Malaysia 'not terrorist recruitment ground,' minister says
The Straits Times/Asia News Network
KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's home minister has denied that the country is a recruitment ground for terrorists, amid public concern following the arrests in Lebanon of two Malaysians for links to terrorist activities.
But Hishammuddin Hussein admitted that Malaysia was a "transit point" for terrorists. He said the authorities are tracking locals and foreigners with suspected links to terrorist groups.
"I want to assure Malaysians that the country is not a target at the present moment," he told reporters at Parliament yesterday. He declined to give further details, citing security constraints.
Questions have been raised about Malaysia's security since Razif Mohd Ariff, 30, and Muhamad Razin Sharhan Mustafa Kamal, 21, were arrested in Lebanon two weeks ago, on charges of planning terrorist attacks.
Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria said the duo had been recruited to join the terrorist group Al-Qaeda through another Malaysian called Mustapha Mansour. They were said to have been planning to link up with rebel forces like the Free Syrian Army to overthrow the Syrian government.
Razif and Razin were due to appear in a Lebanese military court yesterday. They have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Hishammuddin said the authorities had been monitoring the two men since last year. "We reveal this only today because the issue has become public knowledge," he said.
It is too early to say if this is an isolated case, said terrorism expert Kumar Ramakrishna, also from RSIS. With the repeal of Malaysia's Internal Security Act, he added, intelligence agencies have to gather more evidence before making arrests.
Compared to countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, terrorist activity in Malaysia has been limited, noted political analyst Joseph Liow, an Islamic studies expert from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Dr Liow said Malaysia's intelligence service has been very effective at spotting attempts to mobilise people -- but that it is "harder to track the movements of individuals, such as it has proved in this case".
Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia reported yesterday that Razif and Razin were believed to have been influenced by militant blogs trying to recruit followers worldwide to join the Al-Qaeda.
It quoted an intelligence source saying that terrorist groups are "keeping up with current trends" by using blogs and Facebook to recruit followers. The source said there were only about 40 militant websites or blogs in 1998, but more than 5,000 now.
Hishammuddin said the government was working with global agencies to improve security.
One chief concern of this incident is the rise of Syria as a "radicalising factor" for Muslims worldwide, said Dr Ramakrishna. He likens Syria to Afghanistan in the 1980s, which saw Muslims taking up arms for the Afghan cause against the Soviet Union.
This should be of concern not just to Malaysia, but to neighbouring countries like Singapore and Indonesia, he said. "It's a reminder for the authorities in this region to remain vigilant."