With the recent revelations that a youth was picked up and arrested on the way to a suicide bombing, hundreds of arrests of suspected terrorists have been made, and security is being drastically tightened across the country, what is happening?
In the aftermath of the recent suicide bombing, blamed on ISIS in Jakarta last week, Malaysia is in a panic. Reports are coming out in the media that hundreds of Malaysians are joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq, and the elaborate means through social media young people are being recruited to the cause of Islamic State.
According to a report by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, there are about 450 Indonesians and Malaysians, including women and children in Iraq and Syria today. Islamic State has a special unit in Syria called Katibah Nusantara which is made up of Indonesian and Malay speaking fighters and their families. There are great fears that members of this group will return to Malaysia to carry out jihadist activities at home within the near future.
This should not be a surprise, as the Islamic narrative within Malaysia has been edging towards a more fundamentalist stance over the last two decades, since UMNO and PAS began competing against each other to show the Malay heartland that they are more Islamic than the other.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre study on attitudes towards ISIS, 12% of Malaysia’s Muslims are supportive of the group.
Islamic State formed out of the remnants of Al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq during the Maliki regime as a consequence of his persecution of the Sunni population. Baathists quickly joined the ranks of ISIS, along with a number of local tribes. Sunnis within Iraq saw ISIS as the lesser of two evils and reluctantly supported them. The leader is ISIS Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi last September gave a sermon in the Great mosque in Mosul declaring a Caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, which has been inspiring to many Muslims around the world.
Malaysia had experience with a group with similar aspirations to develop a caliphate back in the 1980s. Al-Arqam was founded by the charismatic Ashaari Mohammad with a vision of developing small village economy and trade. Ashaari advocated a strict but simple sustainable community lifestyle, following the Syariah codes. Instead of blood and warfare Al-Arqam saw trade and Daqwah (spreading the message), as the future of Islam, where the group started a conglomerate of enterprises all over Malaysia, the region, and even in Europe, US, and Australia.
At the time, the Al-Arqam movement had the sympathy and respect of many Malays within the community, including civil servants, members of the armed forces, police, professional people, academics, and even politicians.
However in the early 1990s, Al-Arqam ran afoul of the authorities when Ashaari was rumoured to claim that he could mystically communicate with the Prophet. There was also a rumour that Al-Arqam was planning to topple the Malaysian Government and replace it with a Caliphate, with Ashaari as the Caliph. Rumours also existed that Al-Arqam had a commando training camp in Thailand, although this was denied by the Thai Government at the time.
In September 1994, the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir banned Al-Arqam and arrested many of the leading group, putting them under ISA. Most went underground and kept their sympathies to themselves. Even up to the Badawi era, there have been attempts by Al-Arqam to make a re-emergence.
In the absence of Al-Arqam, there has been a vacuum in ‘revolutionary’ Islam, to topple existing governments and establish a utopian Islamic state. Al-Arqam had a vision of an Islamic life under a caliphate and now Islamic State has filled this vacuum.
The moderate Malay Muslim demeanour that Malaysia once grounded Malays into the social status quo has long disappeared. There is now outcry about how Malaysian Airlines stewardesses are dressed. The slapstick comical P Ramlee films of yesteryear that reflected Malay society at the time would probably not even pass the Censorship Board today.
Malaysia has become a religiously compliant society, very ritualistic, where non-adherence is frowned upon. Arabness is replacing Malay culture under the assumption that one would be a better Muslim under such a persona. Islam Hadhari was pronounced ‘dead and buried’ along with the demise of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and replaced with a look-alike Taliban blend of Islam that wants HUDUD without the Tawhid.
Islam in Malaysia is evolving into a religion of exclusion. Biro Tata Negara (BTN) dogma preached to civil servants and students on scholarship has extended this concept of exclusion, into an ‘us and them’ paradigm, depicted by the concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, which assumes Muslim and non-Muslim are adversaries.
Consequently, Muslims now mix much less with non-Muslims, where joint celebration of non-Muslim festivals like Christmas is frowned upon by authorities. Malay Muslims now believe it is wrong to ‘Salam’ non-Muslims in Arabic. In Kelantan, cashier lines in shops are gender segregated, and halal trolleys proposed in national supermarkets.
We have seen protests against Hindus where cow heads have been displayed, and churches burnt down, without authorities taking much action against the culprits. Authorities have ordered the demolition of a surau because it was used for purposes other than praying in a resort complex. Authorities try to remove anything that may look like a cross, even though there are not religious connections to the structure. Women are being blamed for rape by ‘exposing and flaunting’ their bodies in front of men.
This is a perfect environment for Islamic State philosophy and dogma to breed and fester, rekindling new visions for the Muslim youth of Malaysia.
The strengths of Islamic State lie at multiple levels. First there is the Caliphate, the first in many years, something that many Muslims aspire to. The Caliphate is about living a life within Islam, something extremely important to many Muslims. Then there is the political Islamic State which is repelling the evilness of the world away, which includes all the enemies of Islam. Then there is the Jihadist Islamic State which encapsulates both Islam and bloodthirstiness, a mixture that appeals to many marginalized people, unemployed, lacking self-esteem, and under achieving, become the targets of Islamic State social media.
Islamic State has both a utopian appeal to Muslims and a deranged Jihadist appeal to those who want to achieve martyrdom in a Holy war.
Islamic State’s messages through social media are powerful. They show starving children as victims of war, and the results of US drone strikes, which are designed to form outrage and anger within impressionable young people.
Islam in Malaysia no longer carries the moderation and tolerance it once was. This encourages serious consideration of the Islamic State message.
Malaysia has become institutionally hard-line as well.
This is reflected at an international level as well. Just recently two Israeli participants were banned from competing in an international sporting competition because they were Jews. Hate for the Jewish state Israel has been built up over the Palestinian issue for the last few years. Socially it has been considered a noble thing to go to Gaza and assist the situation by giving humanitarian assistance there. However Hamas is a group that still uses militancy to pursue its ends.
The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s trip to the Gaza strip in 2013 was denounced by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who said that it “enhances division and does not serve the Palestinian interests”.
The implicit support for Hamas, doesn’t seem any different to supporting Islamic State at the domestic audience level. Young Muslims had been led to believe through Malaysian Government actions and dogma that it is noble to fight for such causes.
So are there any solutions?
Unfortunately for non-Muslim liberals, the solution to the problem is not about advocating a moderate Islam. The remedy can only be seen through Muslim eyes. Non-Muslim concepts of progressive or moderate Islam will be seen as an attempt to ‘Christianize’ Islam, and fall on death ears. Such an approach may even encourage more sympathy for Islamic State. US President Barak Obama himself, with a Muslim father may be seen as an apostate, with no moral authority to talk about Islam.
Malay society needs to follow the expectations that Islam has created within the youth of the country. The authoritarian, feudalistic, corruption, gangsterism, and elite’s hypocrisy to Islam need to be eradicated from Malaysian society. This environment, where the youth are being grounded in Islam is turning them towards other alternatives. With a weak and unappealing opposition in Malaysia, many have become apathetic of politics and are looking for religious solutions.
There needs to be a national vision for a virtuous society based upon Tawhidic principles, something inclusive for all.
This has to happen for the youth of Malaysia to respect the government and institutions of the country, making the appeal of undertaking jihad to serve Islam less appealing, especially if there are duties of jihad at home to be undertaken.
This doesn’t need any reinterpretation of the Qur’an. The concept of a peaceful Islamic society already exists within the Qur’an and needs to come out without changing the meaning, only the methods. Lectures to school children and university students won’t work if respect for authority is not there. Instead the orthodox Islam that Malaysians are taking up, the message of Islam needs to be framed inward upon the self and then onto what type of society that Malaysians can create here at home.
This is the challenge to the Ulama of today to take up.
It would be easy to speculate here, that the situation should any terrorist acts occur, will lead to the activation of the National Security Council (NSC). This would greatly advantage Prime Minister Najib’s grip on power. False flag operations are a possibility here.
However the situation may be evidently more serious. Anymore overt repression by the government could open a “Pandora’s box” of jihad within Malaysia. These jihadist actions don’t need direction from the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. They will be domestically inspired and generated.
Until today, most terrorism within the South East Asian Region has been domestically generated, sometimes inspired by movements far away. From this point of view Islamic State is a big wake up call to Malaysia.
Turkey begins the return of ISIS fighters to Europe
Today, Turkey started sending ISIS fighters back to Europe, as it promised last week.
Europe needs to take responsibility for its ISIS fighters. US President Trump is right on that.
As Turkey’s minister of internal affairs said last week, Turkey is not a hotel for foreign terrorists. Europe’s jihadists are its own problem to deal with.
What is interesting however is that Turkey has been releasing ISIS fighters from the region that it held in custody. But not when it comes to European jihadists.
With this move, Turkey’s aim is to actually punish Europe. Erdogan is doing this out of spite because he knows that this is what Europeans fear the most. It is not Erdogan’s priority to try ISIS, as he has shown previously. To piss off the Europeans, yes, that’s a different story.
This recent development comes to remind us that Western Europe has a big problem to deal with. The evidence from conflict zones will not hold in European courts which means that authorities might have to let ISIS fighters that still have their citizenship walk free. That is a European nightmare.
This serves to remind French President Macron that France not Bosnia is the biggest jihadist force in Europe. Macron called Bosnia a jihadist ticking bomb in that unfortunate Economist interview but France is the real problem. No other European country has such a high number of jihadist fighters in the Middle East.
Today a Greek ISIS fighter whose citizenship had been stripped was not allowed in Greece upon return from Turkey. We will see that a lot in the coming weeks. The situation of no citizenship will create a legal question of statelessness which will make the return of ISIS fighters also a human rights question.
The Rise OF ISIS and its Aftermath in Afghanistan
“I will see you guys in Newyork”.Abu Du’a, the leader of ISIS, whose nom de guerre (war name) was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told his American captors as he was released from a brief detention during Iraq war. After American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Baghdadi joined the Arms Resistance against the U.S led coalition troops in Iraq but he was captured and detained in a US. – run Iraqi prison in 2006. Following al Baghdadi’s release in the late 2000s, he joined the predecessor to ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq(ISI). This group initially affiliated themselves with AL- Qaeda, but was later rejected by AL Qaeda due to their brutal acts and it became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). IN 2010, al Baghdadi became the leader of ISI and changed the name of the organization to Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013.
On 29 June 2014, ISIS declared the worldwide caliphate under the leadership of “caliph Ibrahim” with publishing a statement of supporting al Baghdadi’s designation as caliph. This concept of caliphate is mainly based on the universal religion and its ultimate goal is the establishment of Islamic state. This political idea of Islamic state is embodied in the concept of the ummah (community) which says that all the Muslims wherever they reside are bounded by a common faith which transcends all geographical, political or national boundaries.
Many other groups had pledged allegiance to ISIS like the Boko haram in Nigeria, the bait al Maqdis in Egypt, the Islamic movement in Uzbekistan, andthe previous leader of TTP Hafiz Saeed, also pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi in Oct, 2014 renaming themselves as the Islamic state of Khorasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. IS-K’s early membership included a contingent of Pakistani militants who emerged in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province around 2010, just across the border from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Many of these militants were estranged members of TTP and Lashkar-e Islam, who had fled from Pakistan to escape pressure from security forces.
ISK emerged in different provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan but outnumbered in the eastern province of Ningarhar, Achin district, due to some specific reasons. Achin district is one of the backward, underdeveloped and illiterate regions of Afghanistan which makes its population vulnerable to recruitment as new militants. Moreover, peopled welling in this district joined and supported this new group not only for their Islamic ideology but also for the high salaries of $500 paid by this organization.In the beginning of their journey in the region, ISK dealt people in a soft manner and always refrained from offensive language to encourage and inspire the people to join this militant group.
But with the passage of time, ISK changed its behavior and started the forceful imposition of sharia law. People were prevented from the cultivation of opium which was the main source of revenue for the locals of that region, seized drugs and sentenced drug addicted people, however, majority of their own militants were drug addicts and sold drugs seized from the locals to meet their own financial needs. They introduced numerous fabricated laws that were neither in conformity to national, Islamic nor in conformity with the locals laws. The militants of the group were indoctrinated to such an extent that they were willing to sacrifice everything for the interest of the group. One of their militants, involved in a robbery case, accepted his crime in front of the group’s judicial committee. As per the Islamic rules, anyone involved in the robbery would have their hands cut off. Therefore, When the militants were cutting hands, he was chanting ‘’Allah ho Akbar’’-Allah is the greatest.
Taliban and Afghan forces have attacked the Achin district many times but no one of them succeeded in retaking the district from ISK. This region was completely monopolized by this group and they ruled the people according to their own so called sharia law. People started displacement from the region towards Jalalabad, the provincial capital because they were unable to abide by these brutal laws and tolerate the atrocities. Following is a short story which a person told in anonymity about the excessive brutalities perpetrated by ISK in Achin.
“We all flocked outside after Friday prayer, according to announcement in sermon. They brought seven detainees belong to Emirates a Taliban group, Afghan national Army member and spies. All were covered with black ski masks. Meanwhile, an ISIS militant rode on a trained horse, having sharp sword in hands and reached to the spot. He decapitated all of them and shouted “Allah ho Akbar”. With the sound of Allah ho Akbar, we all scattered like flies in the air and no one knows what happened. But later on it was realized by people who delivered us to hospital that the place was targeted by a US drone. Many people were injured, and the ISIS militant who was beheading the prisoners was burned by drone attack. I still have the scene in my mind which has really affected me mentally and can’t take out those thuds of the sword from my mind when he was beheading those innocent people”.
Furthermore, they knelt innocent elders of the Shenwari nation belong to the same district on the bombs accused of in affiliation to the Taliban. A gruesome video also uploaded by them to the YouTube. These kind of brutal acts were the routine of everyday in Daesh or ISK controlled areas.
Afghan Commando assisted by US special forces have been fighting with the ISK in Achin for the last few years and have made significant progress contributing to the liberation of some villages but there are speculations that united states itself is assisting this militant group and supplying food and weapons to them through helicopters which has put the Afghans in doubt. US dropped the ” mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal formally known as GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast on 13 April 2017 on ISIS Khorasan cave complex in Achin district, Ningarhar. According to a statement from the United States military in Afghanistan, the bomb hit a tunnel complex but they didn’t say how many militants were killed or whether the bombing caused any civilian casualties. The fact is that it was only an experience of their conventional bomb which is clear from the following statement of the Ex-president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai:
“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”. This claim of Ex-president was further forged by the locals of Achin who stated that there was neither weapons depot nor any single ISIS fighter in the targeted region.
Currently Achin district has been cleared by Afghan Forces from this group but there are opportunities of their return to the region. Afghan Forces should show their strong presence, build the region and rehabilitate former militants. We are the veterans of many regions where US and Afghan forces have operated and lost hundreds of their soldiers for clearing the region but have left the region vulnerable to the insurgents return. Moreover, America should equip Afghan forces with sophisticated weapons to counter these threats. Afghan National Directorate can play a vital role in the dissolution of this group by infiltration of their own spies in disguise.
Moreover, in comparison to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have oil resources of about $2 billion and financed by different Arab states, this group is very much dependent on local revenues and neighboring state Pakistan. Pakistan may not be able to support two insurgent groups-Taliban and ISK-simultaneously for a single goal. And the so called jihad vacuum is also filled by Taliban which never want any rival jihadi group in Afghanistan.
Imprisoned ISIS Wives and Children Have Nowhere to Run To, Nowhere to Hide
The guards have said if the war comes close, then they will leave here,” a Western ISIS wife texted me today from Camp Roj in far northeastern Syria, a detention center that houses 500 ISIS wives and 1,200 of their children. “What to do if we are left alone?” she asks. “There’s nowhere to go and too risky to get caught by Bashar [al-Assad].”
As she writes, I’m in Belgium sitting next to an FBI agent. I ask him what she should do, but amid all of this chaos, he doesn’t have an immediate answer.
The ISIS wife continues: “I like how America thinks it’s too dangerous for them [the U.S. military] to be here but safe for us to remain with Assad.”
Over the past two years I’ve been in and out of the northeastern territory of Syria held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) six times with staff from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). We have conducted in-depth interviews with 217 ISIS men and women, 100 of them in SDF held territory, for our project countering the ISIS brand, which the SDF has supported fully.
The woman texting me today gave us an interview last year and has managed to stay in touch via illicit phones other detainees allow her to use.
At the same time she is texting me, our Kurdish translator texts that they are living under the sound of bombs and troops advancing. Assad’s troops are marching eastward, while Turkey is barreling in from the north. Which soldiers will reach Camp Roj first and what the women should do if the Kurdish YPJ-Women’s Protection Units guarding them decide it’s too dangerous to remain in place, is something the guards have told the inmates to think about.
The female inmates of Camp Ain Issa, farther west, faced a similar dilemma earlier in the week when the Turks began shelling. Until Sunday, Ain Issa Camp housed a total of 12,000 women and children, but according to one Belgian woman, it descended into “complete chaos” as fires broke out, the guards left, and the women escaped in the hundreds.
Among the women housed there, 265 were wives of foreigner terrorist fighters, alongside 1,000 of their children. On the second day of the Turkish air assault, Belgian ISIS wives Bouchra Abouallal and Tatiana Wielandt decided it was better to go on the run with their small children than remain in place to learn what next disaster might befall them.
We interviewed Bouchra Abouallal in September 2019. Completely exhausted from her experience with ISIS, she said that life inside the Caliphate was “the best possible deradicalization program ever.” Already prosecuted in absentia and facing a five-year sentence in her home country of Belgium, she told ICSVE researchers she would prefer to return home even to serve a 20-year sentence rather than remain in the camp under the menace of the cruel ISIS-inmate enforcers who threatened all European women who no longer wanted anything to do with the ISIS Caliphate.
Now Bouchra Abouallal is on the run with her three small children. In audio messages punctuated in the background by shelling she told a Belgian journalist that she was headed toward the front lines in hopes she could make it to safety in Turkey, where she wishes to turn herself into the Belgian consulate and make her way home.
While European officials here in Brussels have stated that Turkey agrees to help any escaped ISIS cadres that end in their hands to be returned to their homelands, up until recently, Belgium was refusing to let her come back. Instead of seeing her as someone victimized by the Islamic State’s propaganda and lies, and fooled by the “Shariah for Belgium” group that had radicalized many in her native city of Antwerp, Belgian politicians see her as a threat.
But it is not difficult for Belgian authorities to turn past posts on her social media accounts against her.
“Your system has failed oh Belgian state,” Bouchra’s Facebook page read after she slipped out of Belgium to go live under the Islamic State. Referring to the way the Belgian police had hassled her upon her first return home from Syria, her posts taunted them, saying “You were watching us 24/7 and you still haven’t managed to stop us. Why? Because Allah is the best planner (…)” Her threats continued with, “We have left because we believe that it is a duty for every Muslim. To the policeman who threatened to take our children away, I can say that my children will turn yours into orphans, with the will of Allah.”
Bouchra claims that it wasn’t she, but one of her ISIS husbands, who authored these hate-filled posts. She says he used to lock her up at home and post on her Facebook page without her permission. Indeed, when we interviewed Bouchra in September she spoke gently as she denounced ISIS, giving us permission to use both her image and her name in a counter narrative video—this, while knowing the ISIS enforcers in the camp would likely punish her for it.
The woman texting me today from Camp Roj does so fearing that if it becomes known it was her texting she will be punished by her YPJ guards. Yet pure terror drives her to try to stay connected with the outside world as she makes wrenching decisions for herself and her young child.
Americans are also in this camp. We have interviewed two American passport holders—Canadian dual-citizen Kimberly Pullman and disputed American citizen Hoda Muthana.
When I ask today’s texter about Americans in the camps, she tells me there are five in all, two more in Camp Roj and another in Camp Hol. She states that there are also two American children in Camp Roj. We’ve met one of them, Adam, the two-year-old son of Hoda Muthana. Both times we interviewed his mother, Adam was struggling with chronic bronchitis. Today the woman texting me from Camp Roj tells me that the air is thick with fumes from the bombings, which is causing many of the children to have breathing difficulties.
“Going to jail right now won’t be great,” this woman writes as she imagines her future in the West—if she can ever manage to get home. Then she envisions another future: “I could get lost among all of this trouble.” Then again she realizes that fleeing the camp, if her guards do abandon their posts, might also prove disastrous.
“Please let the governments know that we are not happy with the escape of the women [who have left the camps]. We are actually scared and want to just be safe in our own embassies,” she texts. “We don’t want to keep running away. We want to be tried. I’ve already had the chance to run away before and I decided to be tried in my own country.”
Now the pressing question, amid all of this chaos unleashed by Trump greenlighting the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria: Is anyone going to do anything to get these former ISIS wives and their children back home where they can face justice and live in safety or do we just leave them to face whatever fate turns up as hostile armies converge?
Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast
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