20 Years After 9/11, Al-Qaida Retains a Deadly Relevance in Malaysia

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

20 Years After 9/11, Al-Qaida Retains a Deadly Relevance in Malaysia

Despite the network’s apparent dormancy, Malaysian authorities can’t afford to underestimate its potential threat.

20 Years After 9/11, Al-Qaida Retains a Deadly Relevance in Malaysia
Credit: Depositphotos

The 9/11 attacks were among the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern history, taking the lives of more than 3,000 people. The incident brought al-Qaida, a shadowy transnational terrorist group to which the hijackers belonged, into the international spotlight.

Despite being based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, al-Qaida has had a long association with Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. Twenty years on from 9/11, following the Taliban’s re-conquest of Afghanistan, al-Qaida remains relevant in Malaysia and poses a threat that cannot be ignored.

Jemaah Islamiyah: the Malaysian Connection

Al-Qaida’s Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), was formed in Malaysia in 1993 by the Indonesian jihadists Abu Bakar Bashir, and Abdullah Sungkar. The duo had sought refuge in Malaysia between 1985 and 1998 after fleeing a government crackdown on militant Islamists by then Indonesian President Suharto. The group’s key aim was the establishment of a Dawlah Islamiyah Nusantara, or Southeast Asian Islamic State, comprising of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, and  the southern Philippines as a basis for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate.

Between 1998 and 2009, JI carried out at least 30 deadly terror attacks in the region, including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the 2004 Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta, and the 2009 Jakarta Marriot and Ritz Carlton Hotel bombings. Apart from being its initial birth place, Malaysia functioned as JI’s key safe haven and base for the procurement and transfer of funds for operations.

JI’s operations in Malaysia gave rise to key militant leaders such as Hambali, an Indonesian national based in Malaysia who became al-Qaida’s “point man” in Southeast Asia, and the likes of Dr. Azahari Husin and Noordin Top, key bombmakers who would be involved in multiple JI bombings in Indonesia.

Hambali, who had trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the late 1980s was a key facilitator for Malaysians going into combat zones such as Afghanistan, Poso and Ambon in Indonesia, and the southern Philippines. He also acted as a middle man between JI and the al-Qaida central leadership in Afghanistan and masterminded a number of key JI attacks in Indonesia, including the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings and the 2002 Bali bombings.

Bashir and Sungkar were also instrumental in setting up a JI-affiliated pesantren (Islamic boarding school) known as Luqmanul Hakiem in Ulu Tiram, Johor, in peninsular Malaysia. The school functioned to provide JI’s brand of religious education to young students and had acted as a platform from which young trainees were sent to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan for military training and experience.

In September 2003, 13 Malaysians were arrested and found to be part of a Pakistan-based al-Qaida cell called al-Ghuraba (The Stranger). This cell was first led by Bashir’s son Abdul Rahim and later by Hambali’s brother, Rusman Gunawan. It functioned to develop young JI members into trained operatives and future JI leaders. Most of them had been students of the Abu Bakar Islamic University in Karachi and other institutions, and had attended al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan for training in weapons and explosives.

9/11 Summit meeting in KL

In December 1999, it was revealed that nine al-Qaida members belonging to a unit specialized in suicide attacks were in Malaysia. A month later, and more than a year prior to the 9/11 attacks, four Al-Qaida operatives including two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, had been hosted by a local JI operative Yazid Sufaat, on the request of Hambali, at his apartment in Kuala Lumpur. The meeting had been held to discuss the planned 9/11 attacks. They used the opportunity to visit the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which was relatively new at the time, in a bid to familiarize themselves with airport security and conduct a casing of flights.

Malaysia was a prime transit destination among jihadists due to its lax immigration policies. In 2001, Yazid Sufaat was alleged to have gone to Kandahar to help al-Qaida develop anthrax as part of the group’s biological weapons program.

The Second Wave: Al-Qaida’s ‘West Coast Plot’

Following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida planned a second wave of attacks in 2002 known as the “West Coast plot” involving an all-Malaysian cell of five members, namely, Mohamad Farik Amin, Mohammed Nazir bin Lep, Zaini Zakaria, Masran Arshad, and Nik Abdul Rahman Mustaffa. The plot involved using the same modus operandi of hijacking planes and attacking high profile American targets including The Library Tower in Los Angeles.

The Malaysians were selected for the plot as al-Qaida was aware that Arabs were viewed with great suspicion after 9/11 and the Malaysians’ ability to converse in English was an added advantage. Hambali had arranged for members of the cell to attend al-Qaida’s al-Farouq training camp in Afghanistan where they had been trained in guerilla warfare, firearms and explosives, and had pledged allegiance to senior al-Qaida members.

However, the plot failed to materialize when Masran and Zaini were arrested by Malaysian authorities in 2002. Nazir Lep, Farik Amin, and Hambali were arrested in Thailand in 2003, and are currently being held at Guantanamo Bay. Zaini was freed from police custody in 2009 while the status of Masran and Nik Abdul remains unknown.

Is Al-Qaida Still Relevant in Malaysia?

While Indonesia has been arresting JI operatives intensively since 2018, the same intensity of operations against pro-al-Qaida operatives in Malaysia is not apparent. This is due in part to the success of Malaysia’s counterterrorism policies, which have denied the transnational terrorist group a physical presence in Malaysia. The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict states that JI has lost its base in the country ever since the large scale crackdowns on its members post-9/11.

Still, this does not mean that Malaysians are not associated with al-Qaida today. One such case is that of Ahmad Mustakim bin Abdul Hamid, who was recently arrested and imprisoned in Somalia for being a member of al-Shabab, a local al-Qaida affiliate.

In view of the changing terrorist landscape, there is a need for Malaysia to be vigilant as far as threat from al-Qaida and its affiliates is concerned. This is especially true with regard to Malaysians seeking to travel to South Asia and the Middle East for educational purposes as was the case with the “Ghuraba cell” involving six Indonesians, 13 Malaysians and two Singaporeans. They had used education as a cover for their terrorism activities, especially as part of the pro-al-Qaida network.

Ahmad Mustakim, mentioned above, had in fact been radicalized whilst he was a student in Yemen before he travelled to join al-Shabab in Somalia sometime in 2009. With the Taliban once again coming to power in Afghanistan in August, there is a possibility that al-Qaida central may rejuvenate in the country. If that happens and there is a reactivation of al-Qaida training camps, Afghanistan may be viewed as a location of choice for Southeast Asians including Malaysians to gain training and battlefield experience as it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

As in the past, Malaysia continues to be a favored transit point and safe haven for terrorists, especially for al-Qaida and its affiliates, due to its visa-free travel policies. For example, in December 1995, al-Qaida member Wali Khan Amin Shah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was found to be hiding in the country and was arrested in Langkawi. There also continues to be sympathy in Malaysia for pro-al-Qaida groups, including the Taliban. A recent statement by the Malaysian Special Branch noted a significant presence of JI members in the country. The last known al-Qaida-related arrest in Malaysia was in 2019, involving seven members of the Tunisian al-Qaida affiliate al-Shariah al-Tunisia, who were transiting and plotting attacks against other countries utilizing Malaysia as a base. Pro-al-Qaida groups remain active in the region, as is evident in the spate of JI arrests in Indonesia.

Moreover, key pro-al-Qaida and former JI leaders such as Abu Bakar Bashir and Abu Tholut in Indonesia and Yazid Sufaat in Malaysia have recently been released from prison. As many of the members of the JI network in the region remain at large, these networks could easily be reactivated.

Malaysia also needs to monitor the immigrant communities such as the Rohingya in the country as they are vulnerable to recruitment and some of them are supporters of either al-Qaida or the Islamic State. Hence, in view of the changing geopolitical and security situation, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for vigilance cannot be emphasized enough. As Malaysia remains a largely open country, the need for closer cooperation with international intelligence agencies and monitoring of potential terrorist suspects is the only way to ensure security for Malaysia and the broader international community.