The transnational threat posed by Islamic State (IS) and its sympathisers remains a major concern in South-East Asia, although security agencies appear to be responding with some effectiveness.
Malaysia’s police announced on Dec. 5 that it had arrested five people, including a European employed as a teacher, on suspicion of links with militant groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The arrests were made between Nov. 17 and Dec. 1.
Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar said that four of those arrested were foreign nationals and one was a Malaysian. Among them was a 44-year-old European who was employed as a temporary teacher in the state of Penang, and had links with al-Qaeda and allegedly participated in militant activities in Afghanistan and Bosnia, the police said, while three other suspects – a 31-year-old Indonesian man, a Malaysian and a Bangladeshi – were part of a cell linked to the Islamic State group and were tasked with recruiting volunteers to fight in IS-held territory.
Malaysia was already on heightened alert after reports that ten Syrians linked to Islamic State entered neighbouring Thailand in October to attack Russian interests, presumably in revenge for Russia stepping up air strikes against IS in Syria.
The threat was revealed by a leaked memo from a commander of Thailand’s Special Branch to police units, which quotes Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) as saying that the IS militants entered the country between October 15 and 31 and parted ways to hit different targets, including Pattaya, Phuket, Bangkok and an unknown location. As many as 1.5 million Russian tourists visited Thailand in 2013 and sizeable Russian communities have developed in Phuket and Pattaya.
Meanwhile, leaders can only wonder how many human time-bombs are dispersing around Asian population centres.
In September, a leaked Malaysian police report warned that 10 suicide bombers linked to IS and the southern Philippine terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, had been deployed across Malaysia, while police thwarted a plot to detonate bombs in Kuala Lumpur’s vibrant tourist area of Bukit Bintang.
Malaysia’s Government pushed through new national security laws – the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act – on Dec. 3 that give sweeping powers to a council headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak to declare a security area to protect “any interest in Malaysia”, although the ambiguous wording has Najib’s many domestic political opponents concerned at the potential for abuse.
Still, hundreds of Islamic State recruits from South-East Asian nations are known to have formed a unit called Katibah Nusantara or Malay Archipelago Combat Unit.
Indonesia’s counter-terrorism chief Saud Usman Nasution has warned that Islamic State has been collaborating with people-smugglers to bring militants from Malaysia to secret training camps in the Poso region of central Sulawesi.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has said that Islamic State is Indonesia’s biggest international concern and that the issue comes up in every discussion he has with regional leaders, while Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also warned that South-East Asia has emerged as a “key recruitment centre” for Islamic State.
Amidst the justifiable concern, there is still time for some old-fashioned paranoia about countries that represent no threat whatsoever.
A parliamentarian from PM Najib’s own party claimed in Malaysian parliament on Nov. 26 that the usage of the Google Maps and Waze navigation apps could threaten national security.
UMNO MP Raime Unggi stated that “Malaysians are very dependent on Google Map(s) and Waze for location searching and this has indirectly provided information about Malaysia to external quarters such as the United States and Israel and it could lead to external threats.”
He was backed up by fellow UMNO MP Irmohizam Ibrahim, who asked, “are there laws to make sure national security is protected in the usage of such apps?”
The highly popular Waze app was conceived and developed in Israel until it was purchased by Google in 2013 for US$1.1 billion, adding social data to its mapping business.
Communications and Multimedia Deputy Minister Jailani Johari reminded his anxious colleagues that the information collected by Google Maps and Waze is user generated, and that users can always opt out. Whether they now feel safer from the US/Israeli bogey is doubtful.