Can POTA counter the ISIL threat in Malaysia?

By Munira Mustaffa:

A snapshot of ISIL’s recruitment video featuring Malay-speaking children training with weapons. Photo: uploaded by ISIL’s Malay-speaking media division, Azzam Media.

Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak is painting Malaysia as “a model of moderate Islam” to the rest of the world, but the emergence of a recent recruitment video and photos from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threatens to shatter that harmonious image.[i] The video and photos feature Malay-speaking youths training with weapons in an undisclosed ISIL-controlled location.

It was recently revealed that the Royal Malaysian Police had identified 39 more Malaysians who have joined ISIL, and eight Malaysian families are now in Syria.[ii] There are reportedly over 100 Malaysian fighters in Syria and Iraq.

The strength of ISIL’s reach is not to be underestimated; authorities are increasing their monitoring of sympathisers and making arrests to disrupt possible threats by ISIL in the country. In fact, a new terror group with a Nusantara[iii] element operating under ISIL’s command has emerged under the name Majmu’ah al-Arkhabiliy (lit: “the Archipelago Group”).[iv]

To counter these new threats of Islamic extremism, Malaysian policymakers introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) just over a month ago, on 7 April, 2015. This new anti-terrorism law has drawn fire from all quarters for its draconian measures. Critics have described it as ‘a reincarnation of the Internal Security Act’. There are legitimate concerns about the potential inconsistencies in state practice in its attempts to eradicate terrorism at the local level. This is largely because there is no universally agreed definition for terrorism that could facilitate the available legal frameworks for prosecuting the actors[v] of terrorism in a court of law. This is an issue faced not only by Malaysia, but internationally as well.

Taking this into perspective, it is necessary to examine how policymakers at Putrajaya define terrorism within Malaysia’s experience. Malaysia had a history of countering insurgencies even before the nation gained independence from the British Empire on 31 August, 1957, by employing preventive detention law as national security measures. After independence, the Internal Security Act (ISA) was enacted in 1960 to deter communist threats that no longer exist today. Under the ISA, the accused can be detained without trial or criminal charges under limited and legally defined circumstances for up to two years.[vi]

In the last few decades, there have been instances when ISA was used to detain members of the opposition for ‘instigation’. Therefore, it should come as no surprise why so many are fearful that POTA will be wielded to curb free speech and silence the opposition in the same manner.[vii] At present, Malaysian policymakers have yet to define exactly what qualifies as terrorism. Just like the ISA, POTA enables law enforcement officers to detain suspects of terrorism without a judicial review or a trial for up to two years, with an initial remand for 60 days with no guarantee of legal representation.[viii] This drew ire from Human Rights Watch, who called the law ‘repressive’.[ix] However, the Deputy Home Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Junaidi Tuanku Wan Jaafar, argued that POTA is nothing like the ISA, in that the executive power rests on a five-member advisory board and not on the minister.[x]

It is all very well that Malaysian policymakers are stepping up to combat terrorism threats at the national level. However, a problematic law with the purpose of preventing terrorism is not sustainable in the long run, especially when a nebulous term like ‘terrorist’ is so ill-defined. POTA carries unrealistic expectations in reducing terrorism and extremism in this region.

In terms of concrete action, it is a lot more practical to try to understand why so many Malaysian Muslims are drawn into ISIL. The Malaysian authorities believe that they are influenced by the desire to be martyred and wish to express solidarity with the Muslims suffering in Syria.[xi] Regardless, the fact of the matter cannot be denied – radicalisation in Malaysia is a serious concern, particularly amongst the Malay-Muslims.

Joseph Chinyong Liow was correct when he argued that Malaysia’s current brand of Islam could be the main cause of concern for the ISIL dilemma. This brand alienates non-Muslims by establishing exclusivity and ownership on the religion and language with ‘no intentions to encourage pluralism or compromise’.[xii] This feeds into a form of state-sponsored extremism, where Islam is consistently utilised to legitimise and justify state power to interfere with not only the private and political lives of Muslims in Malaysia, but also to encroach on the right of non-Muslims to simply exist.

There are community leaders and politicians who encourage this divisive behaviour with their own polarising views and loose statements on religious policing, that can be seen as “othering” the non-Muslims and non-Malays, and even excluding gender and sexual minorities. Some recent notable examples include the cow-head protest incident, prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word “Allah”, and refusing to acknowledge Muslim women’s agency. To illustrate his point, Liow highlighted the worrying results of 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which showed that 39% of Malaysian Muslims believe that “violence against enemies of Islam is justifiable”.

In order to counter extremism more effectively, policymakers in Malaysia should consider aiming for a more realistic disruption and prevention goals rather than enacting an iron-fisted anti-terrorism law that may not be constructive in the long term, as well as opening the door to abuse. It is more feasible to put a concerted effort into increasing community resilience and wellbeing, particularly amongst the Malay-Muslims, to make them less susceptible to extremist ideologies.

This could potentially be done through a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, a a sense of nationhood between Malaysians could be fomented through governmental policies that emphasise inter-community cooperation. On the other, the government could censure those who stoke hatred. It is important that the Malaysian government should make a point of refusing to give legitimacy to divisive views.

In Malaysia’s context, community resilience could mean the ability to withstand threats of extremism through an active engagement with local communities and education. Promoting interfaith acceptance and encouraging an embrace of diversity can achieve this. People should be encouraged to challenge and question religious sermons and teachings that contain insidious and dangerous messages that could incite hatred and exclusions.

Considering the country’s diverse cultural and religious identity, interfaith discussions should not be seen as a threat or viewed with suspicions by certain quarters, but instead should be welcomed as a crucial part of nation-building efforts. Through a strong and supportive community, empathy can be promoted and a safe space for an open dialogue can be created. In the long run, counter-radicalisation efforts could potentially encourage vulnerable Malaysian Muslim youths to reject extremist ideologies and reduce the threats that emanate from extreme and false interpretations of Islam.

Munira Mustaffa is pursuing her MSc in Countering Organised Crime and Terrorism at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, University College of London. She is also an intelligence analysis consultant for several corporate intelligence and security firms in London and New York. She tweets at @FleetStGir1.


[i] Zakir Hussain, ‘ISIS Posts Footage of Boy-Trainees From South-East Asia’, The Straits Times, March 17, 2015,

[ii] The Malaysian Insider, ‘Jumlah Keluarga Rakyat Malaysia Sertai ISIS Meningkat’, March 4, 2015,

[iii] It varies depending on national and historical context, but in this essay, nusantara refers to both Malay- and Indonesian-speaking archipelago.

[iv] The Malay Mail, ‘New IS Militant Wing for Malaysians, Indonesians Uncovered’, March 4, 2015,

[v] ‘Actors’ in this write-up is defined as any non-state individuals or organisations engaged in acts of terror.

[vi] 8. Internal Security Act, 1960, Laws of Malaysia Act No. 82 (January 1, 2006), The Commissioner of Law Revision,

[vii] Bilveer Singh, ‘Prevention of Terrorism: Relevance of POTA In Malaysia’, RSIS Publications, March 31, 2015,

[viii] FMT Reporters, ‘Legal Fraternity United in Denouncing POTA’, Free Malaysia Today, April 13, 2015,

[ix] Human Rights Watch, ‘HRW Slams Malaysia’s New ‘Repressive’ Anti-Terrorism Law’, April 7, 2015,

[x] Elizabeth Zachariah, ‘POTA Not Like ISA, Deputy Minister Tells Critics’, The Malaysian Insider, April 6, 2015,

[xi] The Royal Malaysian Navy, Ke Arah Menangani Ancaman Kumpulan Islamic State, Dewan Rakyat, November 26, 2014,,

[xii] Joseph Chinyong Liow, ‘Malaysia’s ISIS Conundrum’, Brookings, April 21, 2015,

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