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COMMENT As of March 2016, up to 177 Malaysians have been detained for their involvement with the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, marking a remarkable increase, considering that only 40 were detained by November 2014. Malaysians form the largest group of Southeast Asian fighters for IS, after Indonesia.

Contrary to the widespread belief that Malaysia is safe from terrorist movements and activities, Malaysia is vulnerable to the threat and influences of the IS as she is one of the two largest Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia.

Four factors underlie the IS threat in Malaysia.

Firstly, unlike Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which has avoided targeting Malaysia, or the bandit-cum-terrorist group Abu Sayyaf (ASG) that is more interested in ransom money, IS has no qualms on attacking Malaysia, for it sees Malaysia similar to any other kafir nation.

Recently, six Malaysians were charged with experimenting with explosives in order to attack key "vice" areas in Kuala Lumpur.

Plots targeting Putrajaya were also reported. Such attacks, if they take place, would have major political as well as socio-economic impacts on Malaysia.

Secondly, as pointed out by Joseph Liow, Senior Fellow of Brookings, the number of Malaysian IS fighters, when adjusted according to population, is actually higher than Indonesia. While such numbers are hard to verify, the fact that Pew Research also shows a higher percentage of Malaysians (11 percent) who deemed IS to be of "favourable opinion" when compared with Indonesians (four percent), indicates that the case of IS’s appeal within Malaysia is a matter of concern.

Thirdly, as the Home Ministry of Malaysia (KDN) has highlighted, 75 percent of the recruitment by IS in Malaysia happened via the social media. Considering Malaysia has an Internet penetration rate of 67.5 percent and Malaysians are generally active social media users, this allows for easy access of the ideology and operatives of IS to vulnerable sections of the Malaysian populace so that processes of radicalisation and recruitment can occur.

The era of hyperconnectivity, as we all experience it today, also allowed for individual cells to be set up much more easily as frequent face-to-face contact is unnecessary with the use of smartphones.

Another dimension of the IS threat in Malaysia resides in East coast of Sabah, where Southern Philippines-based group ASG has proclaimed its allegiance to IS. Not only is Malaysia vulnerable in terms of having Malaysians joining the ASG (such as Mohd Amin Baco claimed to be leading the Sulu faction of the ASG); but also in terms of the safety of Malaysians, as seen in the unfortunate kidnapping of four Malaysians lately.

The porosity of borders and the fluidity of human movement between Sabah and the Sulu archipelago also expose a pertinent, yet complex security situation for both the Malaysian and Philippine government to deal with.

Who is joining the IS?

At first glance, there appear to be consistent profiles with regard to IS members in Malaysia.

Suspects can range from their teens to those in their middle ages, while socio-economic positions also show diversity, ranging from blue collar workers to a university lecturer. Yet, by reviewing publicly accessible information, one can still see that most of the IS-affiliated suspects are from the lower socio-economic background, and do not show any extensive religious training.

Most of them are male and many are under the age of 35, which by itself is a cause of concern, considering that Malaysia now has a youth bulge with a median population age at only 28.5, as of 2015 (meaning that half of its population is under that age).

No doubt, there were reportedly some highly educated and older members of IS, but one can observe that this minority group of individuals tends to occupy more senior positions, such as being the recruiter, financier or organiser of cells. A financial consultant, for example, was charged with soliciting for property for IS militants through a blog.

Equally important is the fact that the gender barrier is now broken, with females being directly recruited by IS. Notable cases include a 14-year-old girl who was arrested travelling alone to join IS, and the alleged Malaysian jihadi bride by the name of Shams, who maintained an active social media presence (now defunct) under the name 'Bird of Jannah'.

To add, not all Malaysians share the same aspiration about being a fighter. There are families who travelled, with children, just to be able to stay in the Caliphate. This was unseen of during the time of al-Qaeda.

IS in Malaysia - still in its germinating phase?

That said, there are still reasons to refrain from overreacting to the IS menace. To begin with, Malaysia’s security apparatus and intelligence community have shown remarkable competence in dealing with threats of terror and militancy.

In fact, Malaysia’s relative peace, as compared with countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia that have suffered multiple attacks since the 2000s, can be attributed to the swift crackdowns on JI and KMM in 2001 that paralysed the jihadist network in Malaysia.

This creation of a discontinuity in militant activity also made efforts of the IS to gain a foothold in Malaysia more difficult, as networks are dismantled, radical preachers arrested and training camps eliminated.

To add, a few features also indicate that IS is still in its germinating phase in Malaysia, therefore lowering its propensity to cause significant damage. Firstly, its recruitment and operations appear to have occurred in an atomised manner, where even though operation cells exist, none of them are organised in a structured manner, unlike the case of JI, or IS-affiliated groups in Indonesia.

Secondly, it is still dependent on leadership from the Middle East, be it on recruitment or militant operations. Recent arrests revealed that members are taking orders from a Malaysian militant in Syria by the name of Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, and Bahrum Naim, the alleged Indonesian militant behind the Jakarta attack.

Thirdly, most of its operatives, including those reported to be key figures, do not seem to have a militant past, implying that they might be first-timers in militant activities. Being amateurs also reduces the chances of these operatives succeeding in carrying out large-scale attacks in Malaysia, while increasing their chances of being discovered by the police.

Moving forward - still some cause for concerns

That said, vigilance and serious policy thinking are still needed, especially if the current Middle East situation continues to unravel with obvious sectarian overtones. Not only that, with a number of Malaysians now joining IS as foreign fighters, the issue of returning fighters (as was the case for JI and KMM) will be a matter of serious concern, as these individuals are no longer trainees but experienced militants with higher operational capabilities and a hardened jihadist mindset.

Bruce Hoffman, a renowned terrorism analyst, also warned about the impending merger of IS and al-Qaeda. This would escalate the threat of militancy, considering that many Malaysian (and Indonesian) militants, especially the veteran jihadists, are hesitant to hop on the IS bandwagon because of the al-Qaeda-IS split.

On a long-term basis, the Malaysian government will still need to grapple with the elephant in the room, which is why the idea of joining the caliphate is so appealing to a segment of the Malaysian community (especially vis-à-vis Indonesia, which has a higher percentage of Muslims)?

Nevertheless, there is no denying that many Malaysian Malay Muslims do feel that they are under siege as global conflicts have not only taken on an inter-religious fervour, but also a Sunni-Shiite divide.

Feeling helpless at the atrocities in Syria, they may not agree with violence but may be prone to empathising with the jihadists.

To follow, this also means that if governments pander to sectarianist sentiments and normalise intolerance at the policy level, they will play into the hands of the violent radicals as these groups, too, tap into similar sentiments to recruit Muslims, especially the disenfranchised, into their cause as they offer empowering narratives with a religious, and sometimes mythical tone.

Problematising, or politicising Islam as either the cause, or solution, to terrorism, will only complicate the matter, for terrorism is not an issue of religion, but politics. Similar examples can be seen in the fact that violence in the name of Hinduism and Buddhism also arises in many societies.

To end, countering the challenge of this radical milieu would ultimately require Malaysian policymakers, and members of civil society, to be bold and practice responsible and inclusive politics and policymaking to enhance and preserve the multicultural peace so emblematic of the nation.

Founded by writer Dina Zaman and her colleagues, Altaf Deviyati and Nicholas Chan, Iman Research is a boutique research outfit that studies how religion impacts studies, how religion and perceptions impact multicultural societies using Malaysia as a prime example from the aspects of society, politics and policy, and how faith drives the politics and economics of the country.

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