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Asia

Malaysia steps up security to counter terror threat

Following the Jakarta attacks, Malaysia has raised the alert status to the highest level, with police heightening security measures at several key locations. But just how high is the terror threat?

"Increased security measures are in place at public places such as shopping malls and tourist spots, while extra precautionary actions will be implemented in border areas to prevent possible infiltration by terrorist elements," Malaysia's Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar was recently quoted as saying.

Border control has also been tightened in the Southeast Asian nation, and the Defense Ministry has stated that the armed forces are ready to be deployed, should they be called upon by the National Security Council.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered these security measures amid a heightened terror alert across Southeast Asia following the deadly bombings in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on January 14, and the arrest of suspected suicide bomber over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur.

But how real is the threat in Malaysia? Andreas Ufen, a Southeast Asia expert and senior research fellow at the Germany-based GIGA Institute, says the risks are high. Just two months ago, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said several of the country's leaders were on "Islamic State" (IS) target lists. And back in August 2014, there were reports that suspected militants - who were later arrested - planned to bomb hotels, discotheques and a Malaysian Carlsberg beer brewery.

Indonesien Explosionen und Schüsse, vermutetes Selbstmordattentat

Militants claiming to be affiliated to IS recently struck at the heart of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta

The terror threat to Malaysia, however, doesn't stem from IS alone, says counter-terrorism expert Tomas Olivier. "The presence of Abu Sayyaf, the Moro National Liberation Front and many insurgent (terrorist) organizations in the south of the Philippines have always posed a threat to Malaysia's northern state of Sabah, and now, given their allegiance to IS, they also threaten the capital Kuala Lumpur," noted Olivier, who is also CEO of security consultancy Lowlands Solutions Netherlands (LSN).

An effective security apparatus

These developments have raised worries about an imminent terror attack. "There has been palpable concern among Malaysians in recent months. Although such events have not yet taken place, the concerns arise from the discovery and arrests of groups of individuals allegedly involved in terrorism by the Malaysian security authorities last year," Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, told DW.

It is important to point out, however, that while many other countries have been hit, Malaysia has not seen a terror attack in recent years. "For that, the country's security apparatus is to be commended," says Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff, Malaysia expert at the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Nonetheless, the expert added, it's very difficult to prevent the sort of attack that took place in Jakarta last week from happening elsewhere. "There is no guarantee such incidents of terrorism can indeed be prevented."

But analyst Olivier noted that Malaysia has abundant experience with counterterrorism operations, and at the moment the country boasts numerous modern counterterrorist units within the army, navy as well as the police.

And in recent months, Malaysian authorities have arrested over 100 individuals for activities linked to IS. They have also been very proactive, especially in terms of monitoring flight manifests, preventing people from traveling to and from Syria and Iraq and monitoring social media, said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia security expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College.

Furthermore, the government passed a so-called Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), granting itself sweeping powers, which enable it to detain terror suspects (without trial) for up to two years, say experts.

'Closer cooperation needed'

However, critics fear the additional powers might be used by the government as instruments to stifle legitimate political dissent, particularly against those criticizing PM Najib and his suspicious role in the 1MDB graft scandal.

Abuza says the authorities should focus more on intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation in the region, rather than on passing new laws. The security expert stresses that IS-affiliated groups in Southeast Asia are comprised of individuals from across the region.

For instance, he says: "A Malaysian IS member in Syria played a role in organizing the Jakarta attack; likewise the Indonesian ringleader for the Jakarta attack has also incited violence in Malaysia."

How to counter IS ideology?

Still, surveillance and security measures can only be part of a wider strategy, say analysts, hinting that not enough is being done to counter the spread of radical, fundamentalist ideology, which breeds terrorism.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by US-based Pew Research Center concluded that 11 out of 100 Malaysians were sympathetic towards IS. Independent pollster Suffian agrees with the findings, saying that an unpublished survey conducted by his firm also revealed similar views among a similar segment of Malaysians.

Najib Razak

Najib's government passed a counter-terrorism law last year that allows detention without trial for up to two years

Experts blame this development on the rise of a very conservative version of Islam in the Sunni Muslim-majority country since the 1970s.

Analyst Abuza believes the Malaysian government hasn't done much to stop IS ideology from spreading in the country. On the contrary, he stresses, Kuala Lumpur has embraced religious intolerance and threatened the cultural and religious diversity that could serve as a societal bulwark against IS ideology.

In turn, Southeast Asia analyst Ufen criticizes Kuala Lumpur's policies as ambivalent. "The government is fighting terrorist movements such as IS, while at the same time supporting an Islam that is often in accord with extremist interpretations," he said.

The expert therefore calls on Malaysian authorities to promote an enlightened version of Islam that acknowledges the multi-religious and multi-cultural realities of the country. "And PM Najib should clearly distance himself from all kinds of narrow-minded Islamic interpretations."