Two Malaysian Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide bombers were killed in separate attacks in Syria and Iraq recently, heightening concerns that more Malaysians are now willing to blow themselves up for the extremist group.
Police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told The Straits Times that based on intelligence, a report yesterday on the duo in Malaysian English daily New Straits Times was accurate.
The Malaysian newspaper said that 26-year-old Mohd Amirul Ahmad Rahim detonated explosives strapped to his body and in his car during clashes in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, on Dec 29, killing 21 people, while 31-year-old Mohamad Syazwan Mohd Salim was among seven suicide bombers who killed 12 policemen in Tikrit, Iraq, on Jan 3.
Their deaths bring the total number of Malaysians with ISIS links killed in the past 18 months to 17, four of whom were known to have been suicide bombers .
The New Straits Times said that Mohd Amirul and Mohamad Syazwan were among those who had been recruited by ISIS to be trained as suicide bombers.
It noted that until recently, Malaysians and other non-Arabs who joined the extremist group rarely ended up as front-line fighters. They would usually be given menial tasks, including as cooks or cleaners.
Mohamad Syazwan left Malaysia in September 2014 with his younger brother, Muhamad Shazani Mohd Salim, 28, who was also killed in a suicide mission on Sept 18 last year in Bayji, Iraq.
There is rising concern about the growing trend of Malaysian suicide bombers. "Most Malaysians in Syria now, they want to die as a martyr in a suicide mission," said Datuk Ayob Khan.
Ms Elina Noor, Institute of Strategic and International Studies assistant director of foreign policy and security studies, said "there is the view that Malaysians are more willing to carry out suicide missions because they have more to prove" to graduate from doing menial tasks. "Suicide bombings abroad represent a new threshold for Malaysian involvement," she added.
Malaysia has tried to stem the flow of recruits to ISIS in the past two years, making about 150 arrests, but about 100 are believed to have slipped through the net and travelled to Syria.
Anxiety over a potential local attack soared in November when an internal police memo stating that there were 18 suicide bombers at large was leaked.
Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar confirmed the document was authentic, but said that the information had not been confirmed.
The government has estimated that 50,000 Malaysians are ISIS sympathisers, and a Pew Research Centre report in November found that 12 per cent of Muslims here viewed the militant group that has taken control of large areas of Syria and Iraq favourably.
The New Straits Times report coincided with another in an Australian daily yesterday which said it had obtained exclusive footage showing five Malaysians joining a group of Filipinos, mainly from the Abu Sayyaf group, swearing allegiance to ISIS at a camp on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
It ostensibly represented the merger of five militant battalions.
The video, showing the militants at a training camp, was posted on the Internet last Friday and then immediately removed, The Australian daily reported.
The footage posed major security concerns for Australia and South-east Asia, Professor Rohan Gunaratna, counter-terror expert and head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, told the newspaper.
"The recruits who cannot go to Syria because of travel restrictions will train in the Philippines and attack Australia and coalition interests on their return," he was quoted as saying.
Another Australian counterterror expert, Professor Greg Barton, said he was not surprised by the development in the Philippines, only that it had taken so long to bubble to the surface.
"I think we are heading this year for attempts of large mass casualty incidents in South-east Asia," Prof Barton said.