The rise of Malaysian jihadis is a worry for the nation's moderate Muslim leaders.  Photo: Reuters
The rise of Malaysian jihadis is a worry for the nation's moderate Muslim leaders. Photo: Reuters

Until recently, Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi was a relatively unknown name in the jihadi community of Syria. A 26-year-old from a small village in the district of Malacca on the southwest of the Malayan Peninsula, he arrived in Syria on 26 January 2016, officially recruited into the jihadi community through Facebook.

The Islamic State seemed perfect for his ambitions, as it had no strict preconditions for new recruits — no previous battlefield experience, no theological credentials, only a determination to serve the cause and an oath of commitment to its self-proclaimed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The Malaysian recruit fit all of the above, but was placed under routine probation, common for foreigners who join the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, where they are tested for discipline, will, courage and behavior.

Restrictions were placed on Jedi from the start; he was not allowed to roam about freely. Such rules didn’t apply to battle-hardened warriors from previous frontiers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Chechnya and Algeria. Those fighters came with lots of experience and knowledge, fully aware of who they were joining, who they were fighting.

That wasn’t the case with Jedi, or any of the 11 Malaysian jihadis who had gone to Syria before him. All of them were kids when 9-11 happened and none had ever met any of the historical figures of al-Qaeda, like Osama Bin Laden.

Inexperienced in warfare, and having never carried a gun, they were put to work as medics, bodyguards, and interpreters. All signed up for Arabic lessons, picking up the language from scratch. They trained with explosives, practiced marksmanship, and learnt to slit throats.

Many died while learning the jihadi craft — they were poor fighters and easy targets. Unlike Syrian jihadis who knew the terrain by heart, they were navigating an alien landscape.

The Malays in ISIS were not always treated well by their Arab comrades, who saw them as “imported helpers,” not as committed to the cause of bringing down the Damascus regime as the Syrian jihadis.

Some have been ripped off, charged astronomical sums for items that cost a fraction of what they had to pay in hard currency. Others were mocked by the Arabs with sarcastic and derogatory jokes.

Local fighters were resentful of the foreigners, who were better paid and better housed, on the orders of al-Baghdadi. Foreign fighters got to live in cities where airstrikes were rare because of the high civilian population, while locals were housed in the al-Raqqa countryside, getting bombed day and night by Syrian, Russian and American warplanes.

An Iraqi special forces soldier gestures after an Islamic State suicide car bomb attack at Iraqi special forces soldiers during clashes in Mosul. Photo: Reuters

Jedi was supposed to serve four months of probation — he passed it in three weeks, and was quickly promoted and allowed to appear in an online video in February 2016, beheading a Syrian man.

He was given a nom de guerre: Abu Hamzah al-Fateh. Four months later, he appeared in another video, decorated with ISIS iconography, encouraging other Malaysians to join ISIS and to strike at Malaysian’s ethnic Christian minority.

That summer, from his hideout in the countryside outside Aleppo, Abu Hamzah al-Fateh is said to have ordered an assault on a nightclub in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Eight people were injured after a grenade was thrown on June 28, 2016, into the Cuban-themed bar during the screening of a soccer match, in the first successful attack by ISIS in the country. Police say at least 10 ISIS-related attacks have been foiled in the country since al-Baghdadi created his caliphate in 2014.

Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered a massive crackdown on ISIS sympathizers within Malaysia, sweeping up over 240 people (30 of them foreigners), including students, businessmen, policemen, and members of the Malaysian Royal Air Force. Two policemen were arrested after bar explosion, one for sympathizing with ISIS, the other for bankrolling its underground cells in Malaysia.

Last April, 70 army personnel were arrested on charges of affiliation to ISIS, according to Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Bakri, and the passports of 68 Malaysians were revoked, on charges of joining ISIS in Syria. In 2015, one Malay named Murad Halimmuddin Hasan was detained on charges of training with ISIS in Syria.

According to Iraqi intelligence reports, 105 Malaysians have traveled to Syria, answering a call by Abu Hamzah al-Fateh, since early 2016. If so, he was well on the way to delivering on the promise that within a year he could recruit hundreds of Malaysian jihadis. Twenty-one of them were killed on the Syrian battlefield and none have returned to Malaysia, at least not yet.

If they do, this could spell serious problems for a country where 61% of the population, or about 19.5 million people, are Sunni.

Although secular by constitution, pockets of extremism have begun to appear in the country, where alcohol is banned, women are forced to wear the headscarf, religious lessons are common, and clerics are left unchecked in what they teach at their mosques and in their sermons.

Creeping extremism: A supporter attends a rally demanding the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code in Kuala Lumpur on February 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters

The biggest and strongest political party, the United Malays National Organization, retains a stranglehold on power, having produced all six of independent Malaysia’s prime ministers. While promoting strong Malaysian nationalism, UMNO also aspires to uphold, defend, and expand Islam across Malaysia. It currently is positioning itself as the vanguard of modern Islam, promising to crush ISIS if it strikes again.

But if the Malaysian government decides to get more actively involved in the global war on terror, terror might coming knocking on its door — and faster than the authorities today can imagine.

The only reason they have been relatively sheltered from more terrorist infiltration is that when it came to the Syria war, Kuala Lumpur has managed to stay remarkably neutral since 2011. That could quickly change, however, with deadly consequences for Malaysia.

Sami Moubayed is a historian and the author of Under the Black Flag, an investigation into ISIS and its operations. 

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