Militants from distant lands will find it hard to gain a foothold in Malaysia, officials and security experts said, following the arrest of a 34-year-old Somali national believed to be a senior operative of the al-Shabaab terrorist group.
"The person is a member of al-Shabaab. They have not set up a base in this country, but they have shared their ideology" in personal interactions, Home Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters at Kamunting Detention Centre in Perak on May 9th, a day after the arrest.
Five other Somalis were under surveillance, he said, adding that Malaysia would not tolerate any militant activities on its soil.
"We do not want Malaysia to be a terrorist training nest. We will also prevent Malaysia from being considered a launch pad for terrorist activity in Southeast Asia and the world. We are firm in taking this action," he said.
The al-Shabaab operative made the wrong choice in coming to Malaysia, the minister said. "They have been unsuccessful finding their footing in Malaysia, and they will never be successful because our government will continue our mission to crack down on terrorism."
"A cause that will never find support"
News of the arrest surprised many.
"Al-Shabaab has never been a security issue for Malaysia. In fact, as far as I can remember, this is the first time that Malaysia has been presented with such a link to al-Shabaab," said Abdul Razak Ahmad, an associate professor at Malaysia's National Defence University.
"First, the number of Somalis in Malaysia is very small and most of them are refugees and legitimate students. These are the people who fled the conflict. They want a new life and a new future," Abdul said. "Second, Malaysians are generally very moderate and progressive Muslims. They do not subscribe to radical Islam, and al-Shabaab is a cause that will never find support from Malaysian Muslims. It is just too alien to them.
Also, Malaysia's security apparatus co-operates closely with its international counterparts, and the country has extensive experience and credibility in surveillance. "This makes it very difficult for any terrorist groups to operate and organise themselves," he said
Conversely, all those factors could lead some militants to think of hiding in Malaysia, precisely because it is among the last places people would look.
"But any allegation that they are trying to set up military training camps is purely an exaggeration. Even the Malaysian radical militants found it impossible to establish a training ground in Malaysia," he said.
Strict and cautious
Kuala Lumpur resident Muhammad Fakhri Najib said Malaysian youths were not interested in joining militant groups like al-Shabaab.
"Malaysia and Somalia have different backgrounds and dynamics. Somalia is a failed state, and therefore, militancy can exist because of the limited government authority. While in Malaysia, our government has been very strict and cautious to crack down on any possibly militancy or any movement, which could possibly jeopardise our security here," he told Khabar.
In his view, young Malaysians should focus on their education and ignore calls to radicalism.
"Many people have interpreted jihad in a wrong way. Therefore, it is our responsibility to make it right. Jihad is hard work in your capacity. As for me, since I am also a student, jihad is about studying hard and being a good Muslim," Fakhri said.