Malaysian militants fight on in Iraq, Syria

KL counter-terrorism chief says the fighters are undeterred by ISIS setback in Middle East

KUALA LUMPUR • Far from wanting to return home, Malaysian militants in Iraq and Syria still prefer to stay on even though ISIS is losing ground in its strongholds of Mosul and Dabiq.

Some 60 Malaysians are believed to be entrenched within the ranks, and fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the two countries.

Malaysian intelligence sources have revealed that the fighters are opting to stay put, even as ISIS is being backed into a corner due to continuous assaults by allied forces.

"Unlike the European militants, Malaysian fighters are deeply entrenched with ISIS. There is no indication that they are heading back. In fact, more Malaysian ISIS cells have indicated their desire to go to Iraq and Syria," Malaysia's Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division head Ayob Khan told The Star.

He cited the case of militant Amirul Ahmad Rahim, 26, who went to Syria on Oct 16, 2014 and was killed in a suicide bomb attack on Jan 2 this year.

NO RETURN

Unlike the European militants, Malaysian fighters are deeply entrenched with ISIS. There is no indication that they are heading back. In fact, more Malaysian ISIS cells have indicated their desire to go to Iraq and Syria.

MALAYSIA'S SPECIAL BRANCH COUNTER TERRORISM DIVISION HEAD AYOB KHAN, on Malaysian militants remaining in the Middle East to fight for ISIS.

"Instead of choosing to come home, his widow Lidia Izhar remarried there. According to her mother, she married an Egyptian fighter," he said.

Malaysian fighters are still active in the Malay-speaking wing of ISIS - the Katibah Nusantara - a group of Indonesian and Malaysian ISIS fighters formed in late 2014, said Datuk Ayob.

"Six Malaysians joined Katibah but two of them have since been killed while fighting against the Syrian army," he said.

The surviving members are Mohd Faizal Abdullah, 33; Zainuri Kamaruddin, 49; Ahmad Asyraf Arbee Ahmad Jamal Arbee, 30; and Muhammad Qamarul Asyraf Ismail, who is only nine years old.

At home, Mr Ayob said militants Mohd Rafi Udin, Zainuri Kamaruddin and Mohamad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi are known to issue orders to ISIS cells in Malaysia.

Despite these fighters remaining in the war-torn parts of the Middle East, he said intelligence agencies believe ISIS cells in South-east Asia are becoming more organised.

"There are more groups and terror cells pledging allegiance to the terror group in the Philippines, southern Thailand, Indonesia and even in our country. These groups are well-funded. A cell in Jakarta planning to bomb the Myanmar Embassy was in possession of explosives more powerful than the ones used in the Bali bombing. Intelligence also indicated that the cell was acting under the orders of known (Indonesian) militant Bahrun Naim," he said.

There is also the emergence of ISIS-affiliated groups in southern Philippines such as Maute, which was recently attacked by the Philippine army, causing concerns of retaliation that might lead to Sabah, in east Malaysia, being a target.

"If they do, then it might possibly be small-scale sneak attacks, similar to lone-wolf types," said Mr Ayob.

Despite the challenges, Mr Ayob said his division had thwarted at least 14 planned terrorist attacks in Malaysia. Since 2013, 260 militants have been put behind bars.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Malaysian militants fight on in Iraq, Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe