7 July 2016, After multiple attempts, ISIS finally carries out attack in Malaysia

ISIS was finally able to carry out a successful attack in Malaysia on 28 June 2016. At 2:15 am, two ISIS agents threw a grenade at the Movida Kitchen+Terrace @ Changkat in Kuala Lumpur, injuring eight people who were on the front porch of the establishment. At the time, there were about 20 people in the club watching the Euro 2016 football (soccer) match between Spain and Italy, reports The Star in Malaysia.

Authorities initially blamed the attack on organized crime or street gangs, which are not uncommon in Malaysia, but by 4 July, the government’s investigation had revealed that the culprit was indeed ISIS.

Specifically, it said Muhammad Wanndy bin Mohamed Jedi, a Malaysian member of ISIS operating in Syria, had ordered on 21 June his supporters to attack “non-Islamic” bars, nightclubs and other like venues plus senior officials in government, the police, and judges. His message also said: “With His permission and His assistance, we will come to you with a military force that you cannot overcome.”

Jedi is said to have claimed responsibility for the attack on Facebook. After authorities publically named him, however, Jedi denied his involvement, reports Channel News Asia.

Additionally, reports The Star, one Abu Hamzah al-Fateh posted on Facebook: “Two soldiers of the caliphate in Malaysia have launched the first attack in the heart of the country, which is Kuala Lumpur, by targeting a nightclub filled with infidels using a grenade.” The “caliphate” terminology is yet a second indication that the responsible party was ISIS.

Police have since arrested over 15 suspects in connection with the plot, all members of ISIS, they say. Two of the arrested are police officers. They cast a dragnet for the two grenade-throwers, 28-year-old Md Saifuddin Muji, and 33-year-old Jasanizam Rosni.

This is not Malaysia’s first tussle with ISIS. Police have arrested over 150 ISIS suspects there in the last 24 months. Many of the arrested belonged to cells that had already reconnoitered their targets and gathered bomb-making materials. Those arrested have included active and former government personnel, businessmen, and housewives.

The Straits Times reported that, as of 12 January 2016, 17 Malaysians had died fighting for ISIS in Syria, and four of them had been suicide bombers. At least 100 Malaysians have traveled overseas to fight for ISIS. Combined, say police, all these issues translate to a direct ISIS threat to the Malaysian homeland. In fact, in November 2015, a leaked police memo said that there were 18 suicide bombers at large throughout the country. So far, that threat has been contained.

There are five main takeaways here. First, for the past two years, Malaysian security services have done a masterful job at preventing ISIS attacks on the homeland. The Straits Times cited Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar as saying, “the police had their own strategy of checking and countering the movement,” indicating that the government has had some kind of counter-ISIS program in action for some time, the activities of which remain classified.

Whatever the program, it’s been so effective that ISIS could only muster up a mere two people armed with a single grenade for its debut attack in Malaysia (though it was heinous, and casualties could have been much worse.) ISIS’ past plans were much more ambitious, including a takeover of federal buildings in attempts to overthrow the government, and the bombing a major Carlsberg beer plant.

Second, while this attack was small, it nevertheless demonstrated that ISIS in Malaysia is methodical, relentless, and flexible. When ISIS’ past Malaysia operations failed, it tried again. And when it failed again, it tried yet again. And again. It took ISIS about two years to successfully stage an attack in Malaysia, but it finally did. When its targeting and tactical ambitions seemed to big, it downsized and simplified, choosing one of the most basic terror attack scenarios possible: a grenade in a bar. Such determination indicates that ISIS will continue to plan attacks in Malaysia, and despite the ruthless efficiency of the Malaysian authorities, some might be successful.

As an aside, the scale of future attacks remains to be seen. Small attacks such as the Movida club scenario are certainly possible, and there is no indication that ISIS in Malaysia has dropped its more grandiose targeting regimen. Large and/or dramatic attacks, then, cannot be ruled out.

Third, the fact that ISIS has infiltrated the Malaysian police force along with other parts of society indicates a widespread movement with strong appeal. Because of this fact, Malaysian security forces will not only have to continue to adapt and track the threat at all levels of society, it will also have to monitor the government, the military, and the police for infiltrators. This will require sophisticated “mole hunts” and smart internal affairs investigations. This, in turn, will tax the resources of the intelligence services, and they will have to innovate to keep the threat in check.

Fourth, going forward, the Malaysian government will have to increase the breadth and tempo of its counter Islamist jihadist political warfare program. It set up this program in January 2016 with U.S. government help, mimicking one established in the UAE called Sawab, (“Right Path.”) The Malaysian program is called the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Center (RDC3,) reports The Diplomat.

Countering Islamist jihadist politico-religious warfare is not unfamiliar territory for Kuala Lumpur. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it had to process a long running, counter Islamist campaign against Nik Aziz and his Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS.) In the process, former PM Dr. Mahathir Mohamed personally oversaw the monitoring of radical mosques, and he jailed firebrand Imams accused of inciting violence. The government moreover successfully kept the terror group Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia at bay, in part due to reducing its Islamist messaging.

Despite these decisive successes, Malaysia still has pockets of society that remain more than sympathetic to Islamist causes, and even the government has a Wahhabi style police force that enforces strict sharia law in certain circumstances. These pockets will tend more toward the ISIS mindset, which will prolong the ISIS threat. Moving forward, then, the government will have to designate the difference between its ultra-conservatives that are pro-government and its Islamist jihadists that are anti-government, which is no easy task.

Fifth, Malaysia will need to coordinate its security and counter political warfare operations with its neighbors who also have ISIS problems. ISIS has been confirmed in Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia. ISIS attacked Indonesia in a raid on 14 January 2016 and again on 5 July 2016. Without such counterterror coordination, ISIS agents will be able to move, communicate, plan, gather logistics, and execute operations more easily. A regional, counter-ISIS task force is the most efficient way forward here, but getting politically fractured ASEAN to do this in an effective way without outside leadership is a difficult proposition.

Because ISIS is active in several Southeast Asian countries, and because there are Islamist jihadist insurgencies in theater that ISIS is seeking to coopt, the group can gain more regional traction if Malaysia does not increase its anti-ISIS efforts. Additionally, because ISIS is always looking for an opportunity to strike, and because Malaysian security forces have been positively identified as being part of the ISIS movement, small scale and/or spectacular attacks in Malaysia and the region cannot be ruled out.

Sources and further reading:

Malaysia arrests more ISIS suspects in hunt for Puchong grenade attackers,” The Straits Times, 8 July 2016.

Man reportedly behind Malaysia’s first IS-linked attack denies allegation,” Channel News Asia, 7 July 2016.

Local IS fighter claims Movida bombing is ‘first attack on Malaysian soil’,” The Star, 4 July 2016.

Nightclub blast in Puchong linked to IS: Malaysian police chief,” Channel News Asia, 4 July 2016.

Eight injured in Puchong bomb explosion,” The Star, 28 June 2016.

US, Malaysia to Set Up New Center to Counter Islamic State by End of 2015,” The Diplomat, 22 October 2016.

Copyright Muir Analytics 2016

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