Malaysia: Government Concerns Over Islamic Extremism

2001

Deborah Johnson

Malaysians were concerned about Islamic extremism before the tragic events of 11 September in New York and Washington. Indeed, the government’s past crackdowns on Islamic groups such as Al-Ma'unah and the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM) - which many interpreted as the government seeking to make political mileage vis-a-vis its Islamist opposition - may now need to be reconsidered.

A number of incidents alerted the Malaysian government to the presence of militant Islamic groups in Malaysia with specific local and regional objectives. In July 2000, some 29 members of the al-Ma'unah group were arrested (and 19 charged) after arms heists at two army installations in Perak and the killing of two of their four hostages. A botched robbery of the Petaling Jaya Southern Bank branch, on 18 May 2001, and subsequent arrests led to the discovery by police of the KMM group. Its members were said to have received military training in Afghanistan and were allegedly channelling funds from robberies to Ambonese and Afghan 'freedom' fighters. Amongst the ten arrested was the group's alleged leader, Nik Adli Nik Aziz, son of Opposition Party PAS leader and Chief Minister of Kelantan. The KMM is alleged to be connected with the murder of the former Lunas state assemblymen, Dr Joe Fernandez; the attack on 4 February on the Guar Chempedak police station; and the bombing of a church and a Hindu temple.

Two further incidents in July and August revealed a regional network of Islamic militants. A Malaysian national (Taufiq Abdul Halim, 26) was arrested following the bombing on 1 August 2001 of the Atrium Plaza Shopping complex in Jakarta, in which several people were injured. This was said to be connected to a series of bombings in Indonesia (including the bombing on 22 July 2001 of two Christian churches in which 64 were injured). It also highlighted involvement by Malaysians (since April 2000) in the fighting against Christians in Ambon in the Malukus islands. On 26 July 2001 a boat load of arms from the southern Philippines headed for Ambon and two Jemaah Tabligh Malaysia (JTM) members were captured, along with 13 Indonesians. This pointed to the existence of various militant groups - some with possible connections to the al-Qaeda network.

The Malaysian government has responded to the 11 September events by tightening security arrangements at key installations including US-linked facilities, the Petronas Twin Towers and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). A special action committee has been set up within the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM), aimed at countering the emergence of militant groups. University campuses are being closely monitored in response to concerns that Islamic student organisations are being used to recruit potential militants. Malaysian officials are cooperating with authorities in Indonesia, Philippines and the USA in monitoring the situation in the region.

US retaliations in Afghanistan may have consequences not only for international politics, but also in terms of the stability of governments in the ASEAN region. Civil libertarians are concerned that governments may react to security concerns with new rounds of arrests and detentions. Though Malaysians were shocked at events in the US (with four, possibly five Malaysians missing) and have supported a concerted campaign against terrorism, they do not endorse any US military action affecting innocent people.. Indeed, since the start of the US bombing campaign, elements within the Islamist opposition have come out in support of 'those who wish to take up the fight in Afghanistan'. The Malaysian government has a fine political line to walk.

WATCHPOINT: Any government over-reaction may further alienate sections of the Malay constituency attracted to the PAS vision of an Islamic state.

 

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