For a long time, several college and university campuses in Malaysia are being considered as breeding grounds of jihadists, where students mostly affiliated with Hizbut Tahrir are actively working as love wolves or sleeper cells. Back in 2016,
Six Islamic militants stormed an upmarket café, the Holey Artisan Bakery, in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, leaving 22 people dead – among them two policemen, nine Italians, seven Japanese, an Indian and an American. Many had been hacked with knives.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS claimed responsibility. But Bangladesh officials initially played down the link to Islamic State, saying the attackers belonged to a local banned militant group known as Jamaeytul Mujahdeen Bangladesh. A number of jihadists who took part in the Holey Artisan Bakery attack were students of Malaysia’s Monash University.
Since emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014, dozens of students from Malaysian college and universities were arrested on charges of their affiliation with ISIS and other jihadist outfits. Police and security agencies in Malaysia fear that terrorist ideology is gaining traction amongst college and university students.
On March 26, 2016, the Associated Press reported that over the past two years, the Malaysian police had arrested more than 160 people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Just a few days earlier, police had detained 15 alleged members of ISIS whom they suspected of trying to obtain bomb-making ingredients in preparation for launching attacks. Those arrested ranged in age from 22 to 49 and included four women, a police official, an airplane technician, a mosque cleric and a student.
Malaysian authorities are especially concerned about the spread of ISIS-inspired violent extremist ideology of jihadi Salafism to the country’s Muslim community, particularly among youth. On July 2, 2014, police revealed that Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, a senior lecturer at University of Malaya (UM) was among five individuals wanted for militant activities. Mahmud is alleged to have used his position as an academic to lure students into militant activities. Sundry shop owner Mohd Najib Husen was also suspected of trying to recruit youths for ISIS.
Radical Islamic militancy groups have employed several methods to lure Malaysian youths to join jihad in the Middle East, notably social media and usrah (small discussion groups) in local schools, colleges and universities. ISIS has employed social media to target mainly the student population.
Among Malaysian students, ISIS is targeting those attending institutions of higher learning, in particular. On December 24, 2014, police nabbed two university students who were about to leave for Syria to join ISIS, including a 27-year-old woman who had married an ISIS fighter through Skype. The female suspect studied at a private institution in the Klang Valley. The second suspect, a 22-year-old male student of a public university in Perlis, was arrested at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Both suspects reportedly gained sympathy for the ISIS struggle after watching the latter’s propaganda video on YouTube.
In March 2015, ISIS released a two-minute video on YouTube entitled “Education in the Caliphate” featuring at least 20 Malay-speaking boys, possibly including Indonesians. The footage depicted the youth attending religious classes and engaging in weapons training in ISIS-held territory in either Iraq or Syria. The video—the first to have been produced by ISIS in the Malay language—appeared aimed at expanding the group’s reach in Southeast Asia. It heightened the concern that ISIS recruitment efforts could spur increased support among Malay-speaking young people and further radicalize Muslim fundamentalists. These developments have prompted Malaysian university officials and government authorities to put in place an array of counter-recruitment measures.