Terrorist Working from Home: Pandemic and The Transposition of Violent Extremism in Malaysia

Though the number of terrorism-linked arrests have declined during the pandemic, terrorist groups in Malaysia are afforded time to rebuild. Credit: MALAYSIA SPECIAL BRANCH’S COUNTER TERRORISM DIVISION


Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of violent extremist ideology has increased. Because of social restrictions, there has been a shift in tactics used by violent extremists to spread their ideologies and conduct their activities. For instance, violent extremist organizations are now more reliant on technology and social media to spread their ideologies. Also, the pandemic has altered the domestic threat landscape and provided a platform for people of various ideologies to openly advance agendas and propagate justifications for radical and nationalistic misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories. The potential rise in online terrorist content and a broader acceptance of it, ostensibly due to the significant number of lives affected by the pandemic, increases the chances of radicalization. Unfortunately, Malaysia is not spared from this threat.

Trends of Radicalization during COVID-19

The internet is a double-edged sword. While increasing access to knowledge, it also promotes radicalization and indoctrination through digital media. Its low cost, dynamic, globally-connected, and decentralized networks facilitate online radicalization. Additionally, the emergence of technology has created pathways for diverse ideologies to take root. Social media, for example, serves as a tool for jihadi recruitment. From personal interviews with local law enforcement agencies, Malaysia is experiencing similar trends.

Since 2019, violent extremist groups have exploited the prevailing pandemic to advance their cause. Violent extremists are riding on the rising public anger due to the pandemic towards governments. By leveraging on this public anger while providing “solutions”, violent extremist groups intend to increase opportunities to overthrow governments while increasing public support for themselves. Not only does the pandemic aid violent extremist groups in their attempts to destabilize national security, but it is also an opportune time for groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) to rebuild after years of counterterrorism efforts against them.

Additionally, violent extremist groups have adapted their narratives around the pandemic. There is a growing sentiment that radicalized individuals are contagious and can spread the “disease” through interactions like the coronavirus. Unfortunately, this breeds mistrust towards specific communities, establishing the fertile ground for recruitment by violent extremist groups. Such groups would exploit the mistrust and mutual grievances to garner support from potential recruits while reinforcing their members’ worldviews.

This phenomenon is also experienced in Muslim-majority Malaysia particularly in certain Malay communities. These communities generally propagate the belief that COVID-19 is “God’s punishment” for those who do not share their ideologies. They also propagate anti-vaccine propaganda.

Malaysia is currently facing threats from several violent extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Abu Sayyaf Group, and IS. Additionally, Malaysia’s political instability has exposed the country to the possibility of politically-driven radicalization, in addition to religious-based extremism. Noteworthily, politically-driven radicalization has yet to culminate to terrorism in Malaysia. From personal interviews, the authors found that in Malaysia, such radicalization is connected with a range of issues, including politics, religion, race and gender relations, and the government’s failure to manage the pandemic effectively.

The abrupt change of government in Malaysia has also created several uncertainties, affecting the drafting and implementation of P/CVE policies by government agencies such as the police and intelligence. The change of government has led to a change in priorities and agenda within the new government. The new government has shifted their focus from hard policing to soft policing and has called for the participation of civil society to join the government in being first responders of radicalization and terrorist attacks. Malaysia is also concerned about JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia as his release might reactivate JI networks in Malaysia. Currently, the JI network in Malaysia has shifted its allegiance to IS-linked groups in Southeast Asia and have decentralized cells operating in both online and offline domains.

The nexus between violent extremism developments in Indonesia and Malaysia is evident. In the latest Indonesian church bombing in March 2021, Malaysian sympathizers have supported calls for more powerful bombs to be used for future attacks in their social media accounts which includes both Malaysian and Indonesian followers. As Indonesian extremists target the police and non-Muslims, there is a possibility that the Malaysian followers may adopt such notions, potentially leading to the police and non-Muslims being targeted in Malaysia.

Furthermore, prior to COVID-19, there was an increasing trend of violent extremism in East Malaysia due to the increasing support for such groups in Sabah and the southern Philippines. These groups have established Tawau and Sandakan in Sabah as new transit points for their entry into Southern Philippines and Myanmar. Users of these transit points include both Malaysians and foreigners of diverse nationalities including those from distant conflict zones. The list of those arrested includes Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, the Philippines, Turkey, Yemen and Xinjiang.   It is likely that these transit points will be utilized again once travel restrictions are lifted. In addressing this growing threat from its citizens and foreigners, the Malaysian government has ratified the international treaties on terrorism from the United Nations Security Council Standing Committee on Terrorism.

The Malaysian government has supported other international efforts to combat violent extremism. This includes supporting ASEAN’s collaboration with Canada and Russia to combat International Terrorism and the establishment of the ASIA-Europe meeting (ASEM), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Counter-Terrorism Taskforce and Commonwealth Committee on Terrorism (CCT).  Malaysia has also supported regional efforts, including the ASEAN Political and Security Blueprint (2015-2025), The 2017 Manila Declaration, and the ASEAN Plan of Action to Prevent and Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism (ASEAN PoA PCRVE). One notable international initiative that Malaysia developed was the 2015 Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates. This declaration outlines measures to promote moderation and curb extremism globally. Malaysia’s support for these initiatives stems from its long history of grievances concerning the political, economic, racial, ethnic, and religious and ease of spreading hate-related ideologies.

Malaysian Legal Landscape and Threat of Terrorism

To combat violent extremism in Malaysia, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act (SMATA) in 2015. These legislations adhere closely to UNSC 2178.  Previously, in 2012, the Internal Security Act of 1960 (ISA), widely used for violent extremism offences, was replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) 2012. The difference between SOSMA and POTA is that the former is a procedural law while the latter is a detention law.

SOSMA, in lieu of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), governs the procedures for arrest, temporary detention, investigation, and trial of an individual in cases involving offences against the state, terrorism, organized crime, and human trafficking. In other words, SOSMA is explicitly used for violent extremism cases, while CPC is used for general offences. Notably, in 2007, Chapter VIA was added to the Penal Code to address security concerns related to violent extremism and espionage.

Despite these general laws in addressing terrorism, upholding the rule of law remains challenging particularly during COVID-19. Violent extremists have sought to profit from disturbances caused by COVID-19 by riding the wavetops of divisiveness and hate speech, magnified by the pandemic. The threat has become even more challenging to contain, as low-cost, low-tech attacks against soft targets by so-called lone wolves have become increasingly prevalent. Since 2020, only seven have been arrested for violent extremism offences. However, only four people were charged, with the rest released due to lack of evidence. According to the authors’ interviews with law enforcement officials, the pandemic was initially seen as a blessing in disguise as violent extremists in Malaysia were seemingly more concerned about sustaining their daily lives than conducting attacks. However, as aforementioned, the pandemic awards terrorist groups here time to rebuild, readying them for attacks. Any attacks conducted in the short-term will be particularly detrimental for Malaysia as the country is reeling from 1) high COVID-19 infection rates, 2) political instability, and 3) economic downturn due to the pandemic.

Additionally, the travel and social restrictions seemingly have an added effect of reducing the number of attacks in Malaysia. Coincidentally, the number of violent extremism-related arrests have also reduced during this period. However, the actual threat of violent extremism should not be measured by the number of arrests or a rule-based approach. Instead, an indicator should be based on monitoring social media platforms and social messaging platforms commonly used by violent extremist groups such as Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp. Based on personal interviews with Normah Ishak, Malaysia’s first female counterterrorism chief, the Malaysian Special Branch will continue this policy of active monitoring under her leadership to maintain peace and security in the country.

The Malaysian law enforcement authorities (LEAs) have also adopted a soft approach in mitigating this threat. This was implemented in 2016 by Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, Normah Ishak’s predecessor. The Religious Rehabilitation Program that was subsequently developed is based on reeducation and rehabilitation of those found guilty of violent extremism. Reeducation is aimed at correcting political and religious misconceptions while rehabilitation entails comprehensive monitoring of these individuals following their release. Additionally, upon their release, these individuals will be assisted in their reintegration into society. From personal interviews with the authors, LEA officials shared their belief that as with general crime offenders, convicted violent extremists should be given a second chance at life. A soft approach would better serve to convince these offenders to give up their pursuit of violence.

Facilitating this second chance highlights the need to involve other stakeholders such as religious, educational, cultural, and youth leaders. Additionally, to enhance detection of violent extremism, these stakeholders should be given appropriate training to pick up any red flags within their localities. This stems from the importance of community and society-based monitoring.

Nationally, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ pending national action plan is crucial in aiding and guiding the approach taken by relevant LEAs. Taking a soft approach is clearly in tandem with the growing danger of lone-wolf attacks, which are more challenging to detect. By involving the community, early intervention is possible as they would be the first to identify any indications of would-be violent extremists.

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

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Dr. Saslina Kamaruddin is a Senior Law Lecturer at the Faculty of Management & Economics, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris. She obtained her PhD in Law from the University Teknologi MARA in Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Criminal Justice. Her interests are in AML and Anti-Terrorist Financing laws, Criminal law, and prevention/countering of violent extremism-related laws. She frequently publishes in local and international journals on these topics.

  • Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zaiton Hamin is an Associate Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law, University Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Shah Alam for the last 34 years. She obtained her LLB (Hons.) from North London University, LL.M from King's College, University of London and PhD from University of Leeds. Currently, she teaches Information Technology Law, Computer-related Crimes and Legal Aspects of Forensic Accounting. She regularly publishes articles on Information Technology Law and Criminal Justice issues in local and international journals and is a reviewer of several high impact journals on such laws.

  • Nadia Nabila Mohd Saufi is a passionate law lecturer at the Faculty of Business Management & Professional Studies, Management and Science University. She is also a Doctoral Candidate in Criminal Justice and Constitutional Law, focusing on policing peaceful assembly in Malaysia and the United Kingdom. She obtained her Bachelor of Legal Studies (Hons.) and Master of Law from the University Teknologi MARA. Her interests are crowd policing, peaceful assembly, hate speech, terrorism-related law, and artificial intelligence law alongside her doctoral thesis. She frequently publishes in local and international journals in the areas mentioned above.

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