The Ulu Tiram Attack and the Jemaah Islamiyah Threat in Malaysia

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The Ulu Tiram Attack and the Jemaah Islamiyah Threat in Malaysia

The shock attack suggests that JI retains a presence in Malaysia, despite years of crackdowns by the state.

The Ulu Tiram Attack and the Jemaah Islamiyah Threat in Malaysia

A police forensic member takes a picture outside a police station in Ulu Tiram, Johor state, Malaysia, that was stormed by a man on Friday, May 17, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo

In recent history, Malaysia has been closely associated with the birth and development of the Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). JI was formally established in Sungei Mangis, Negri Sembilan in Malaysia by Indonesian jihadists and extremists, most of whom fled Indonesia to escape from then President Suharto’s counter-terrorist agencies, in collaboration with Malaysian extremist groups such as the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia.

What brought the Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists to undertake their close collaboration was their common experience in fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Mujahidin groups opposing the occupying Soviet forces. Here, key Indonesian jihadi leaders such as Abdullah Sungkar, Abu Bakar Bashir, and Hambali worked closely with Malaysian jihadists such as Dr. Azahari, Nordin M. Top, and Wan Min, resulting eventually in the creation of a Southeast Asian-wide terror group organized into geographic zones called Mantiqis. This month’s attack on the police station in Ulu Tiram, Johor which saw a machete and a gun being used as weapons, killing two service personnel alongside the attacker, can be traced to the JI network that continued to exist in Malaysia and in particular, in Johor, where Ulu Tiram is located.

The Debate Around the Ulu Tiram Attack

While there is disagreement among analysts and even Malaysian policymakers as to whether or not the Al Qaeda-affiliated JI orchestrated the attack in Ulu Tiram, it is important to recognize and understand that the attack bore many of the hallmarks of JI.

Traditionally, attacks by JI enjoyed the blessings of its leadership, which then acknowledged responsibility for the attacks. However, since the JI has evolved and become more sophisticated, partly due to successful regional counter-terrorism efforts, this is no longer the case, and attacks are now conducted without the group going public about the attack.

JI has a unit known as Lajnah (the Leadership Search Council), formed in 2019. The team was previously tasked with being JI’s caretaker in the absence of a known formal leader. Also, there is a position known as “Amir Bitonah,” which refers to a secret leader (who would be publicly unknown). The last known Amir Bitonah was Abu Rusydan, who was arrested in 2021, some months after the author interviewed him at his home in Kudus, Central Java. In view of this situation, following the Ulu Tiram attack, the Malaysian authorities simply cannot dismiss the attack as the work of an angry individual without any links to any terror group. Just because there has been no major JI attack in Malaysia, the emergence or even re-emergence of the JI under new conditions, especially a new generation of members that have remained below the radar of the security agencies, cannot be dismissed.

Abu Rusydan told the author that JI’s ideology, as reflected in the PUPJI – the common history shared by its members in terms of struggling for an Islamic State and suffering at the hands of the state – the regular contact and communication of JI members throughout Indonesia, and the decision by the JI leadership in 2010 not to undertake any military action in the country, has led the group to focus on rebuilding itself. This goal is referred to as I’dad, with peaceful co-existence as the rule for the time being. What Abu Rusydan implied was that JI was alive and expanding until such time that it would be organized for violence, depending on the situation in the country. What is applicable to Indonesia probably applies to all JI networks in the region, including Malaysia.

JI is also a highly adaptative organization. It has been able to mask itself well as witnessed by its co-founder, Abu Bakar Bashir voting in the recent Indonesian elections, suggesting that JI has gone peaceful and mainstream. In the last Indonesian national day celebration in August 2023, Abu Bakar Bashir’s Islamic boarding school in Ngruki, in Solo, even joined in the flag-raising ceremony, something it had boycotted all these years. While there is the appearance of the JI going ‘peaceful and soft’, and mainstreaming itself politically, JI is also a master of adapting itself to a new environment through strategies that would legitimize itself. Yet, in the last 2-3 years, the Indonesian authorities have detained nearly 100 JI members, including the then Amir, Para Wijayanto and Abu Rusydan.

Motives for the Ulu Tiram Attack

When looking for the motivation behind the Ulu Tiram attack, the ongoing Gaza conflict, especially Israel’s brutal attacks on unarmed civilians with the logistical and political support of the West, especially the United States, cannot be ruled out as a factor. Malaysia is one of the most pro-Palestinian states in the world, and certainly in Southeast Asia, and JI as an organization, especially in Malaysia, could be expressing its anger against the government for not doing enough about the Gaza conflict, despite Malaysia’s support for Palestine.

Jihadi groups such as the JI and even the so-called Islamic State (IS) have in principle publicly supported Palestine in its conflict with Israel, and blame both “near” and “far” enemies for harming the interests of Palestinians and Muslims in general, while accusing the U.S. and the West of being complicit. While Anwar has strong Islamist credentials, the fact that he has not implemented Sharia (Islamic law) could be an important factor behind jihadi groups in general and JI in particular for wanting to express their anger with the Malaysian government today, including by attacking the police station, a clear symbol of the state.

The Ulu Tiram attacker is also believed to have come from a “JI family,” with his father and other siblings being close followers of the organization. This could have played an important role in the socialization of the attacker into JI thought and the use of violence for what he perceived to be a “wrong” committed by the state.

Johor’s Link with the JI

Johor has longstanding links with JI. In addition to the fact that many Malaysian JI leaders, including such as Dr. Azahari, Nordin M Top, Wan Min, Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, and Nasir Abbas, come from Johor, the state also hosted a key JI Islamic institution through the Luqmanul Hakim Madrassa, based in Ulu Tiram. The boarding school was closed in 2001, accused of spreading radical Islamic thought and ideas, as its past teachers and speakers included Abdullah Sungkar, Abu Bakar Bashir, Ali Gufron, Amrozi, Ali Imron and Dulmatin, all of them key JI leaders.

Additionally, the Luqmanul Hakim Madrassa also served as a meeting point for key JI leaders. Some JI leaders who had held meetings there included Imam Samudra, Wan Min, and two key Singaporean JI leaders, Mas Selamat and Ibrahim Maidin. Due to its dual role for spreading radical ideas and providing a meeting point for the JI, once the JI was identified as a key terror group in Singapore and Malaysia in 2001, the boarding school was closed by the Malaysian authorities.

While the boarding school is no longer what it was in the past, its mosque continues to be used, including for religious education for the children of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The mosque also continues to serve the community living in the compound, where there are more than 10 families. Among them is Parida, the wife of executed JI leader, Mukhlas or Ali Gufron (and sister of Nasir Abbas), a key trainer of the JI in the Philippines until his arrest. Siti Rahman, the wife of slain JI leader, Nordin M. Top, is currently also living in the compound.

Clearly, JI continues to exist in Malaysia and the region at large, despite changes in its leadership, as well as the arrest and killing of key JI leaders. All of which is to say, just because there have been no JI attacks on Malaysian soil since the group’s establishment in 1993, it does not mean that the JI does not exist there. Due to the largely lax policies of the Malaysian government towards JI, the group has continued to survive with many of its members joining IS for operational missions in Syria and Iraq, where many died.

As such, it is extremely important for Malaysia to step up its vigilance and not allow the JI to grow to such an extent that it poses a security threat to Malaysia and the wider region. While much has been debated about JI’s presence in West Malaysia, there is no doubt that JI has continued to operate in Sabah, forming part of the triangle connecting the jihadists in Mindanao, Sulawesi, and Sabah, which culminated in the siege of Marawi in Mindanao in 2017. Hence, the question is not whether the JI exists in Malaysia, but where and how the JI has been able to operate there.

Countering JI in Malaysia

To counter an emerging threat of JI the authorities must be extra vigilant. The Malaysian authorities are said to be tracking 20 other JI members in Johor. Interestingly, prior to COVID-19, the Ulu Tiram JI community, partly due to the presence of families of prominent JI members such as Nordin Top, Nasir Abbas, and Ali Gufron, was visited by foreign JI elements, among them Abu Rusydan. Following this, when Abu Rusydan tried to enter Singapore by land, he was detained and sent to Batam, an Indonesian island, from where he flew to Semarang in Central Java.

The continued disbelief that JI is still in existence is due to two reasons: first, the absence of violent attacks by the group; and second, the low profile JI members have maintained during the Malaysian government’s crackdown since 2001. by the authorities against the JI. Yet, what must not be forgotten is that terror groups such as the JI have released manuals teaching their members how to avoid detection from the authorities and how to blend into society prior to conducting an attack.

Following the Ulu Tiram attack, it will not be surprising to see more arrests of JI members and supporters. However, JI remains the most resilient terror group in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, due largely to the power of its ideology and the strong bonds that exist between its members. For JI members, the key handbook, known as PUPJI, remains relevant to this day. As the JI believes in the concept of the “near” and “far” enemy, as well as the importance of being prepared for any eventuality, it has retained its strength as a group. While in Indonesia, the JI’s “near enemy” is the Indonesian government due to its refusal to apply Islamic law and the police force for repressing the JI, the JI’s “far enemy” usually refers to the U.S. and its Western allies, and sometimes also includes Singapore.

The challenge for Malaysia today is to identify the new generation of individuals associated with JI, a group that many believed had been dismantled in Malaysia. The authorities have to look at those with existing ties with past and present JI members as well as those who may have been schooled in JI-linked educational institutions in the past few years, including in Indonesia. In Johor, which has emerged as an important JI node in Malaysia, there is also the potential for the Johor Military Force (JMF) to be activated to supplement the existing security structure in the state. In the aftermath of the Ulu Tiram attack, the JMF was already visible in Johor, making its presence felt through public patrolling and deployment.

The key to countering the JI threat in Malaysia is to strengthen the government’s intelligence capability, given that the Ulu Tiram attack at least partly reflected an intelligence failure. While many of the key officers associated with dismantling the JI in the past in Malaysia have retired, the country remains fortunate to have the services of Ayob Khan, currently the deputy inspector general of police, an ideal candidate to spearhead the neutralization of the JI threat in the country.

Surveying the security landscape of Southeast Asia, the main challenge appears to be the presence of IS affiliates in the Philippines. Yet, the JI remains extremely resilient, with a strong presence in Indonesia as well as an unknown number of cells in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and possibly even Singapore. The Ulu Tiram attack has provided a timely reminder that even though a group may have been declared defeated or dormant, this cannot be taken for granted. The group’s ideology of challenging the state continues to persist, and hence, may provide the very basis and incentive for future attacks, no matter how crude.