Is Malaysia a world leader in the deradicalisation of Islamist miltants?

Malaysia claims great success in deradicalisation and is offering its expertise to other nations. But questions remain over the scope of the programme’s achievements and the legislation that underpins it

Daniel Besant
January 14, 2016
Is Malaysia a world leader in the deradicalisation of Islamist miltants?
Poster boy: a protester during a rally in front of the Petronas Twin Towers, the venue of the 27th Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AP

In the wake of November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, the threat of Islamic State (Isis)-inspired attacks in the region has hardly left the headlines, not least in Malaysia.

Fifty thousand Malaysians support Isis, claimed Liow Tiong Lai, the country’s transport chief and head of the Malaysian Chinese Association – a key component of the ruling Barisan National coalition – at a security conference in Kuala Lumpur on December 12. “If only 1% of these sympathisers turn radical, and if they attack any part of Malaysia, we will be in trouble,” the minister said in a speech widely reported by the nation’s news outlets.

According to police figures, about 100 Malaysians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight. And in November, 2,000 police were deployed in Kuala Lumpur’s city centre after intelligence reports indicated that ten suicide bombers were at large and planning to attack an Asean conference, a threat that failed to materialise.

Although Malaysia has, in recent decades, been spared carnage on the scale of Indonesia’s Bali bombings or the protracted insurgencies by Muslims seeking autonomy in the Philippines, Paris-style attacks are a threat, according to the government. “I think the Paris situation can also be transplanted here, in Southeast Asia, where we also have fertile ground for recruitment of such operatives who will receive directives from Syria to carry out attacks,” Nur Jazlan Mohamed, the country’s deputy home minister, told Reuters in November.

And last month, in a speech launching the Islamic State Seminar: Jihad vs Militancy in Kuala Lumpur, Mohamed announced that 24 local deradicalisation and counter-terrorism experts had been appointed to help address radicalism and militancy nationally and overseas. He went on to say that, as suggested by the seminar’s title, jihad doesn’t necessarily involve militancy and that Malaysians should concentrate on “knowledge, religion, economics, Islamic laws and morals that could elevate the contributions of Muslims in the eyes of the world”.

In September, the country joined the US-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (an alternative acronym for Isis), mostly in a counter-messaging role exposing the extremists’ messages of violence and hate and presenting an alternative, inclusive path. Since 2010, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, has been touting the Global Movement of Moderates, an initiative aiming to bring together Muslim scholars and experts from around the world in order “to define what an actual Islamic State should look like based on centuries of Islamic thought, emphasising principles such as justice, compassion and humility”, the Diplomat reported.

Over the years, Malaysia has claimed great achievements with its decades-old deradicalisation programme. Most recently, in October, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi claimed that “our success rate is 95%”.

While that figure is unverifiable, Malaysia does appear to have built upon and modified its experience in designing rehabilitation programmes in order to respond to the current generation of Islamist militants, said Kumar Ramakrishna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“There is a continual exchange of ideas on deradicalisation and rehabilitation both within and outside government with neighbouring Southeast Asian countries as well as with partners further afield,” he said.

This month Kuala Lumpur plays host to the International Conference on Deradicalisation and Countering Violent Extremism. Western nations have been closely watching Malaysia’s efforts and, in December, Hamidi said that experts from the Royal Malaysian Police, Prisons Department and the Malaysia Islamic Development Department would be travelling to Australia to conduct training sessions on their methods.

This followed a trip by Michael Keenan, Australia’s justice minister, to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines to meet counterparts there and discuss counter-terrorism.

Relationships with traditional and non-traditional allies are more important than ever because terrorism – particularly the movement of foreign fighters – is a threat to us all.

Statement from Michael Keenan

Malaysia’s deradicalisation programme has roots in the country’s fight against a communist insurgency from the late 1940s until 1960. Following revisions of its Internal Security Act in 1960 in order to prevent future insurgencies, Malaysia introduced extrajudicial powers to hold potential security offenders for 60 days without trial and issue renewable two-year detention orders to those prisoners it decided not to release. In parallel with this, a deradicalisation programme was initiated with the aim of countering the political leanings of captured terrorists through counselling sessions and by offering support to their families, thereby lessening their sense of marginalisation.

ISIS, Islamist, Malaysia
On guard: members of the military and police patrol outside the venue for the 27th Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur in November. A police memo leaked before the event warned of ten suicide bombers planning to attack the gathering. Photo: AP

In a 2013 paper entitled Rehabilitating Islamist Extremists: Successful Methods in Prison-Centred ‘Deradicalisation’ Programmes, Marc Jones from the University of Leeds in England outlines the four-point programme used by Malaysia. Firstly, detainees are offered daily religious classes providing Islamic studies. Then comes a rehabilitation component that focuses on individuals who have responded well to the first phase and expressed a desire to give up militancy. In this part, prisoners attend an intensive course “built around discussion and debate with Islamic clerics” in small groups of five to seven people. Thirdly, there is an evaluation and monitoring programme, run by the police, “who conduct continuous checks in order to assess whether the programme is being conducted correctly”. In conjunction with this, the Malaysia Islamic Development Department holds twice-yearly evaluations of participants who have been released. And lastly, the spouses of detainees are engaged by officials and clerics in order to discuss the difficulties they face while their partner is detained.

Post-release, former detainees are given financial assistance, so they do not rely on handouts from Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian militant Islamist group that is most active in Malaysia. And they are paid a basic salary by the state to help their transition. Crucially, police closely monitor anyone who leaves the programme.

The Internal Security Act, under which those deemed a threat to security could be detained indefinitely, was repealed in 2012 but, since then, equally draconian legislation has been brought in under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and the government now has even wider-ranging security powers following last month’s National Security Council Bill. The POTA reintroduced preventive detention for suspected terrorist offenders without trial for up to 59 days. Under POTA, instead of judicial review, two-year extensions or termination of detentions of individuals will be decided by a Prevention of Terrorism Board.

According to Ramakrishna, Malaysia’s rehabilitation and deradicalisation processes are tried and tested and “generally fine”. But, when asked about the claimed 95% success rate, it was “hard to say” if it was true as “information is hard to get”. Southeast Asia Globe contacted both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Malaysia Islamic Development Department for interview and clarification on the 95% figure, but received no response.

Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and security issues at the National War College in Washington DC, said that programmes such as Malaysia’s can work, but he is suspicious of claims of great success.

I completely reject Malaysia’s assertion of a 95% success rate.

Zachary Abuza

“Remember, anyone who goes through their programme is detained indefinitely under [security legislation]. Thus the programme is the only chance people have to get released,” Abuza said.

For Abuza, ‘deradicalistion’ is the wrong word to describe the programme. “Disengagement” would be his choice. “Most people who go through these programmes are still quite radical in their beliefs,” he said. “They’re not going to come over to join you for a [Jewish] Passover Seder.”

While Singapore follows a programme similar to Malaysia’s, Indonesia has a detainee-based initiative that does not rely on legal coercion, although this is not funded by the state on the same scale as the other two. Under this system, Indonesia’s recidivism rate is estimated at 15-20%, but Abuza has more confidence in it because as “all those in prison are serving sentences, they’ll be released regardless of whether they go through the programme”.

Furthermore, under Malaysia’s strong security laws, the same legislation used on Islamist militants is applied to detain and dissuade apostates and Shia Muslims, with Sunni Islam being the official religion of the Malaysian federation, despite freedom of religion being enshrined in the constitution. It is a system “terribly abused” by the government, said Abuza.

Meanwhile, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch points to the fact that the ISA was previously used “to intimidate and silence political activists raising questions the government doesn’t want to answer” and that the government has granted itself these powers again through the POTA.

Although Western nations such as Australia may be looking to learn from Malaysia’s experience in deradicalisation, many are at a distinct disadvantage: they are not Muslim nations. “Remember, Malaysia has an increasingly Islamist society, and part of their success is that they can point to the fact that they have a shared destination,  but differ on the speed to get there. Australia doesn’t have that,” said Abuza.

“There are signs that Isis ideology is making inroads in Malaysia, including in problematic sectors such as the armed forces,”

Kumar Ramakrishna

Underlining this, in recent months, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been drawing the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) ever closer, courting their support as he scrambles to retain power while under pressure from the fallout of financial scandals and widespread dissatisfaction with the government. The PAS advocates the application of sharia law and the introduction of an Islamic state, and has a strong power base in northern Malaysia. It may be that the shared Islamic destination could be reached sooner than previously thought.

Whatever the successes of the deradicalisation programme Ramakrishna notes that, lately, more funds are being put into counter-messaging programmes, something he supports and believes are fundamental tools.

This trend (of Isis ideology) needs stemming. To this end, making use of returning Malaysians disillusioned with life in Isis territory in Syria needs further exploration as a potential counter-messaging and counter-radicalisation tool.” 

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