Known as the Bastion of Moderate Islam, Malaysia plays an important role in the Islamic world. With a Muslim majority of 60 percent, Islam is constitutionally Malaysia’s official religion[i], and the state is by many measures a stronghold of Sunni theology in Southeast Asia. Yet, its religious identity also intersects deeply with the ethnic identity of its Malay population. It is not uncommon to hear the Malay-Muslim label being used frequently to describe its racial majority, because of how synonymous the established ethno-religious connections have become with each other. At the same time, the state has managed to achieve significant progress in its economic and social development, as evident from a strong sense of national pride among its populace.

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However, while Islam has arguably been a foundational underpinning for Malaysian society, its many forms as practiced do not have an equally harmonious relationship with the state. In particular, with the heightened threat of terrorism in a post-9/11 era, the place of Jihadi-Salafism in Malaysian society has been increasingly prominent in domestic discourse. On June 28, 2016, Malaysia suffered its first ever terrorist attack[ii] near Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. Perpetrated by local supporters of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), the bomb blast on a nightclub in Puchong, Selangor, was a solemn reminder of the Jihadi elements in the country still sympathetic to radical causes of extremist groups like ISIS.

This phenomenon, however, is not new to Malaysia. The state first observed the threat of Islamic militancy in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s when Soviet-Afghanistan war veterans returned to Malaysia. Till today, radical groups founded on Jihadi ideology continue to operate covertly – since 2013, Malaysian police have reportedly arrested over 260 individuals for links to terror-related offenses and foiled over 14 attack plots.[iii]

Malaysia provides an interesting case study for analyzing the way Islam, and in particular the strain of Salafism and Jihadi-Salafism, has evolved in the state and intertwined with concepts of national identity, political frameworks, and policy narratives. In studying the emergence of Islamism and Salafism in Malaysia, scholars have emphasized the need to locate the phenomenon in the context of global trends of post-colonial Islamic fundamentalism. In much of the Islamic world, the failure of secular nationalism to prevent the subservience of Islamic societies to Western culture, as with the case in Egypt, led to a return to the Koran to re-establish Islam as the core of governance. Malaysia was not excluded from this fundamentalist turn, and upon closer examination, this trend can be argued to be most attributed to the political climate between the 1970s and 1990s.

The first part of this paper will study the emergence of Salafism and its Jihadi strain in Malaysia, looking at the influence of Saudi Arabia, returning fighters from the Soviet-Afghanistan War, and the political environment of the period. The second part will look at the different Jihadi groups that have a presence in Malaysia. The third part of the paper will then analyze Jihadi trends in Malaysia today, as well as the operational and ideological response of the Malaysian state.

How Islam Spread to Malaysia

The spread of Islam to Malaysia, or Malaya as it was known at the time, is closely connected to the flourishing of the great maritime Indian Ocean trading routes, made possible by the Strait of Malacca. Sandwiched between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, the Strait of Malacca was, and still is, the artery for commerce that connected China and Japan to India, the Middle East, and eastern Africa. Muslim merchants dominated these sea lanes that ran through the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the East China Sea. They established a vast trading network linking the coastlines along these routes, aided by an impeccable business integrity and universal transaction laws based on the Shariah. Therein lies the roots of Malaysia’s colorful maritime history, owing to its strategic geographical location straddling the Strait of Malacca. This made Malaysia a focal point for trade and commerce, and as these Muslim merchants interacted and lived with the indigenous Malay and other populations along the Malaya coastline, religion and ideas mixed and propagated.

Islam in particular held much appeal.[iv] The new religion offered equal-opportunity social advancement through spiritual devotion, which challenged the power of the traditional Hindu and Buddhist elites prevalent across Southeast Asia. Islam also embodied a complex theology that held much appeal for farmers and merchants in the coastal regions.

It was against this backdrop that, around the year 1390, a Hindu prince from Java, Parameswara, fled his homeland of Sumatra. Landing along the southwest coast of Malaya with his followers, these Sumatran exiles established the Sultanate of Malacca in 1403. The Arabs had already been maintaining a trading colony in Malacca since the 8th century. However, Islam only really became widespread in the region upon the arrival and conversion of Parameswara.[v] Around the year 1405, Parameswara fell in love with a princess from the Samudera-Pasai Sultanate[vi], a Muslim harbor kingdom on the north coast of Sumatra. He subsequently accepted Islam to marry her, and changed his name to Sultan Iskander Shah.

Even though this was certainly not the first instance of Islam in Malaysia, the success of Malacca as an entrepot hub and financial center for the region arguably contributed to the significance this incident had on the spread of Islam in Malaysia. This marked a major milestone for religion in Malaya, and as Malacca went on to become a regional hub for Islamic studies, Islam continued to flourish in peninsula Malaysia throughout the 15th and the 16th century. It remained mostly in the same fashion as the colonial era approached towards the 18th century, when Malaysia consisted only of multiple British colonies. It was not till 1957 that with independence, Malaysia became a newly established and unified state, largely embracing the secular system adopted from the colonial rulers. Specifically, the vision for Malaysia espoused by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister, was a secular State with Islam as the official religion.[vii]

Emergence of Salafism and Jihadi-Salafism

It is interesting, then, that with most of the middle east and the Islamic world turning towards Islam in the face of challenges from modernity, military defeat, and nationhood, Malaysia would also ride along with this a wave of Islamism.

Salafism refers to an interpretation of Islam that stems from a puritanical approach, seeking to restore Islamic faith and practice to the way they existed at the time of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Eschewing religious innovations in the belief that they encourage disunity among the Muslim community, they hold true to the Prophetic model they understand to represent the golden age of Islam, and that now serves as an example for Muslims to follow. Salafists share a common religious creed, that centers around strict adherence to the concept of tawhid (the oneness of God) and a staunch condemnation of human reasoning and rationality in religion. By strictly following the rules and guidance in the scriptures, the Koran and Hadith, they eliminate the biases of human subjectivity, thus allowing them to identify the truth of God’s revelations. From this perspective, Islamic pluralism does not exist, for there is only a singular legitimate religious interpretation.[viii]

In this vein, largely informed by the Arab-Muslim world’s experience with geopolitical tensions with Israel and western powers, a significant part of Islamic thought in Salafism and its methodology revolves around fundamental questions relating to the relationship between Muslims and political authority. While Salafists agree in creed, they differ on how to apply the prophetic model to the contemporary issues and problems of the present, to implement their beliefs and faith. They also differ in contextualizing and understanding present reality, and thus diverge on how to change this reality in accordance with applying the prophetic model.[ix] Hence, these rifts have resulted in the creation of three distinct categories: Quietest Salafists who believe in political abstinence, Haraki Salafists who believe in political activism, and Jihadi Salafists who believe in armed struggle.

Crucially, the Jihadi-Salafism theology is an approach to Jihadism that is coupled with an adherence to Salafism. Jihadism is driven by the idea that Jihad (religiously-sanctioned warfare) is an individual obligation incumbent upon all Muslims in the face of illegitimate, non-Islamic regimes. Given their exclusivist view that their approach to Islam is the only true one, Salafi-Jihadists thus often justify violence against others, including Muslims and non-combatants, with Takfir (the excommunication of Muslims and accusation of their apostasy because they do not adhere to the Wahhabi/Salafist way of practicing Islam).[x]

While Islam in Malaysia is still largely Sunni and follows the Shafi’i school of thought, Salafism is definitely a significant minority, and its influence is felt even at a political level. Plurality does exist with different Islamic sects existing in the state (with the exception of Shia and other banned forms of Islamic practice), but there is insufficient data to determine the proportion of Salafis in Malaysia.

The first wave of Salafism arrived in the Malay states in the 1920s.[xi] Several Malay Pan-Islamism reformists were influenced by the ideas of Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh while studying at the Egyptian al-Azhar University. Upon returning to the Malaysia, they began propagating these ideas. The most important figure within this group was Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin, who formed the Kaum Muda – a reformist group that was opposed to many Sufi rituals within the Malay world which they perceived as contrary to Islamic teaching. This  earlier  version  of  Salafi thought propagated,  among  others,  the  ideal  of  al-Afghani’s  Pan-Islamism, as  well  as  other  reform doctrines of al-Afghani and Abduh that emphasized the importance of reviving the Muslim ummah globally through and reconciling some elements of modernity with the Islamic culture of the people. However, the ideals propagated by the Kaum Muda never did spread to much of the Malay states (with the exception of the state of Perlis), because they created an atmosphere of hostility towards the establishment, to the disapproval of the country’s ruling (i.e. sultans) and religious authorities.[xii]

In the 1980s, a second wave of Salafism appeared, which took place during a period of Islamic revivalism[xiii] in Malaysia, stretching from the 1970s to the 1990s. During this time, there were domestic and external elements interested in the establishment of an Islamic state and calling for  the implementation of Shariah law. These can be connected to both developments overseas and the political climate of Malaysia during that period, which will be discussed in depth.

As a corollary, it is arguable that these socio-political developments in Malaysia over the past few decades have gone some ways in relating to the increasing prevalence of Salafism and Jihadi-Salafism in the state. A study by Jonathan Kelley and Nan Dirk De Graaf found that the national context of a country had a critical impact on an individual’s level of religiosity.[xiv] A nation’s religious environment significantly influences the way in which religious beliefs are “socialized”. If a nation is religious, then the socialization of religious beliefs has an even stronger impact than that of family influence. Furthermore, the endurance and strength of an individual’s religious beliefs is directly related to the national level of both institutionalized and non-institutionalized religiosity. In fact, the lack of religious training amongst Malaysians who support Jihadi groups, as well as their selective appropriation of Islamic notions and incapacity to distinguish between institutionalized theological strands, suggests they familiarized with Islam through alternative sources.[xv]

These developments have fundamentally altered Islamic normativity in the country, giving rise to new Islamic vocabularies that shaped contemporary Muslim subjectivities. To that end, the second wave of Salafism in Malaysia, and in particular Jihadi-Salafism’s emergence, can be traced to two key factors – the politicization of Islam, and the influence of Saudi Arabia.

  1. Politicization of Islam

Throughout much of Malaysia’s recent political history, Islam has always been included in the national conversation and often used to political ends. In stark contrast to the secular foundations envisioned by the parties involved in independence talks with the British[xvi], Malaysian society has slowly drifted markedly towards an Islamic-centric focus, egged on by domestic incentives to do so. In the Malaysian context, the politicization of Islam and the fracas that ensued between the two main political parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), blurred the lines between politics and religion, causing Islam to permeate cultural norms. These conversations often included debates over the legitimacy of jihad, in its many interpretations by the various political parties, as a means through which to introduce Islamic law and bring an Islamic state into being in the region – all to achieve political gain. For many individuals seeking to locate themselves and their identity vis-à-vis others in society, such social norms and structures played an important role, and thus contributed to an overall atmosphere of Islamism and growing Salafism.

It is an unfortunate observation that religion in Malaysia is frequently mobilized in service of narrow political interests, amplifying the appeal of Jihadi-Salafism by placing the necessity of the implementation of Islamic strictures at the forefront of national discourse. UMNO, as Malaysia’s dominant ruling party representing Malay-Muslims, predicates itself on the principle of Malay–Muslim supremacy for political appeal. Given that Malaysia has a Malay–Muslim majority population, UMNO’s main political rivals are also Malay–Muslim parties who brandish religious credentials as a source of legitimacy. Hence, by advancing a narrative since the 1980s that this Malay-Muslim supremacy was under attack from various cultural and religious segments, it has sought to position itself as the defender of that which is Islamic. Malaysian politics has become characterized by parties trying to “out-Islam” each other in a sort of Islamization race, and religion has come to be viewed as a zero-sum game, simply because politics is so too. [xvii]

The foundation that allows this sort of religious mobilization is the intersection between the religious Muslim and the ethnic Malay identity. Islam assumes salience by virtue of being the chief criteria for the definition of “Malay” as articulated in the Malaysian Constitution. That one must be Muslim to be a Malay is telling of the intimate relationship between ethnicity and religion that the state enforces.[xviii] The role of Islam at the core of Malay identity has also gained greater prominence because two other pillars upon which that identity was once constructed – namely language and royalty – no longer have the same currency they did decades ago. This centrality of Islam has been very much augmented by the state-orchestrated discourse of Malay primacy encapsulated in the concepts of rights of the bumiputra, or “sons of the land”, as part of UMNO’s employment of exclusive racial and religious discourse. Indeed, though ethnicity has long been the primary identity marker for Malays in Malaysia, post-independence constructs may well have initiated a shift to Malays seeing themselves first as Muslim, rather than Malay.[xix]

Islam, through this lens, can be seen as having the utility of a political ideology to shore up the legitimacy of the various competing parties, which also has the side-effect of devolving conversations into a particularly exclusive brand of Islamism that has no intention to encourage pluralism or compromise.

The Islamization race between UMNO and PAS can be traced back to the early 1980s, when a group of young ulema took over the leadership of PAS and transformed its political approach. The party began distancing itself from the ultra-Malay nationalist agenda of its previous president, and condemned Malay nationalism as fanatical, chauvinistic, and running contrary to Islamic teachings. The party also adopted a clear Islamist agenda, advocating for an Islamic state and implementation of Islamic law.[xx] In essence, the PAS fashioned Islam into an identity and dissenting voice for the Malay-Muslim community in their search for greater political legitimacy. More often than not, PAS attacks against UMNO have been targeted what they argue are questionable religious credentials and a secular approach to politics. This has included the demonization of UMNO leaders as infidels.[xxi]

Challenged by this new overtly Islamist political agenda, UMNO has, for its part, sought to strengthen its political position through utilizing Islam and co-opting Muslim religious figures into government. Paralleled with the change in PAS leadership as mentioned above, UMNO also witnessed the pronouncement of a new strategy focused on ‘the struggle to change the attitude of the Malays in line with the requirements of Islam in this modern age’.[xxii] As part of that attempt to define the boundaries of Islamic politics in Malaysia, UMNO regularly presents PAS as ‘fanatics’ and ‘radicals’, while portraying itself as representative of a more proper Islam. In that vein, it has expanded the religious bureaucracy (for example, institutionalizing accommodation for religious prayer)[xxiii] and advanced policies in support of personal piety.

UMNO has also frequently accused PAS of supporting Islamic militancy. It discredits PAS as fundamentalist Islamists, taking issue with their literal interpretation of jihad that encourages violence and splits the Malay community. While some links between the PAS and jihadi-Salafists do exist, UMNO was particularly strategic in exploiting fears about Islamic militancy for political advantage and, in doing so, ruthlessly suppressing the PAS. This was particularly highlighted by the 1985 Memali incident[xxiv], in which a police raid on Kampung Memali, in the remote Baling district in Kedah state, resulted in the death of a PAS leader Ibrahim Mahmood, along with 18 other civilians. Ibrahim had been accused of “deviant teachings” and was to be arrested under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act. The continual suppression of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party by the Malaysian government eventually led to the creation of the jihadi-Salafist group, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, which will be discussed further in the following section.

Meanwhile, UMNO has in more recent times co-opted Salafist elements into its political corps in an effort to bolster its religious backing and appeal with a wider Malay-Muslim demographic. The Pertubuhan Ilmuwan Malaysia (ILMU), a group of Salafi ulama within UMNO[xxv], has been at the forefront in defending the UMNO’s Islamic repute.[xxvi] Especially in light of opposition from PAS, having a group of Salafis to counter their religious views can be beneficial to UMNO for enhancing the party’s Islamic credentials and improves its credibility with Malaysian Muslim voters.[xxvii] The Salafi ulama can also use religious based arguments to discredit PAS and its leaders.[xxviii] That said, while the ILMU ulama have categorically rejected the ideology of Jihadi groups like ISIS and discouraged Malaysian Muslims from joining them, the similarities in the mindset and religious doctrine between these groups and the Salafi ulama are making some Malaysian Muslims more susceptible to the Jihadi theology.

Overall, the increasingly extremist rhetoric in the country promoted through the state’s politicization of Islam, UMNO’s increasing concessions to conservative Islam for political gains, the political race between UMNO and PAS over the “right” version of Islam, and the Jihadi rhetoric between the parties fostered the seeds of Jihadi-Salafism. The role of the Malaysian state in politicizing Islam in narrowly essentialist terms is regrettable, in contrast with Islam’s rich and pluralistic intellectual tradition, thus setting the stage for the acceptance of Islamist extremist categories into mainstream public discourse on Islam.[xxix] Malaysia’s ethnocentric Islamic discourse, obsessed as it is with the idea of Malay supremacy and now given a new brand of legitimacy as Islamic supremacy supposedly aimed at creating a Malay-Islamic state, can also be seen as the prime source of the radicalization of Malaysian Islam such as to threaten Malaysia’s character as a democratic nation state.[xxx]

  1. The Influence of Saudi Arabia

The relationship that Saudi Arabia has with Wahhabism is the centerpiece of that which animates its religious strategy and its domestic and foreign policy. Wahhabism as a movement was founded in the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1700s by Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, a scholar who believed Islam needed to be rejuvenated. [xxxi] Many Wahabis view themselves as a sect of Salafism and share many creedal tenets with other Salafists, specifically that of returning to the austere practices laid out by the Prophetic model and rejecting all innovations and idolatry in Islam.

Wahhab’s calls for puritanical reform and his attacks on the tombs of early Muslims came off as too radical, and led to his expulsion from his hometown. He found refuge at Diriyah, a city then ruled by Muhammad ibn Saud. There the two leaders established a religious-political pact during the year 1744, under which the Wahhabis aided the king in battle in exchange for adoption of Wahhabism as the official form of Islam. Jihad, or holy war, was initiated against Muslims in Arabia who refused to adopt the old Salafi ways as re-prescribed by Wahhab and upheld by King Saud, who was presented as God’s chosen monarch to whom all Muslims had to pledge absolute allegiance. [xxxii]

Later, the exodus of Muslim Brotherhood members to Saudi Arabia during the Nasser regime in Egypt opened new channels of communication and transmission with Wahhabism, and would also inform the modus operandi of the Jihadi movement. Even though he wasn’t in Saudi Arabia, Egyptian intellectual, writer, and Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb contributed significantly to this academic discourse by publishing a series of books in the 1960s and 1970s, rigorously tackling issues of Islamic identity, loyalty and the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims. He addressed issues pertaining to the Shariah and the necessity to refer to it as the supreme law.  More importantly, he also laid the blueprint for rejecting any other system of legislation, removing oneself from an ignorant and non-Islamic Jahilliya society, and subsequently challenging it through Jihad. Sayyid Qutb was perhaps thus the most influential in adapting Wahhabism towards the Jihadi trend through an academic track. The Jihadi movement found what they were looking for in a Wahhabi-Qutb amalgamation – Qutb provided the theoretical framework while the Wahhabis prepared the legal setting. Hence, the Jihadi movement was molded into a more settled form according to this view, which in turn shaped its worldview of itself and other societies.[xxxiii]

Saudi Arabia, in accordance with its own national agenda, has taken an interest in disseminating Wahhabi thought in other Muslim nations. While the more extreme tendencies of Wahhabism have been much toned down throughout the years by the Saudi ruling dynasty in the interest of modern statehood and international norms, Saudi Arabia’s dissemination of Wahhabi thought in the guise of Salafism has proceeded apace since the 1970s. This evangelical fervor was further kept afloat by its geopolitical desire to eclipse post-revolutionary Iran in a rivalry for the claim of an Islamic state.

The Saudi-Malaysian bilateral relationship incorporates that as a core aspect of cooperation. Since the early 1970s, Malaysian leaders have developed a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi financial assistance has generally taken two forms: assistance provided to help build religious institutions as well as to further support activities conveying the message of Islam in Malaysia, and assistance aimed at supporting economic development in Malaysia. However, the religious dimension remains arguably the bedrock of bilateral relations.[xxxiv] The Wahhabi transmission process in Southeast Asia has been well documented, penetrating structures of politics, charity associations, non-governmental organizations, Islamist movements, and educational networks, often through the use of financial and other resources.

Economically, within the context of the oil boom of the 1970s and the ensuing rise of the political clout of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, petrodollars from Saudi Arabia started pouring into many Muslim countries worldwide, including into Malaysia, for the propagation of Islam and the spreading of the Saudi-Salafi indoctrination process.[xxxv] It is also worth noting that this was executed by the Saudis to the warm reception of the Malaysians, the latter becoming a strong partner and a vocal supporter of the former. Malaysia became a major recipient of aid distributed under the aegis of the Saudi-managed Islamic Development Bank. Among the primary financial beneficiaries have been government-sanctioned bodies responsible for the process of propagating Islam, such as the Islamic Welfare Association of Malaysia[xxxvi] and the Malaysian-initiated Regional Islamic Dakwah Council for Southeast Asia and Pacific[xxxvii]. In 1980, Prince Muhammad al-Faysal of Saudi Arabia offered Malaysia $100 million for an interest-free finance corporation, and two years later the Saudis helped finance the government-sponsored Bank Islam Malaysia as part of an effort to implement Islamic economic systems in the country according to the Shariah.[xxxviii]

Diplomatically, as with many countries where Saudi embassies were located, a cultural attaché and cultural mission was established at the Saudi embassy in Malaysia to assist in the propagation of Islam. The mission became an important channel for cultural tie-ups and served as a touchpoint for Saudi intellectual and religious influence in Malaysia. A few Saudi-based and Saudi government-supported organizations for Islamic propagation were actively engaged in the teaching of Saudi-Salafism doctrine with Islamic organizations in Malaysia as well, either through the mission or through direct communication with them.[xxxix] In addition, the mission also employed local graduates from Saudi universities to become their official preachers in the teaching of Islam. [xl]

Educationally, it would be through these preachers that the mission would subsequently acquire recommendations for new recruits amongst local students to be sent to Saudi Arabian universities on scholarships for their higher education.[xli] In the 1980s and 1990s, many Malaysians went to the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, for their higher education to pursue Islamic education, on scholarships sponsored by the Saudi government to study religion in Islamic universities dominated by Salafi scholars. Exposed to the Wahhabi way of thinking, many who returned began propagating their ideas[xlii], or became religious teachers and went on to instill the same theology within the younger generation. Hence, since the 1990s, traditional Islamic theology taught in government schools has been gradually shifting to a view of theology derived from the Saudi Arabia. Students who grew up imbibing the Wahhabi-oriented curriculum in schools are now in many sectors of the work force. These include the government and civil service, scholars and academics, lawyers, and others hold positions of power, especially the political establishment.[xliii]

This is sustained by the political incentive to support the presence of Wahhabi and Salafi elements in the country to bilateral ends. Hence, despite the existence of a national fatwa (legal ruling) pronouncing Wahhabism as unsuitable for Malaysian society[xliv], even the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department has defended Wahhabism in Parliament as being part of mainstream Sunni Islam.[xlv] Taken together, this creates a national environment where a hardline, Wahhabi approach to Islam has currency in the overall religious discussion in Malaysia.

Jihadi Groups in Malaysia

The politicization of Islam and Saudi influence described above was followed by the formation of Jihadi terror groups within Malaysia, and an upswing in support for foreign groups as Malaysia began encountering the rise of transnational Islamist terrorist groups. This took place mainly in the late 1990s, through the network of Mujahedeen Soviet-Afghan War veterans who returned to Malaysia. These individuals carried out their activities in Malaysia (and often throughout Southeast Asia) namely under two groups: Kumpula Mujihidu Malaysia (KMM) Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

  1. Kumpula Mujihidu Malaysia

The primary operational threat from within Malaysia comes from the KMM, a violent jihadi-Salafist group with a number of operational cells throughout the country. The group was established in October 1995 by Zainon Ismail and six other Mujahedeen veterans of the Soviet-Afghanistan war.[xlvi] Its main objectives were to overthrow the Malaysian government and to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia, and thereafter a Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate. The PAS was seen as the only Malaysian political party that subscribed to a sympathetic ideology in alignment with that of the KMM, and it is unsurprising that both also have overlapping membership. Accordingly, KMM also constructed a nationwide operations network to defend the PAS, should the Malaysian government crackdown on it. This entailed the buying of weapons, assault rifles and hand grenades through connections in Indonesia and Thailand. However, after 9/11, the Malaysian authorities cracked down on the KMM, resulting in the arrest of most of its senior leadership.[xlvii] However, it is uncertain if the KMM is currently defunct, because it is likely that some members joined other Jihadi groups like JI, and it is also possible that former members still remain in contact and may re-emerge in some form.

  1. Jemaah Islamiyah

JI represents a more regional threat in scope to Malaysia and Southeast Asian states. The group was created by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, two Indonesians who were initially affiliated with the Darul Islam movement to impose Islamic law on Indonesia as it transitioned from Dutch rule. Fleeing to Malaysia in 1985, the two men began setting up an insurgent network while in exile, sending fighters to join the Mujahedeen fighting against the Soviets in the Soviet-Afghanistan War.[xlviii] This gave those who fought important military skills, and exposure to new ideologies through contact with Afghan insurgents. It was also during this period that close ties were established with individuals who would go on to become associated with al-Qaeda core and affiliated groups. Notably, the connections between JI and KMM strengthened as well during this period, with frequent interactions at the senior leadership level. Sungkar and Ba’asyir formalized their group as JI in the early 1990s and relocated to Indonesia in 1998 following the collapse of President Suharto. That said, operational and administrative units were set up across the region, and elements still remain in Malaysia today. These cells would consist of eight to ten members who met on a weekly basis to study the Koran and prepare for Jihad. To train the next generation of jihadists, JI also established its own schools in the Malaysian states of Kelantan and Johor.[xlix]

Ultimately, the group seeks to establish an archipelagic Islamic Southeast Asian state incorporating Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, Brunei, and Singapore. [l] Claiming to be an Islamic revival movement, much like al-Qaeda and other Jihadi-Salafists, JI believes that the fall of the Ottoman Empire marked the beginning of an era of moral decadence stemming from modernity and secularism among the Muslim community. Re-establishing an Islamic caliphate is seen as the solution for enforcing Islamic morality, and JI has selected Southeast Asia as the place where this vision should be realized.



[iii] Jani, M. (2017). MALAYSIA. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 9(1), 18-21. Retrieved from




[vii] Merdeka, 50 years of Islamic State?,


[ix] Salafism in Lebanon



[xii] Maszlee   Malik,   “Theology   in   Malaysia:   Between   Mainstream   and   the   Periphery”:  pp. 52–56.

[xiii] Ahmad  Fauzi  Abdul  Hamid,  “The  formative  years  of  the Dakwah movement:  origins, causes and manifestations of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia.” ikim Journal 10, no. 2 (2002): pp. 87–124








[xxi] Kamarulnizam Abdullah, The Politics of Islam in Contemporary Malaysia (Bangi: Penerbit University Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2002), 192–6.


[xxiii] Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam












[xxxv] Barry   Desker,   “Islam   in   Southeast   Asia:   the   challenge   of   radical   interpretations.”   Cambridge Review of International Affairs 16, no. 3 (2003): p. 420.

[xxxvi] perkim Leaflet, 1: The Brochure of Muslim Welfare Organisation Malaysia (perkim) (Kuala Lumpur: Affluent Master Sdn. Bhd. 2003) p. 3)

[xxxvii] Nair, Shanti. Islam in Malaysian Foreign Policy. Vol. 10. (Routledge, 2013) p. 105.

[xxxviii] Pipes, Daniel (2009) [1980]. In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (5th ed.). Transaction Publishers. p. 314.

[xxxix] Asmady Idris, “Key Determining Factors Influencing Small States’ Relationships: a Case Study of Malaysia’s Relations with Saudi Arabia.” (2006): pp. 236–258.



[xlii] Zainah Anwar, Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia: Dakwah among the Students


[xliv] ‘No place for Wahhabism in Malaysia, fatwa council says’, Malay Mail Online, 1 March 2015,

[xlv] Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, ‘Wahabi bukan ajaran sesat’, 27 April 2016, (accessed 12 May 2016)

[xlvi] Abdullah, ‘Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)’, pp. 35-36.

[xlvii] Gunaratna, ‘The current and emerging extremist threat in Malaysia’, p. 2





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