Malaysia has become a recruitment source for ISIS militants and a transit centre for its fighters heading to Indonesia for training.
By M. Veera Pandiyan
Malaysia may not be a hub for global terrorism yet but it is surely en route towards it.
Alarm bells should be ringing over the rising number of people arrested for links to the dreaded Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Police have so far detained more than 130 Malaysians found to be associated with ISIS but the number is presumed to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Among those nabbed are members of the armed forces, Rela volunteers, civil servants, students and an auxiliary police officer who handled security screening at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
There is no doubt that ISIS now poses a clear and present threat to Malaysia as well as the region.
What is more frightening is that our homegrown terrorists are at the forefront of forming the South-East Asian division of the extremist militant group.
Former Universiti Malaya lecturer Dr Mahmud Ahmad is a key figure in the emerging entity.
He has been working closely with the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines to recruit more militants from Malaysia, along with his two main followers, Mohd Najib Husen, who used to operate a stationery and photocopy shop, and Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee, an ex-worker of the Selayang Municipal Council.
As Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division's principal assistant director Senior Assistant Commissioner Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay revealed two weeks ago, Dr Mahmud is actively training with the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in southern Philippines and taking part in their operations.
Dr Mahmud, Mohd Najib and Joraimee, who fled to the Philippines in April last year, rank high on Bukit Aman's list of wanted terrorists.
It is a wonder how the 36-year-old ex-senior lecturer of UM's Academy of Islamic Studies remained below the radar of the authorities, especially as he had been actively involved with militant groups for more than two decades.
Dr Mahmud, who goes by his nom de guerre of Abu Hanzalah, was reportedly trained by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s while he was studying in Pakistan.
After his return he taught at a college where he also recruited students as militants.
The former academic has performed the baiah or the oath of allegiance to ISIS' "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi via video and is reportedly planning to travel to Syria to make the declaration in person.
Among the militants he recruited was Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, Malaysia's first suicide bomber, who blew himself up along with 25 personnel of Iraq's elite special weapons and tactics unit on May 26 last year.
Besides being a recruitment source, Malaysia has also become an established transit centre for ISIS fighters heading to Indonesia for training.
According to Indonesia's counter terrorism chief Saud Usman Nasution, potential ISIS fighters constantly arrive from Malaysia with Pekan Baru in Sumatra as their first stop.
From there, the recruits are taken to Puncak in Java and then to Makassar and Poso in Sulawesi where training camps are believed to be located.
Saud Usman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month that there were thousands of potential ISIS fighters in Malaysia waiting to be sent to Indonesia for training.
It is understood that about 1,500 fighters from some 100 countries around the world join ISIS ranks each month.
The number of those going through Malaysia and ending up in Syria or Iraq is anybody's guess.
But active ISIS cells within the country pose a more immediate danger, as disclosed by Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein on Monday.
He said interrogations of detained ISIS militants revealed that the terror group had been planning to kidnap the top three leaders of the country.
He did not name them but it is understood that he meant Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Hishamuddin himself.
The plan was to abduct the leaders and use them for a swap deal for the release of detained ISIS militants.
The Defence Minister, who described ISIS as the biggest threat to national security, said the Government was not taking anything for granted.
As of now, it is believed that about 200 Malaysians have joined ISIS as fighters in Syria and Iraq.
It is a disproportionately high number, compared with ISIS 500-odd Indonesian combatants, given that Indonesia's population is more than eight times the size of Malaysia's.
Why the fatal attraction to ISIS?
Earlier this year Dr Ahmad Zahid, who is also Home Minister, told Parliament that it was not ideology that attracted Malaysians towards ISIS but a cult-like obsession towards the terror group and its leaders.
He said family and financial problems were also among reasons why some had joined ISIS as fighters.
It is not usually highlighted by the authorities, but anti-Syiah rhetoric in Malaysia's majority Sunni Muslim population is also a key factor.
As a result, followers believe that it is acceptable to fight a "holy war" against what they perceive as the repressive Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
It cannot be denied that ISIS' call to wage a holy war is highly potent, especially when it is sold on religious compulsion.
But propaganda, spread extensively through social networking sites, remains the major tool for the recruitment of followers.
ISIS' online magazine, Dabiq, for example, has a wide reach in the country, as it does in Indonesia.
Earlier this year, the PDF-format magazine carried a recruitment video in Malay.
The cover of the latest issue of Dabiq, by the way, is a picture of the Nov 13 terror attack in Paris, which killed 130 people.
The brazen headline reads: Just terror.