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5 terrorist groups in Malaysia and their modus operandi

Malaysia takes terrorism very seriously. You might have noticed (and probably freaked out a lil at) the increase in police and military presence in recent years. In fact, there was a big swoop ahead of the SEA Games, where 19 men were arrested by the Special Branch for allegedly planning to attack the closing ceremony, as well as the Merdeka Day parade.

In 2016, it was reported that a total of 112 Malaysians were arrested to travel to Syria to join up with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), 60 Malaysians are already there, while 27 Malaysians have died fighting for them. Worryingly, the number of new terrorist groups keeps growing! They keep popping up like snails in a garden after it rains.

We take a look at some of big ones in Malaysia, what their purpose is, and their modus operandi. We will only be talking about groups that have appeared in recent times, so not mentioning Al Ma’unah, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), the communists or the Japanese Red Army, etc. Here are 5.


1. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

movida bar puchong grenade terrorist

The Movida bombing was reportedly the work of 2 Malaysian ISIS supporters. Image from

ISIS Malaysia was established on 8 April 1983 as an autonomous, non-profit research organization. ISIS has a diverse research focus which includes economics, foreign policy, security studies, nation-building……?!??!

We’re just pulling your leg, guys! Let’s be clear that ISIS the terrorist group has NOTHING to do with ISIS the Institute of Strategic & International Studies, so please don’t sue us, ISIS. Back to ISIS the terrorist group.


MO: Posting videos of beheadings, using social media to grow their network, as well as bombing Western countries. Source: CNN

muhammad wanndy muhamed jedi

Police reported that Wanndy had been trying to recruit more people on social media. Image from

A little bit of background on ISIS first… starting out as an Al-Qaeda splinter group in 1999, they aim to create a caliphate (an Islamic state) across Iraq, Syria and beyond. ISIS demands that Muslims worldwide swear allegiance to their boss Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – that is how their influence threatens to creep into Malaysia.

Malaysia officially declared ISIS a terrorist group in September 2014. Many other terror cells here subscribe to the same Salafi ideology as ISIS and their goal is to “free Malaysia” from the “shackles of secularism”, explained Special Branch Counter-terrorism Division (aka E8) Principal Assistant Director Ayob Khan. Even Ayob has become a target of ISIS for fighting against their terrorism.

Their MO to spread ideology and recruit people via social media has caused a number of Malaysians to go to Syria, notably Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi (however he has already been reported killed in Syria). About 75% of new Malaysian recruits were found online. Although we do not see their other activities such as beheadings happening here, ISIS has claimed one successful local attack, the grenade explosion in Movida, Puchong. Two dudes, locals, have been given 25-year jail sentences for it.

In response, the authorities cracked down on the group’s online recruitment and shut down numerous pro-ISIS websites. They’ve also arrested more than 300 individuals over the past 4 years for suspected links. But experts say the government failed to prevent a big number of Malaysians from fighting in other countries such as Iraq and the Philippines, which brings us to the next point.


2. Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)

mahmud philippines abu sayyaf ISIS Image from Straits Times

ASG fighter (left) stands with Malaysian militants in the Philippines. Image from Straits Times

MO: Land and sea kidnappings. Source: and The Star

Abu Sayyaf had its beginnings in southern Philippines in the late 80s/early 90s, when its founder allegedly met Osama bin Laden and was given $6 million to start an Islamist group. Not long after, it began to expand to Malaysia and Indonesia. The goals of the group “appear to have alternated between criminal objectives and a more ideological intent”, where they have now pledged allegiance to ISIS and have been nicknamed its baby brother.

In the Philippines, ASG’s modus operandi has been bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion. One of their most devastating attacks was the 2004 bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay which killed 116 people. It is world’s deadliest terrorist attack at sea! However in Malaysia, Abu Sayyaf’s most recognized MO is kidnapping for ransom, especially in Sabah. Here are the notable ones:

By 2016, Abu Sayyaf’s MO switched to sea kidnappings instead as Sabah tightened coastal security. They’ve taken Malaysian and Indonesian sailors, abducted others on foreign ships, plus two German tourists who had been out on their yacht.

filipino soldiers carry malaysian sailor abu sayyaf kidnap

Filipino soldiers carry a rescued Malaysian sailor. Image from


3. Al-Qaeda

kl al qaeda summit yazid sufaat

Bottom left: Johorean Yazid Sufaat let Al-Qaeda hold their meeting at his KL condo. Image from

MO: Bombings, suicide bombings and hijacking planes. Source: US Dept of State

Al-Qaeda was established by Osama bin Laden in 1988. It’s shocking how close the September 11 attacks are to home because KL was the meeting place where it was planned! Over 3 days, the group’s top honchos gathered in the condo of Yazid Sufaat, Malaysian ex-army captain and businessman. Yazid has since been jailed, and then last year, jailed again for an additional 7 years.

E8 head Ayob told The Star that his division had tracked the terrorists from the time they landed in Malaysia and met up with Yazid…BUT when E8 passed the info over to the American CIA, they did not share it with other enforcement agencies, such as the FBI. If they had, they could have prevented Sept 11!! This was highlighted in the “9/11 Commission Report” published by the US Government.

yazid sufaat hazel evergreen park condo kl al qaeda

Yazid’s condo in KL. Image from

Until today, the cops are still arresting Malaysians with links to this group. Just last October, the first person to be involved in Al-Qaeda, Mohamad Hidayat Azman, a 20-year-old Perak student in Cairo, was sentenced to 12 years’ jail by the High Court here.

“Based on basic code of values in society, what you did is despicable and condemned by the Malaysian society and the world community. If you really want to become a martyr, remember the hopes of your parents and siblings who gave money for you studies. Tell your friends that your action is not ‘jihad’, but a total loss.” – Judicial Commissioner Datuk Mohamad Shariff Abu Samah, Malay Mail Online

In latest news, a senior leader of Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has called on Malaysians, Indonesians, Indians and Bangladeshis to support the Rohingya in Myanmar. So it does seem like they are still trying to target Malaysians join up, however by looking the number of news, Al-Qaeda seems overshadowed now by ISIS’s popularity.

Msia's facing its HOTTEST season in history! Got enough water onot?


4. Jemaah Islamiyah

jemaah islamiyah

Counter terrorism officers busting a JI cell in Malaysia. Image from The Star

MO: Bombings in Indonesia frequented by Westerners. Source: US Dept of State

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is one of the big ones Malaysian authorities have busted. Declared a terrorist group in October 2002, JI is a SEA-based gang founded by two Indonesians. Like ISIS, they to want to establish a caliphate. Their MO has mostly been bombings in places with high numbers of Westerners, significantly the 2002 Bali bombings, the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, and the Australian Embassy in the capital. There almost could have been a Bangsar bombing, but thanks to faulty bomb components, it didn’t happen, whewww!

This is the story of how they gained ground in Malaysia. In 2001, militant activities were thought to be under control, but when Yazid Sufaat (see point above) was caught, E8 uncovered a new terror group, JI. They’ve been using our country as a base for enlisting newbies, as well as a transit point for sending cadets for weapons training in Afghanistan.

Thanks to a massive crackdown at one point, JI was severely degraded. Since 2001, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 80 of its members. But Malay Mail reported that although we don’t hear much about them now, they are actually they are quietly enlisting supporters again. An expert who works with a deradicalisation NGO in Jakarta explained that they are careful not to get involved in small violent actions that could lose them community support.

“They believe deeply they have to be ready… once the political situation becomes more amenable to make a push for an Islamic state.” – Sidney Jones, Jakarta-based security analyst, Malay Mail


5. Tamil Tigers

tamil tigers

Tamil Tigers sympathizers attacking the Sri Lankan High Commissioner. Screenshot from The Star’s video

MO: Notorious for its suicide bombers the Black Tigers, an amphibious force the Sea Tigers, and air force the Air Tigers. Source: US Dept of State

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, fought for an independent state of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, assassinating a Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President Ranasinghe Premadasa Sri Lanka in the process. Even though its motivations are Sri Lanka centered, the Tamil Tigers managed to garner sympathizers from Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, even as far as North America, Europe, and Australia.

Over here, E8 managed to arrest 25 Tamil Tigers militants… one of them was high ranking leader Kumaran Pathma-natahan on 5 Aug 2009.

“We arrested him at a hotel in KL and later transferred him to the Putrajaya police headquarters to prevent any backlash from other LTTE members still in Malaysia. During his interrogation, Kumaran admitted that from Sri Lanka, he fled to Thailand and Singapore before making his way to Malaysia using a forged Indian passport. On Aug 6, 2009, we deported Kumaran to Sri Lanka.” – Ayob, E8 head, The Star

Despite its defeat to the Sri Lankan government in 2009, the Tamil Tigers international network of sympathizers and financial support persists – even in Malaysia. Last September, 5 Malaysians were caught assaulting the Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Malaysia. Then IGP Khalid sternly warned people not to continue supporting the terrorist group. Here’s a video of the assault:


So how is Malaysia doing in curbing terrorism? Good or not?

Well Malaysia can be given a few gold stars in the sense that yes, we’ve managed to keep attacks at bay in our own back yard so far, up until the Movida attack, but even so, it was thankfully a small incident and no one perished. Our Special Branch Counter-terrorism Division has busted a number of big-name terrorist groups, like Jemaah Islamiyah, the Tamil Tigers and Al-Qaeda even going so far as to uncover the Sept 11 plot and warn the US.

We even have a strict anti-terrorism law, SOSMA, although some may argue that it is an excuse to give the gomen more power and come down hard on people’s freedom. It can’t be denied that it has been used on critics and political opposition – people such as Maria Chin (Bersih leader).

Besides the stings and all the action, Malaysia also set up a counter‑messaging center to fight extremism on the internet coz terrorists were good at creating stories and rhetoric to influence social media users. Our country also supports research on radicalization, plus we have a rehabilitation module for terrorist detainees in 2016.

However some things could be improved, for example, experts said we must find a way to stop Malaysians with terrorist affiliations from going overseas to carry out their activities, because they’re really slipping through our fingers in significant numbers. Additionally, Malaysia is regarded as a haven and transit point, so we need to nip it in the bud.

solidarity london terror attack

Londoners in solidarity against terrorism. Image from AFP on

Ultimately, we should never give in to the demands of terrorists or give in to fear. By doing so we give them the victory they crave. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Instead, we should continue to just…LIVE. When Belgian Antoine Leiris’ wife was killed in an attack, he had this to say:

“I don’t give you the gift of hating you. You want me to be afraid…to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have lost”.

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