Arming Community Actors to Combat Violent Extremism in Malaysia

A whole-of-society approach is crucial in combatting violent extremism in Malaysia. Credit: The Star


Southeast Asia has become an ideal breeding ground for violent extremism (VE) due to volatile political, social and economic conditions that have afflicted the region for years. In contrast to its neighbours, which have suffered an increase in militant and terrorist activity as a result, Malaysia has successfully managed to stave off the threat of physical attacks within its borders. Much of this success is owed to rigorous intelligence-gathering and policing efforts, primarily by the Counter-Terrorism Division (E8) of the Royal Malaysia Police (RMP). Since 2013, the authorities foiled at least 25 terrorist plots and arrested more than 500 people for suspected involvement in terrorism. But while the importance and effectiveness of security policing should not be underestimated, this tactic alone is no longer sustainable.

The internet and social media have transformed how extremist and hateful propaganda reaches its intended audience and incites them towards violence. Of particular concern is the threat posed by ‘lone-wolf’ actors – disgruntled individuals who are radicalised online and could easily evade detection. To make matters worse, there are scores of citizens who tacitly support groups like the Islamic State (ISIS). The reality is that Malaysia demonstrates similar structural enablers to VE as those that have amplified the threat in neighbouring states. Therefore, our good fortune so far should not lull us into a false sense of security.

What Malaysia desperately needs in the long-term is a holistic strategy that balances reactive enforcement (‘hard’) measures with preventive (‘soft’) approaches. This would warrant participation across the societal spectrum to address highly localised VE dynamics. Existing research has shown that support for VE is not merely ideological, but also linked to a range of psychosocial and demographic stressors. Eliminating the motivational drivers and conducive conditions for extremism should therefore be a top priority for the country. However, a long-mooted National Action Plan (NAP) on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) is progressing slowly. Meanwhile, a state-led policy that continues to rely on tried and tested ‘hard’ measures has stymied the involvement of non-state actors, particularly civil society organisations (CSOs), in the P/CVE agenda.

Barriers to Community-Level P/CVE

While the overall space for research and advocacy on P/CVE in Malaysia has grown in recent years, it has not corresponded to a significant increase in prevention and intervention programmes at the community level. There are several inter-related reasons for this:

Gap analysis: Community-level participation in P/CVE

Firstly, and perhaps most crucially, CSOs in the country are simply not equipped with the knowledge and skills to conduct effective P/CVE programming within their communities. In the Philippines and Indonesia for instance, community and faith-based entities play an active role in weeding out extremism – from facilitating the rehabilitation and reintegration of VE offenders to carrying out early intervention among at-risk populations, such as women and youth. In contrast, the role of CSOs in Malaysia remain confined to online/offline counter-messaging and education campaigns, as well as research-based policy solutions. These are certainly vital contributions, but they do not harness the full potential of community stakeholders in this field.

CSOs traditionally function as conduits between the people and the state, have an established grassroots presence, and are hence in the strongest position to engage groups susceptible to VE. Community-led P/CVE approaches are also likelier to succeed because CSOs are perceived to be more neutral and trustworthy than state-aligned bodies. As such, it is imperative that we address the existing knowledge gap by investing in training workshops and building the capacity of local CSOs to proactively combat extremism. Already, there are useful online resources that aim to assist community actors in designing and implementing context-specific P/CVE programmes. These should be maximised by CSOs interested in conducting micro-scale initiatives within their localities.

The second barrier to community-level participation in P/CVE is a disjointed society-state partnership, underpinned by a lack of cooperation. There have been attempts to bridge this divide via tokenistic engagements and consultation sessions, but these have rarely led to any meaningful collaboration. One reason is the prevailing distrust between government and community actors, leading to a ‘silo mentality’ that has stifled information exchanges and knowledge-sharing. P/CVE has also become a rather profitable field of inquiry, and this has inadvertently spawned rivalries among practitioners vying for generous amounts of funding and resources.

On the flipside, there is the warped view among some CSOs that VE is principally a security problem and should therefore be addressed using laws and legal systems. This echoes the sentiment that terrorists and their sympathisers should all be locked up and harshly punished, eschewing the importance of addressing the localised drivers of VE. Such mindsets are lingering impediments to sustained cooperation in this field. If the country aims to develop a holistic strategy to tackle extremism, it needs to first incentivise a functional society-state partnership – one that is based on trust and mutually-beneficial outcomes.

The third barrier stems from an inherent clash between greater societal participation in P/CVE and national security concerns. Governments often need to weigh the benefits of grassroots P/CVE initiatives against broader security and safety implications. It is commonplace for CSOs to operate in conflict zones or areas facing active militancy despite the dangers. The Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW) in the Philippines and the role of CSOs in the protracted Southern Thailand peace talks are just some regional examples where community-driven programmes have persisted despite the omnipresent threat of violence.

The situation is less precarious in Malaysia, where the focus has mainly been on peacetime procedures. And yet, when it comes to sharing data or granting CSOs access to sensitive places or persons, an invisible ‘firewall’ is erected in the name of national security. There is a degree of discretionary power in defining shared spaces (where CSOs can operate) in P/CVE and areas that are heavily restricted. More often than not, Malaysian authorities have erred on the side of caution. However, the aforementioned trust-building exercise and reforming the society-state partnership is a way out of this problem. It also provides an avenue to clearly demarcate a role for CSOs in the national P/CVE agenda, one that does not encroach into, but rather complements the state’s jurisdiction.

‘Arming’ the Community: Towards Long-Term Resilience

A raging pandemic this year has perpetuated rising levels of hate and xenophobic attitudes in many societies, altogether intensifying the threat of violent radicalisation. As such, the role of community actors is even more critical. A sound approach to deter violent extremism must be incorporated into Malaysia’s overall post-pandemic recovery strategy. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin addressed this at the recent virtually-held ASEAN summit and related summits, calling on world leaders to expand their efforts to flatten the VE curve in light of COVID-19. To that end, CSOs are vital conduits – especially because they can fill a temporary vacuum caused by the government’s pivot to restoring the economy.

CSOs can already support online and offline P/CVE efforts during the pandemic, especially by helping the authorities shut down disinformation campaigns that VE recruiters often look to exploit. The digital space is undoubtedly where community-driven initiatives can have the most impact as it targets the epicentre of radicalisation and recruitment processes, but also due to their sheer outreach potential. In a newly-published report, The Asia Foundation highlighted the need for CSOs in the region to be better trained in online prevention programmes. For maximum effect, these could take shape via collaboration with internet regulators and social media platforms.

In the long-term, however, community actors need to be armed with greater responsibilities in a much-touted ‘whole-of-society’ approach – encompassing avenues beyond just counter-messaging and education campaigns. For instance, CSOs have a major part to play in the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning foreign fighters and their families. Adequate support systems, especially for women and children embroiled in VE, is absolutely crucial to give them a pathway back to normalcy. The litany of NGOs and rights groups already working with these segments must be empowered to fulfil that role effectively.

On its part, the state must agree to ‘share the burden’ by teaming up with CSOs when conducting interventions, especially against youths who are beginning to exhibit VE tendencies. Detaining or imprisoning them from the get-go, as is currently practiced, is harsh and can end up doing more harm than good. Instead, counter-terrorism researchers suggest positive intervention methods like getting social workers or trusted community figures to gradually talk them out of their radical convictions. This does not imply that enforcement and policing measures are no longer needed. They remain an integral part of any holistic P/CVE strategy, but should be reserved for hardened terrorists who might pose an immediate threat to public security.

Meanwhile, at the policy level, a desperate overhaul is required in terms of how civil society currently participates in discussions and high-level decision-making processes. Any government-led response to the VE threat, whether minuscule or large, should ideally be based on a consultative relationship with CSOs. Their experiences on the ground are essential to developing targeted and niche P/CVE policies. And while we advocate for CSOs to support the government in this endeavour, it is equally important for state actors to get involved in community-based initiatives where possible.

Malaysia has an opportunity through its yet to be unveiled NAP to carve out a substantial role for community stakeholders and thereby cultivate a stronger society-state partnership. The benefits of collaboration far outweigh any existing challenges and limitations, which are frankly surmountable. Maybe then we can start thinking about achieving lasting resilience to violent extremism.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Akil Yunus is a former journalist turned research analyst specialising in security and countering violent extremism. He holds a Masters in International Relations (Terrorism and Political Violence) from the University of Birmingham, and currently manages research projects at IMAN Research, a boutique think tank in Malaysia.

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