, causing 166 families to be homeless.

In May 2018, a family of six who carried out three church bombings in Indonesia had returned from Syria, Indonesian police say.

These terrorist acts would concern the citizens of any country where ISIL terror groups and their supporters may return to live a normal life. Most of these returnees know how to make pipe bombs or improvised explosive devices and mines as booby-traps.

Of even greater concern for terror crime experts is the fact these individuals and groups are good at hiding in plain sight and lying low on social media. They may not even have social media accounts.

In 2016, Malaysia cancelled the passports of several ISIL fighters. There are 102 Malaysians who left the country to live in the group’s so-called Islamic State. Around 40 died fighting in Syria and Iraq; nine were suicide bombers.

In Syria, Malaysian and Indonesia fighters formed a military unit for Malay-speaking ISIL fighters.

New recruits have set their sights on Mindanao in southern Philippines where militant groups have links to ISIL. Experts fear that once back in Malaysia, these recruits may join the Mindanao ISIL groups.

The Diplomat says Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which remains a potent force, is benefitting from a narrow focus on ISIL and is still Southeast Asia’s greatest terrorist threat.

The deaths of two Malaysian JI members —  top JI bomb maker Malaysian Azahari bin Husin in Nov 2005 and bomb attack mastermind Noordin Mohammed Top in 2009 — may have disrupted JI operations but the fact that Malaysia’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division arrested five citizens and two Filipinos just last Dec shows that terrorism is still a major security risk.

Bringing them back is a political gambit. Russia is doing the same, with Moscow bringing back the mothers and children among its overseas-stranded ISIL members and Russian President Vladimir Putin lauding Chechen efforts to do the same.

However, observers point to how the Oct 2017 death of Malaysian ISIL operative Dr Mahmud Ahmad was seen by the Phillipines’ counterterrorism forces as a sign of the end of the five month-long Marawi siege and, as such, reflected that the threat of extremism among Malaysian ISIL returnees will be far from over.

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