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Is ISIS a Threat to Malaysia? [UPDATED!]

[Updated 08/28/14 – all updates in blue]

Sooooo… wow, this one’s a pretty heavy topic – and an overlooked one too. With all the focus on Israel and Palestine, we think that Malaysians may not be paying enough attention on the ISIS crisis.


Okay, we totally trademarked the term “crISIS.” Just sayin’.

Anyway, we’ve been seeing some pretty disturbing images on the Facebooks such as the child of an Australian Jihadist in Syria holding a decapitated head and numerous executions of non-Sunni Muslims and ethnic tribes carried out by ISIS. We’re not going to link these, so you’ll have to have to search for these photos yourselves.

After the news of an arrest of ISIS-inspired extremists plotting to blow up a number of Malaysian locations we thought that it might carry some implications for us as Malaysians, so we googled it.

isis malaysia   Google Search

As it turns out, “ISIS Malaysia” isn’t the proper search term cause Google will end up giving you a bunch of links to the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

Yea, this is probably the worst opening paragraph ever.


So what exactly is ISIS? (Psst. It’s actually its own state)

ISIS, or the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” is a jihadist group which started sometime around 2004 as “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad” (JTJ) (Note: Some of these acronyms won’t make sense cause they’re based off the original Arabic names).

They soon became affiliated with al-Qaeda and was given the unofficial name of “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI) because their chosen name was, presumably, too long to type – “The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of Two Rivers.”

The group changed their name to “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant(ISIL) or as mentioned above, al-Sham when they expanded their operations into Syria. This year, they’re going with “Islamic State” (IS). We’re still going to refer to them as ISIS la easier.

In June, ISIS officially upgraded it self to a STATE (whoah), with its current leader/man-of-mystery Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, becoming the defacto leader or ‘caliph’. Here’s the English translation of the announcement posted on their twitter account.


Photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Credit: NBC News

Amazingly, what this symbolizes is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is (in this sense) the successor to the Prophet Muhammad and has religious authority over all Muslims. ISIS has already placed demands for all Jihadi groups in the region including Al-Qaeda to pledge their allegiance to the new caliphate (a fancy word for Islamic state).


They’re so extreme even al-Qaeda couldn’t handle it

Al-Qaeda disowned them for being too extreme and hard to work with after infighting between ISIS and another al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, officially stating that ISIS

“…is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group  . . .  [al-Qaeda] does not have an organizational relationship with it and … is not the group responsible for their actions”

Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate mentioned above has even teamed up with more moderate rebels to retaliate against ISIS’s brutality against the Syrians.

The Al-Qaeda – ISIS shift of influence is also interesting, but probably too long to cover in this article. You can read up about it here:

How ISIS compares to other groups

ISIS: A Potrait of the Menace Sweeping my Homeland

The Rise of ISIS 

The Rise of ISIS (II)


So why is ISIS targeting Malaysia?

Again, ISIS’s main goal is to unite all Muslims under their brand of Islam. Like, ALL. ISIS has been recruiting from all countries, with a growing presence in Europe. They have been posting videos of their banners alongside landmarks in various European countries and courting European girls as “Jihad brides.”

In southeast Asia, at least 200 Indonesians have gone off to Syria to fight for ISIS and other groups, prompting the Indonesian government to impose a ban on their teachings.  Similarly, Singapore has detained citizens attempting to travel to Syria, although in contrast, Phillipino Philippino Pinoy Jihadist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf have pledged support to ISIS.

On our side, “no fewer” than 30 Malaysians have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, and there are more who are fighting for other Jihadi groups as well. 15 were reported killed as of June. Many of these are active in social media, posting photos and interacting with people from home and fielding questions on Facebook and Twitter. Some are even notable personalities such as ex-PAS Dewan Ulama member and Youth Information Chief Ustaz Lofti Ariffin who also joined the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Russians. Here’s an interview with him in BM. Another notable personality is 90’s music group drummer Ali Ukay of…well, Ukays.

Here are some YouTube uploads from Malaysian militants:

In June, Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki was honored in ISIS’s official website as the first Malaysian suicide bomber in Iraq, killing 25 Iraqi soldiers and paving the way for an ISIS attack on Iraq’s SWAT headquarters.


Malaysian authorities have also reported of three Malaysian women who travelled to Syria to participate in “sexual Jihad” or Jihad al-Nikah, where they provided sexual comfort to fighters. 

Authorities have also placed the number of Malaysians in the region as “up to 50” 


Malaysians can fly to Iraq!?

Malaysian militants would often take indirect routes to their destination, with one account of five of them flying to Turkey before walking into Syria. Many would often come back to visit, recruit, train, or are simply “part-time Jihadis” who would only be engaged in missions. An official at Bukit Aman has stated:

“We cannot stop them from flying out, and when they come back after completing their mission, they cannot be arrested. There is no law for that.”

And yeah, “part-time Jihadis” are a thing because some groups provide salaries- ISIS pays US$250 a month.

However, another source within Bukit Aman has mentioned that they have identified Malaysian militants in Syria, and are keeping close tabs on websites and social media used for recruitment. This is in light of confessions and interviews in which many fighters claim to have received training in Malaysia. We think that the constant Youtube video uploads and updates to Facebook and Twitter may have helped in identifying them.


What? These people have internet???

If you’re thinking that Jihadi groups still do the Osama bin Laden grainy-VHS tape-in-the-cave thing, I’m sorry to tell you that the world has changed, my friend.

We walked upstream along Penang's Prangin 'river'. Here's what we found

Just as how campaigns such as the Ice Bucket Challenge are a success story in viral marketing to raise funds and awareness for Lou Gehrig’s disease, militant groups are also employing these marketing practices. ISIS is particularly noted as being masters of this approach. They have been gaming Twitter, creating Hollywood-style propaganda films which we can’t post here for gore reasons, but search “Clanging of the Swords IV” if you want to; memes, selfiesAndroid phone apps, and cats (Their owners are called “Mewjahids.”)


Selfies. Image from

An Isis propaganda photograph.

Meme. Image from


Screenshot from Twitter @ISILcats

One notable Twitter user is “Abdullah,” known by his Twitter handle @mujahid4life. He gained a fair bit of virality two weeks ago when he and some other militants discussed their love for Jumanji after the death of Robin Williams. This eventually escalated to a long discussion about movies with other Twitter users. It was unexpected, humorous, and humanizing. Here are some screenshots.

Twit 2


Isis twit 1

But just yesterday, he posted screencaps from the execution video of kidnapped American journalist James Foley. With hashtags. Here’s a transcript of Foley’s last words.


Despite what you, us, or anyone else might think about these videos and photos, the fact is that these things get shared and for every person repulsed, there might someone out there inspired by it. In fact, one account from a friend of a Malaysian militant currently in Syria said:

“From my conversations with him, it was clear that he learned about the war almost exclusively from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.” – Anonymous, Malaysiakini


Why are Malaysians joining these groups?

There is a standing theory that the government has unwittingly introduced certain precedents that have made the climate very suitable for plucking ripe young Jihadists. A research paper from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore brought up some pretty compelling points. We’ll list some major ones here, but you should totally read it for yourself.

1. Malaysia’s anti-Shia stance. Numerous media campaigns and lectures have been taken denouncing Shia Islam as deviant, and a number of Muslim scholars have declared it permissible for Sunni Muslims to fight Shias. While this has resulted in a trade boycott from Iranian businessmen, it has also given religious justification for some to join a Sunni ISIS against a Shia-controlled Iraq.

Sunnis and Shias are two different branches of Islam. The difference between Sunnis and Shias are political and traces back to the question of leadership after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believe that leadership should be given to those best qualified for the job while Shias believed that leadership should be given to those within the Prophet’s family, those appointed by the Prophet, or Imams appointed by God. You can read more about the differences here

2. Our status and desire to maintain our image as a moderate, progressive Islamic country works against us. While we have pioneered Islamic services such as education, banking, and finance in the region, we have also introduced Islamic ideas and symbols across the public eye and in government discourse. Because these elements are already in place, we run the risk of being unable to legitimize our moderate Islamic governance against groups such as ISIS who claim to follow an “authentic” Islam.

3. UMNO’s seeming tolerance of no tolerance. This has to do with the Salafi/Wahabi school of thought which is basically a ultraconservative interpretation of Islam with no tolerance for other views. It has been suggested that the spread of this school of thought might have been funded by Saudi Arabia and further propagated here with UMNO’s appointment of several prominent Salafi scholars as part of its young ulama wing.


Wait, didn’t Najib say he supports ISIS? Tu la. We honestly think Najib’s now infamous ISIS quote was more of a bad example taken out of context. Just as a quick refresh, during a party dinner speech, PM Najib was listing down six traits that the party needed to survive. He used the example of ISIS to illustrate bravery:

“For example, when someone dares to fight to their death, they can even defeat a much bigger team.

As proof — whether we agree or not is another matter — the group ISIL with the strength of just 1,300 people, can defeat an Iraqi army of 30,000 soldiers, until four, five generals with three, four stars run for their lives, jump out the window at night. Why? Because they are afraid of those who are brave,” – Quote from The Malay Mail

So maybe he should’ve used Gerard Butler as an example instead, but it was basically bad timing, totally taken out of context by the media and the people on Facebook always hating on Najib..


Najib has (finally) gone on record condemning ISIS’s actions and that Putrajaya considers the group to be a terrorist organization. Hmmm… maybe next time can make these announcements faster so won’t kena so much la, bro. 


So is ISIS coming or not?

At this point, it’s kinda hard to say. Considering there has recently been an ISIS-inspired group plotting to bomb Putrajaya and the Carlsberg refinery among other targets, it’s a good thing our police force got to them in time. And also that they didn’t know how to make bombs. Yet.

We think that the government is viewing this seriously enough to clamp down on Malaysians leaving the country for militant activities, as well as training and recruitment activities; with Deputy PM Muhyiddin referring to the situation as “worrying.”

However, we do wonder what would happen if the situation were to be a little more serious? Deputy Home Minister Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tunku Jaafar has already mentioned that the repeal of the Internal Securities Act (ISA) has made it hard to take action against suspected militants, noting that eight out of 12 Malaysians charged in court for militant activities were released due to lack of evidence:

“So, this is among the effects of the abolishment of the much-feared ISA but unfortunately, our country is under threat without the ISA” – Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tunku Jaafar

Considering how the internet is the primary means of recruitment, are we looking at further internet censorship? Or perhaps Facebook and Twitter users may have to start registering with the MCMC after all.

So will we be facing the prospect of losing our civil liberties and internet freedom to counter what might potentially be a bigger threat to us as Malaysians? And will these sacrifices be worth it? We’ll leave that up to you to think over, but in the meantime, here’s a cute cat picture:

Image credit:


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