This essay is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) to Asia and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...

The COVID-19 pandemic has become the center of discussion globally including in the realm of counter-terrorism. As governments around the world continue to deal with the pandemic, the world must not lose sight of the ongoing threat of returning Islamic State (IS) foreign terrorist fighters from Syria. Today, countries in Southeast Asia are gradually reopening their borders for international travel.[1] This would mean that repatriation efforts of fighters may soon resume. As foreign fighters and their families scour for places to seek refuge, Malaysia may inadvertently turn out to be an attractive destination given the country’s visa-waiver program; the porousness of the tri-border region of Sabah, Indonesia, and the Philippines; and insider threats. In the past, terrorists have capitalized on these vulnerabilities. Given the country’s susceptibility to being used as a terrorist safe haven and platform for staging trans-border terrorist attacks, Malaysian authorities need to strengthen and improve existing measures aimed at countering terrorist infiltration.

The Pivot to Malaysia

Malaysia’s repatriation policy with respect to foreign fighters differs from those of Indonesia and the Philippines.[2] Malaysia extends offers of repatriation to its citizens who have fought in Syria on the condition that upon return they undergo a month-long rehabilitation program. Experts have questioned the efficacy of this program, as a number of high-profile militants such as Yazid Sufaat and Rafi Udin who participated in it showed little sign of rehabilitation and engaged in recidivist behavior.[3]

Indonesia and the Philippines — like many Western countries — have decided to seal their borders, barring their citizens from return.[4] Although there are no clear figures reported on the number of Filipinos in Syria, as many as 689 Indonesians remain there.[5] With the situation in the refugee camps getting worse, these displaced persons are trying to find their way home. They very well might seek to exploit Malaysia’s vulnerabilities, using the country as a gateway to return home.

Meanwhile, Malaysia itself is worryingly becoming a safe haven. As local terror networks ramp up recruitment efforts, it becomes an added pull factor for regional fighters to find their way home, rejoin local cells to regroup and recalibrate their strengths.[6] The threat posed by returnees to Malaysia is not limited to domestic returning fighters and those from the regional countries. It is further compounded by displaced global Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) who are also desperately trying to relocate. FTFs may relocate to Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines due to the strong and visible footprint of Islamist terrorism after the siege of Marawi.[7]

An Easy Pass into Malaysia

One of the longest standing issues with Malaysia’s border security is its visa-waiver program, which allows foreigners to enter Malaysia easily. It has been one of the main reasons for the country being regarded as a safe haven, transit point, and logistics hub by terrorist groups.[8] The United States Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2019 stated that Malaysia remained a “source, transit point, and, to a significantly lesser extent, destination country for terrorist groups including ISIS, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), al-Qa’ida, and Jemaah Islamiya.”[9] Malaysia has also been used as a transit point for IS fighters planning to enter Southern Philippines.

Free from visa requirements, foreigners, especially those posing security threats, can conveniently move in and out of the country without suspicion or raising alarms. This is a weakness that should be neither ignored nor underestimated. A case in point was when the country was visited on multiple occasions between 1995 and 2002 by several of the masterminds and perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report by The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad himself, had traveled to Malaysia several times.[10] On several occasions, he dispatched other operatives to meet Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operative, Riduan Isammudin, also known as Hambali.[11]  In addition, Malaysia, where JI’s headquarters was then located, was frequented by Al-Qaeda operatives to do their “homework” (i.e., to learn about security and immigration systems at airports).

The 9/11 Commission Report also highlighted the fact that in 1999, four of the 9/11 attackers — Tawfiq bin Attash (Khallad), Abu Bara al-Yemeni, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Khalid al-Mihdhar — had been sent to Kuala Lumpur before heading for the United States. Apart from making Malaysia merely a transit point, two of them stayed longer to study “airport security and conduct casing flights” (flights to determine targets).[12] Khallad opined that “Malaysia was an ideal destination because its government did not require citizens of Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states to have a visa.”[13] In fact, Malaysia’s security has always been “reputed to be lax” within jihadist circles.[14]

Despite ample documentation that Malaysia’s openness was duly exploited by Al-Qaeda in the planning of one of the most lethal attacks in history, little improvements appear to have been made to Malaysia’s border security. Today, Malaysia is often chosen as a connecting point for IS’ supporters traveling to and from countries such as Turkey, and is a gateway for foreign terrorist fighters to enter Southeast Asia.[15] In fact, from 2013 to 2019, as many as 38 foreign terrorist fighters were arrested after having exploited Malaysia’s visa-waiver policy and thereby having gained the ability to use the country as a transit point.[16]

In other instances, the policy has allowed terrorists to make Malaysia a safe haven and logistics hub. In 2019, Malaysian security services arrested five Egyptian nationals who were alleged to be members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood planning to carry out large-scale attacks in the country.[17] The cell had provided logistical support and facilitated the movement of a number of members of the North African-based terror group, Ansar al-Sharia.[18] Members of Ansar al-Sharia carrying fake passports had made Malaysia a transit point before entering a third country to launch attacks.[19]

Porous Maritime Borders in the Tri-Border Area

The Tri-Border Area (TBA) comprising Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah, Philippines, and Indonesia in the Sulu and Celebes Seas has witnessed rampant activities of terrorism, kidnappings, armed robbery, smuggling and other illegal maritime activities. Between 2018 and 2020, there were 40 kidnapping attempts off the waters of Sabah.[20] The TBA has long been a hotspot for militant groups, including Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).[21]

Filipino security expert Prof. Rommel Banlaoi highlights the fact that Sabah and the city of Manado in northeast Sulawesi remain important “backdoor” channels into Mindanao.[22] Sabah has been the location of choice as it shares historical roots with Mindanao dating back to the Sulu Sultanate in the 17th century. Terrorists have continued to utilize travel networks that have been formed through traditional movements of people between Sabah and Mindanao. During the siege of Marawi in 2017, Malaysian IS-ASG cell leader, Dr. Mahmud Ahmad used Sabah as a transit point to channel militants into Marawi.[23]

Indonesian fighters have also made use of Sabah as a transit point into Philippines by means of “rat paths” that exist in the jungles between Malaysia and Indonesia in the Kalimantan border area.[24] The route through Sandakan in Sabah is preferred as it allows for shorter sea travel to Mindanao as compared to Sulawesi.

One of the reasons why groups such as ASG thrive in the TBA is the physical terrain, which is made up of challenging land and waterscapes that favor terrorists during naval chases.[25] This gives the terrorist groups an advantage over the security forces.

Another reason why terrorist outfits have thrived in the TBA is that the three countries concerned have been at loggerheads over political and territorial issues. These disputes have hindered their cooperation on maritime security. Nevertheless, in 2016 Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines did sign the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA), as part of measures to jointly police the TBA.[26] Although progress in implementing the agreement initially was slow, collaboration has increased.[27] Over the past three years, joint maritime and air patrols have been conducted, and Maritime Command Centers (MCCs) have been set up in all three countries.[28] In March 2020, Philippines hosted a conference focusing on the need for intensified patrols and information exchange among component countries.[29]

While this recent cooperation among the three countries is encouraging, more needs to be done. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an upsurge in armed robbery and piracy in the TBA, with the region witnessing 51 cases in 2020 as compared to 28 in 2019.[30] The effects of land-based territorial sanctuaries on the maritime activities of groups such as ASG should not be discounted.[31] Illicit maritime activities are ultimately linked to land-based activities such as recruitment and money laundering through financial institutions.[32] The TCA has made positive progress in acknowledging this fact by holding its first joint land-based exercise in 2019.

Insider Threats

Another factor that facilitates the flow of terrorists into and out of the country is the issue of insider threats. These threats range from conspiracy and bribery among officers, to civil servants being linked to terrorist groups, which has allowed dangerous individuals and human trafficking syndicates to thrive.

In 2016, Malaysia suffered from an immigration scandal when the immigration department sacked and suspended officers who caused deliberate lapses in its security system. As many as 37 officers were found guilty of interfering with the Malaysian Immigration System (MyIMMs).[33] The MyIMMs is linked to Interpol’s I-Checkit system to enable authorities to verify within seconds if a passport had been reported lost or stolen.[34] The system was deliberately switched off in two major international airports in Kuala Lumpur. When this happened, passports were stamped manually, and as a result, travelers were able to evade security and passport authenticity screenings and avoided having their names checked against international terror databases.[35]

Unfortunately, this problem has still not been fully resolved. An Auditor-General report in 2018 uncovered over 32,424 “fraudulent approvals for foreign workers” made through the system.[36] More than half of them managed to obtain their temporary foreign worker permits. This persistent issue is alarming as some of the companies involved in this case were companies that have been blacklisted. Last year, the government stated that a ‘bypass function’ in the Immigration Department’s system for passport issuance is still being exploited by corrupt officials and syndicates to issue Malaysian passports for sale.[37]

Members of law enforcement and government have also been discovered to have had links with terror groups such as IS. In 2017, an immigration officer based in Sabah was arrested for links with IS.[38] The officer had allegedly arranged for the travel of fighters into Sabah and onwards to Southern Philippines without valid travel documents.[39] Such conspiracies undermine and compromise existing security measures to curb terror activities in the TBA.

What Needs to be Done?

As the government focused on addressing the ongoing pandemic, national resources are being pushed into economic recovery and the healthcare sector with national security arguably taking a backseat.[40] It is recommended that the Malaysian government review the existing gaps and implement preventive measures as soon as possible. The government must not overlook the national security threats posed by returning FTFs and continue to channel efforts and resources into mitigating this threat.

Firstly, Malaysia must seriously consider whether it should maintain its visa-waiver policy given the security trade-offs associated with it. Until today, it has been one of the main reasons that Malaysia remains a popular hub for foreign fighters.

Secondly, the illegal maritime activities in the TBA must not be underestimated. Malaysia needs to rally its counterparts, Philippines and Indonesia, putting aside its territorial tensions with both countries over Sabah and the Ambalat block respectively, to enhance continued trilateral security coordination and cooperation. The TBA remains an active zone for human smuggling and kidnapping activities. An Interpol-led operation codenamed ‘Maharlika III’ carried out in the TBA region in from February to March 2020 during the pandemic resulted in the arrest of more than 180 individuals for various offences, including an ASG member.[41] This highlights the continued threats faced by the region. Therefore, in the interest of their national and regional security, Malaysia should take the lead to boost the security of the TBA region through joint patrolling exercises, maritime maneuvers and an effective intelligence sharing mechanism between the three countries.

Lastly, the Malaysian government should consider strengthening its immigration services to ensure that systems and officers in place are not compromised. Security features embedded in these systems should be strengthened and made tamper-proof. In addition, the government should consider reinforcing its code of conduct for immigration officers with the threat of stronger sanctions for non-compliance, coupled with more emphasis on professionalism and ethics. Such steps may help prevent further lapses in immigration processes that can be exploited by bad actors. All in all, a multi-layered defense approach will help safeguard the immigration services from potential compromise by insider threats.

These measures together with continued vigilance and existing counter-terrorism policies will deter terrorists from entering Malaysia and making the country their safe haven and transit point to other destinations and targets within and beyond the region.

[1] Linda Yulisman, “Coronavirus: All Transport Services in Indonesia Resume Operations,” The Straits Times, May 7, 2020,….

[2] Emma Broches, “Southeast Asia’s Overlooked Foreign Fighter Problem,” Lawfare, June 5, 2020,….

[3] Amalina Binte Abdul Nasir, “Returning Foreign Fighters: Is Malaysia Ready?,” Middle East Institute, May 26, 2020,….

[4] Meghan Benton and Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, “Foreign Fighters: Will Revoking Citizenship Mitigate the Threat?,” Migration Policy Institute, April 3, 2019,….

[5] Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, “Indonesia Refuses to Let ISIS Fighters and Their Families Return Home,” The Straits Times, February 11, 2020,….

[6] Noah Lee et al., “Southeast Asian Analysts: IS Steps Up Recruitment in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines,” Benar News, September 23, 2020,….

[7] Broches, “Southeast Asia’s Overlooked Foreign Fighter Problem.”

[8] “Malaysian Police Nab Nine Suspects Linked to Al-Qaeda in Latest Anti-Terror Bust,” TODAY, March 10, 2019,….

[9] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Malaysia 2020,….

[10] The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (2004).

[11] Hambali was an Indonesian veteran of the Afghan war and former military leader of JI who was looking to expand the jihad into Southeast Asia.

[12] The 9/11 Commission Report, 158.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Ibid., 170.

[15] Farik Zolkepli, “Malaysia Remains Transit Hub for Terrorists Due to Visa-Free Travel, Says Bukit Aman,” The Star, November 5, 2019,….

[16] Zolkepli, “Malaysia Remains Transit Hub for Terrorists Due to Visa-Free Travel, Says Bukit Aman.”

[17] Ray Sherman, “Malaysia: Police Arrest 9 Linked to African-Based Terror Group,” Benar News, March 10, 2019,….

[18] Sherman, “Malaysia: Police Arrest 9 Linked to African-Based Terror Group.”

[19] Ibid.

[20] “40 Kidnapping Attempts Foiled since 2018, Says ESSCom,” Free Malaysia Today, January 26, 2020,….

[21] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges,” The Diplomat, June 10, 2016,…; “The Current State of Maritime Security and CWS Role in the Celebes and Sulu Seas,” FROM THE OCEANS, 2012,

[22] Zam Yusa, “Malaysia and Indonesia Foreign Fighter Transit Routes to Philippines Identified,” The Defense Post, November 20, 2018,….

[23] “Militants Using Sabah as Transit Point to Get to Southern Philippines,” TODAY, January 24, 2017,….

[24] Yusa, “Malaysia and Indonesia Foreign Fighter Transit Routes to Philippines Identified.”

[25] Kenneth Yeo, “Kidnapping in the Sulu Sea: Implications on Terrorism in the Philippines,” The Diplomat, October 4, 2019,….

[26] Michael van Ginkel, “The Future of Philippine Maritime Enforcement,” The ASEAN Post, September 15, 2019,

[27] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Are Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols Actually Working?,” Wilson Center (blog), January 29, 2019,….

[28] Kenneth Yeo, “Threats Along the Sulu Sea: Exploring the Land-Sea Nexus,” Stable Seas, December 12, 2019,

[29] Joshua Bernard Espena and Joaquin Alfonso V. Toledo, “INDOMALPHI: A Future for Southeast Asian Security?,” Atlas Institute for International Affairs, September 8, 2020,….

[30] Espena and Toledo, “INDOMALPHI: A Future for Southeast Asian Security?”

[31] Yeo, “Threats Along the Sulu Sea.”

[32] Ginkel, “The Future of Philippine Maritime Enforcement.”

[33] P. Prem Kumar, “15 Officers Fired in Malaysia Airport Migration Scandal,” Anadolu Agency, May 31, 2016,….

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Julia Chan, “Audit Findings: Over 32,000 Fraudulent Approvals for Foreign Workers under Existing Immigration System,” Malay Mail, July 15, 2019,….

[37] Julia Chan, “Report: Immigration System Exploit Still Being Used to Issue Malaysian Passports Illegally,” Malay Mail, September 19, 2019,….

[38] Yantoultra Ngui, “Malaysia Arrests 7, Including Immigration Officer, Alleging Islamic State Ties,” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2017,….

[39] “Malaysia Arrests Immigration Officer and Six Others with ISIS Links,” The Straits Times, March 13, 2017,….

[40] Tashny Sukumaran, “Coronavirus: Malaysia Announces US$2.3 Billion Third Stimulus Package for Economy,” South China Morning Post, April 6, 2020,…; “Higher Funding for Healthcare Sector under Budget 2021,” The Star, October 26, 2020,….

[41] “Hundreds Arrested in Crackdown on Terrorist Routes in Southeast Asia,” Interpol, April 22, 2020,….


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