The Islamic State terror group is expanding operations in Southeast Asia where in Malaysia more than 100 Islamists, including some linked to the military, have been arrested in recent weeks, according to a State Department security report.
“Malaysian authorities have now arrested more than 100 individuals linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including over 30 suspects in March and April alone,” says a May 19 report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), a government group that promotes partnership between the State Department and the private sector. The Islamic State terrorist organization is known by three acronyms: IS, ISIS, and ISIL.
The seven-page internal report produced for U.S. corporations abroad is the latest indication that the Obama administration’s strategy against Islamic State is failing. The president has limited U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq to airstrikes and training for local forces that appear to be struggling in efforts to counter IS forces.
Despite President Obama’s vow to strike IS on the level of strategic messaging, the administration has failed to conduct a counter-ideological campaign against the group due to what critics say is the influence within government of Islamist sympathizers who have blocked aggressive information campaigns against the extremists.
This week, the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to IS militants, a victory that the Pentagon sought to deemphasize. IS has begun mass executions in Ramadi, according to reports from the region.
In addition to Malaysia, IS has expanded its operations to North Africa, including Libya, and to Afghanistan.
A recent worrying indicator was the discovery last month of an IS cell in Malaysia. The group had acquired 40 kilograms of explosives it intended to use in terrorist bombing attacks.
“The good news is that Malaysian authorities have proven successful at disrupting cells early, before they become fully operational,” the report said. “The bad news, however, is that radicalization continues to find a foothold in Malaysia.”
An even more troubling sign, according to the report, was the discovery that two people arrested in early April were members of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. The arrests raise “concern that ISIL has supporters within the country’s armed forces,” the report said.
Last month Malaysian officials disclosed that some 70 army soldiers were linked to the Islamic State, although it is not clear whether they were sympathizers or operational jihadists.
The report said the Malaysian government is tracking the effort to infiltrate its armed forces and attempting to stop it.
“Governments of countries in which extremist ideology may have infiltrated the military can ill afford to discount the possibility of insider threat,” the report said.
Malaysia is an emerging U.S. ally in the Obama administration’s policy shift to Asia and is expected to increase military cooperation with U.S. forces.
The most recent disrupted plot in Malaysia’s central province of Selangor led to the arrest of 11 people on April 26. The suspects had been testing homemade bombs that were to be used against government buildings and police stations throughout the country.
“Although the cell had not yet demonstrated its capability to conduct a large-scale attack, the significant cache of ammonium nitrate and potassium nitrate recovered by authorities suggests one of the most developed plots by Malaysian militants to date,” the report said.
Other Islamist plots were uncovered on April 5, when authorities arrested 17 people for a plot to hit strategic targets in Kuala Lumpur, and on March 26 when two Iraqis were caught planning to blow up embassies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the capital.
Those arrested in recent raids range from radicalized teenagers influenced by online jihadist postings to veteran militants who have fought in the Middle East.
“Each of these distinct demographics may pose a unique threat based on its knowledge, skills, and experience,” the report said.
Up to 105 Malaysians have traveled to Syria, and a small number have returned to the Southeast Asia nation of 30 million people. Ten Malaysians have been killed in the Syrian civil war.
By contrast, neighboring Indonesia has some 500 Islamists fighting in Syria out of a population of 250 million.
Once the conflict ends, those fighters are expected to return to their home countries and continuing waging jihad against their governments.
According to the OSAC report, the leader of an IS cell that was plotting attacks in Malaysia, Murad Halimmuddin Hassan, is believed to have undergone militant training in Syria last year. A second terrorist, an Islamist cleric, traveled to Syria in September to join IS and returned to Malaysia in December.
“Foreign fighters often pose an elevated threat due to the tactical proficiency, ideological fervor, and transnational networks they develop abroad,” the report said. “The legitimacy derived from having directly engaged in combat can also transform them from individual threats to force multipliers if they are capable of mobilizing aspiring militants radicalized at home.”
Jihadists in Southeast Asia include former members of groups engaged in regional conflicts, including the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) and Jemaah Islamiyah, two insurgent organizations.
Malaysia’s geography—it is a tropical archipelago and peninsula—has made it a relatively easy country for terrorists to travel freely in, something that has facilitated cross-border terror attacks in Philippines and Indonesia.
The objective of the Islamic State terrorists in Malaysia is to topple the government.
“While such a prospect may be highly untenable, attacks on logistical and ideological targets are plausible and would have a significant impact on the U.S. private sector,” the report said.
Terrorists in the country appear to be targeting banks for robberies to fund operations, and also may engage in kidnapping and ransom plots.
Attack targets may include police and army facilities, which could yield weapons for the group’s future operations.
Ideological targets include government buildings and Western establishments such as pubs, discos, and bars.
“Although no U.S. private-sector targets were named in recent raids, such was the case last year, when Malaysian authorities arrested 19 suspects whose plans included the bombing of a Carlsberg brewery,” the report said.
Malaysian authorities involved in counterterrorism operations against IS include the police Counterterrorism Division (E8) of the Special
Branch, which has successfully broken up the recent plots.
The report warned that despite counterterrorism efforts, “Islamist extremism continues to find a foothold in Malaysia.”
Local politics in the country also could facilitate a resurgent Islamicization and risks “creating an environment conducive to Islamic radicalization,” the report said.
“Thus while the government of Malaysia may be fully committed to and capable of interdicting plots before the point of attack, their tolerance of a more fundamentalist brand of Islam may unintentionally facilitate their foundation,” OSAC said.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry said 154 Malaysians are known to have been associated in IS and 91 have been arrested in the country, the Malay Mail Online reported Tuesday. Others have been killed or remain at large.
“This situation is very worrying to the government as it involves children. Hence, the government’s move in tabling the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) 2015 is very apt,” the Malaysian Home Ministry stated, referring to a controversial counter-terrorism law.
Rohan Gunaratna, a counterterrorism expert at Singapore’s International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said during a conference in March that the Islamic State is stepping up operations in the region. So far, 22 terrorist groups in Southeast Asia have joined IS and are supporting the group, mainly in online.
“As ISIS loses territory, it will become more insurgent, hit-and-run, and terrorist in nature, and its influence will spread overseas," he told the Straits Times newspaper.
“The world must brace itself for a new wave of terrorist strikes, both on the scale we have witnessed in Sydney, Copenhagen, Paris and Ottawa recently, and also ISIS-directed attacks that may even mirror the scale of 9/11.”
On the fall of Iraq’s Ramadi, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters on Monday not “to read too much into this.”
“What this means for our strategy is simply that we—the coalition and Iraqi partners—now have to go back and retake Ramadi,” Warren said.
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley, chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters last week that coalition forces conducted around 420 airstrikes near Ramadi and Fallujah, 165 within the past month against buildings and vehicles.
The military strikes, combined with Iraqi ground forces operations, have weakened IS, he said.
“You can take a look at how Daesh operated last summer to how they're operating today, it's significantly different,” Weidley said using yet another acronym for IS. “And that speaks to the degradation that Daesh has undergone over the last eight or nine months.”