By Hata Wahari, Fadzil Aziz and Hadi Azmi
Suspected foreign terrorists should be deported to their home nations rather than sent back to the country they just left, Malaysia’s counter-terrorist police chief said Friday on the sidelines of a an international conference here.
Separately, the director of Malaysia’s prison system told BenarNews at the same meeting that 135 militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) were taking part in a state-run deradicalization process, but only nine have nearly completed phase three of the four-phase program. It was implemented under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in September 2015.
Under current international law, a person can be deported to the last point of flight embarkation, said Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, chief of the national police’s counter-terrorist special branch. Several countries had allowed suspects to choose where they wanted to be sent and many chose Malaysia because of its easy visa rules.
“From 2014 to 2017, nearly 50 suspected foreign terrorists have entered Malaysia. We have arrested and deported about 30 of them,” Ayob told reporters on the sidelines of the Putrajaya International Security Dialogue 2018, a meeting in Malaysia’s administrative capital attended by about 1,000 representatives and experts from 20 countries.
“We are still tracking the others and some may have left the country,” he said.
Ayob did not specify the nationalities of the suspects.
“If the country that deported them – who I cannot name – had instead informed us, the police could have detected them,” Ayob said, adding that such information could have helped counter-terrorism officials arrest and deport the militants.
The two-day international conference, which runs through Saturday, is focusing on how nations can pool their experience of “wisdom and moderation in countering terrorism.”
Malaysia’s Home Ministry and Rabitah Al-Alam Al-Islami (the Muslim World League), a Saudi Arabia-based think-tank, co-organized the event, which runs through Saturday. The 18 other countries participating at the conference include Indonesia, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Australia, France and Britain.
Part of Friday’s conference program focused on the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island. Suspected militants, including many allegedly linked to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), have been arrested in the coastal town of Sandakan, home to ferry services to the southern Philippines.
Sabah has long served as a transit route for foreign militants, including from neighboring Indonesia, Ayob said.
“If they don’t transit from Sabah, they can go to southern Philippines directly from their home country. But it’s a long journey over the Sulawesi Sea,” he said. “So it is much easier to transit from Sabah.”
Yusoph Roque Morales, a member of the Philippines National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, said many foreign militants, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia, had made the southern Philippines their base.
“Normally they have support from the locals. They give the foreigners a place to stay, [and] food, and the local communities accept them,” Morales told the conference. “Malaysians and Indonesians have similarities in terms of culture, food, and communities – and most of them have common social relations like a sultan [community leader] – so that is why Muslim communities in southern Philippines accept Malaysians and Indonesians with open hearts.”
Because they are welcome, some remain and join IS or ASG, he said. Yusoph did not give a specific number, but said thousands of Malaysians and Indonesians had settled in the southern Philippines.
Meanwhile, a Malaysian minister called on other countries to emulate Malaysia’s “soft approach” in countering extremism.
“It should be tackled in a balanced way from all sorts of angles including education and economic. In this regard, Malaysia has been a leading country when it comes to dealing with such issues compared to other countries, which are facing problems such as starvation and deprivation of education, which then leads people to extremism,” said Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Islamic affairs.
Terrorists in Malaysia
Over the last four years, Malaysian authorities arrested 369 people for suspected links to terror groups, according to government statistics compiled by BenarNews.
In October, Ayob told reporters that 70 foreign fighters had been detained by Malaysian officials since 2013. Nine were suspected ASG members thought to have been in contact with Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant considered the IS recruiter in Southeast Asia.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte had declared that Mahmud was among militants killed in the southern city of Marawi during a five-month battle that left more than 1,100 people dead, including more than 900 militants.
Ayob said counter-terrorism officials are monitoring efforts in the Philippines to attract militants. “The recruitment of foreign fighters to the southern Philippines is not over yet,” he said Friday.
Malaysia, home to about 32 million people including 19.5 million Muslims, has foiled at least nine IS-related bomb plots since 2013, according to officials. Those foiled plots included one that targeted the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur in August 2017, police said.
But militants were successful in June 2016, when an IS-linked grenade attack injured eight people at a nightclub in Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur.
Prison Director-Gen. Zulkefli Omar said nine of the 135 people detained under POTA nearly two years ago were to be evaluated by the end January to determine if they could be placed in the final phase of the deradicalization program and reintegrated into the community.
“Currently, this militant deradicalization program has not yet been successful because the process is very long and requires evaluation by POTA evaluation committee members,” Zulkefli told BenarNews.
Carried out by government agencies under the Home Ministry – namely the Prisons Department, Royal Malaysia Police and the Malaysia Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) – the program consists of four phases.
Phase one, which covers the first six months, is overseen by the Prisons Department and focuses on orientation; phase two, which runs through month 12, involves de-radicalization activities broken down into three sections by the Prison Department, Home Ministry, Jakim and the police.
Phase three, which runs from month 13 to 20, concentrates on personality reinforcement and self-development; the final phase focuses on reintegrating detainees into society.
Zulkifli said none of the 135 detainees were in the fourth phase, but nine had nearly completed the third phase.
“I can’t reveal the identity of the nine detainees, but they are Malaysians and among those are Malaysians who were headed to Syria and students,” he told BenarNews on Friday.
However, Ayob, the chief of Malaysia’s counter-terrorist special branch, suggested that the two-year program is not long enough to reform people who are placed into it.
“In my opinion, the POTA program is too short and requires very strong evidence to allow those involved in militancy to be detained for a period of two years. But if there is no evidence, the longest a suspect can be detained is only for a month and has to be released,” he told BenarNews. “Police constantly monitor them so they would not be involved again in militant activities.”