Malaysian Foreign Fighters from Past to Present: Different Pathways to Terror
Kuala Lumpur, Feb 22, 2016 (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

This essay is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...



Transnational insurgents pose several threats: they could prolong and complicate an ongoing conflict; turn a foreign conflict zone into a training ground or safe haven; and use the skills that they have gained abroad when they return home.[1] Foreign fighters constitute a small portion, as compared to the total number of local combatants, of the forces in every conflict.[2] Yet, over the years, and especially since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there has been a steady rise in the number of Muslim foreign fighters. Historically, Malaysians have constituted a small portion of fighters in conflicts waged elsewhere in the region and beyond. Nevertheless, they have impacted conflicts, found sanctuary in neighboring countries, and attempted to employ at home the skills they have acquired abroad.

The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the conflicts raging on in Iraq and Syria have been responsible for a resurgence of jihadist activities in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. In June 2016, a former member of the Malaysian terrorist group Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (K.M.M.), Mohd Rafi Udin, issued the threatening warning that attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) would occur within six months. He urged Muslims to kill non-Muslims and to utilize any means, including providing funds, in order to support ISIS. He labelled Malaysia as “toghut” (i.e., as contravening the teachings of God) and thereby justified waging war against the state.[3]

Against the backdrop of Udin’s chilling warning, this essay briefly examines Malaysia’s recent experience dealing with jihadist activities and profiles four Malaysian foreign fighters from the current period. The central argument is that, even though Malaysians constitute a relatively small number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, they pose a major problem for Malaysia for other Southeast Asian countries and are a complicating factor in the conflicts in which they are involved.[4]

Malaysian Fighters: Past and Present

Between 1985 and 2003, Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.)—Southeast Asia’s most formidable jihadist outfit—grew from an estimated 500 fighters to 1,000 members, with the Malaysian cell (totalling about 200 members) being the largest.[5] This worrisome development led Malaysian authorities in 2001—just a few months before the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington—to intensify their counterterrorism operations. By 2003, these efforts had led to the arrest of 113 detainees, 25 of whom were members of K.M.M. and 65 of them members of J.I.

Both before and after 9/11, Malaysians were implicated in terrorist acts elsewhere in the region. In August 2001, for example, an attack occurred in Jakarta’s mall, the Atrium plaza.[6] Three of the nine perpetrators of this attack were Malaysian. One of the attackers, Taufik Abdul Halim—a student at a Malaysian public university—also carried out bombings in two churches east of Jakarta in July of the same year.[7] Malaysian militants were also involved in three subsequent major attacks in Indonesia: the JW Marriott Hotel bombing in August 2003, the Australian embassy bombing in September 2004, and the second Bali bombing in October 2005.[8] All of these attacks had links to the Malaysian terrorists, Nordin Mohammed Top and Azhari Husin.[9]

The emergence of ISIS can thus be said to have revived, rather than to have spawned, jihadist activity in Malaysia, including the foreign fighter phenomenon associated with it. 

The emergence of ISIS can thus be said to have revived, rather than to have spawned, jihadist activity in Malaysia, including the foreign fighter phenomenon associated with it. A January 2016 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that there are over 300 to 450 Malaysians and Indonesians fighting in Iraq and Syria, with over half having joined ISIS.[10] In regional terms, especially given the relative size of its population, Malaysia has been a significant source of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.[11] Though Malaysia’s Muslim population of 18 million is miniscule compared to Indonesia’s 200 million, its number of foreign fighters is six times larger.[12]

Malaysian combatants in the Iraq-Syria conflict zone are fighting both with and against ISIS. According to Ahmad el-Muhammady, as fighting between ISIS and other Muslim extremist outfits in Iraq and Syria escalated between 2011 and 2013, many members of the Malaysian contingent defected to factions such as Ajnad al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.[13] As of October 2014, 22 Malaysians reportedly had joined Ajnad al-Sham in Syria. And, as of May 2015, 154 Malaysians were reported to have joined ISIS, with 67 in the war zone.[14] Malaysian fighters have been trained as snipers and as suicide bombers for prime missions.[15] According to Zachary Abuza, 8 out of 12 suicide attacks were conducted by Malaysians within the Southeast Asian militant group, Katibah Nusantara.[16] According to Malaysian authorities, there are currently 46 Malaysians trained as a suicide bombers awaiting their turn as a “martyr.”[17]

Four Former Malaysian Militants: Different Pathways

The following are brief profiles of four Malaysian militants that reveal how foreign fighters could complicate foreign conflict zones and contribute to region-wide insecurity.

Zid Saharani Mohd: In September 2001, Zid, along with 12 Indonesians, was detained by Indonesian authorities, who subsequently transferred him to the custody of their Malaysian counterparts. In October 2006, after serving five years in detention, Zid and his 11 fellow inmates suspected of membership in J.I. and K.M.M. (including Lothfi Ariffin and Mohd Rafi Udin) were released. Zid was also accused of being responsible for the killing of Dr. Joe Fernandez, the former Malaysian Assemblyman representing Lunason, on November 5, 2000.[18] In July 2014, Zid joined the Islamic State (ISIS), appropriating the nom de guerre Abu Hoor.[19] There, he was assigned as a sniper targeting Iraqi government officials in Baiji, where he was killed on August 29, 2015 during a clash with Iraqi forces.[20]

Lothfi Ariffin: This individual was a friend of Zid’s and a member of the youth committee of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). He received guerrilla training in Afghanistan and was subsequently involved in sectarian clashes in Indonesia and Tajikistan.[21] Lothfi joined Ajnad al-Sham in Syria. While based in Syria, he sought to generate support for Ajnad al-Sham in Malaysia through the use of social media. By setting up a Facebook page under the name “Akel Zainal,” he and a colleague, Ahmad Salman Abdul Rahim, have attracted nearly 3,000 followers.[22] His own four separate Facebook profiles drew a following of an additional 60,000.[23] Lothfi used Facebook to update his activities, portraying them as a “religious mission” in order to attract potential sympathizers. Through communication on Facebook, he managed to recruit a young Malaysian who indulged his “mission.” Ariffin instructed the 21-year old recruit, Mohammad Fadhlan Shahidi, to join the caravan by making his way to Istanbul with £1,113 (RM 6,000).[24] Lothfi Ariffin was killed in a missile strike by Syrian jet fighters in September 2014.

Zulkifli - alias of Abdul Musa Hir (Marwan): Marwan, like Lothfi Ariffin, was a friend of Zid Saharani Mohd and a fellow K.M.M. member and co-conspirator alleged to have conducted several terrorist attacks, including in Ambon in eastern Indonesia, between 2000 and 2001.[25] Just days before Zid’s capture in September 2001, Marwan—knowing that the Malaysian and Indonesian authorities were in pursuit—managed to flee to Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Thereafter, Marwan fled from one safe haven to another, relying on a network of individuals and militant groups to afford him protection. He first moved to Pikit Cotabato under Abu Hashim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and from there to Datu Sampuan, where he joined the Pawas Group in 2004.[26] Two years later, with the assistance of Abdul Basit Usman, a member of Abu Sayyaf (A.S.G.), he moved to Mamapasano. Together, they conducted a series of bombings in three cities in Mindanao (Takurong, Makilala, and Cotabota) on October 10-11, 2006.[27] Marwan’s fortunes changed after the United States placed a $5 million bounty on his head in March 2007, forcing him to move again, this time to Jolo with the A.S.G., and then again under the Janjalani Brothers and the Rajah Soleiman Movement (R.S.M.) and then to Lanao Del Sur.[28] In 2013, Marwan moved yet again, this time to Maguindanao as a member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), where he was killed in a clash with the Philippines military on January 25, 2015.[29] Following his death, the peace process surrounding the Bangsamoro Basic Law (B.B.L.) and the Congress of the Philippines failed to reach its final resolution towards the end of 2015. His death has been used as an impediment to the deadlocked peace process more than two decades in the making.

Mohd Rafi Udin: Together with four of his friends (Marwan, Zid, and two Indonesians: Abdus Samad Abud and Hambali—the alias of Riduan Isamuddin), Mohd Rafi Udin was sought by Indonesian police in 2001 for his alleged involvement in terrorist activities in Indonesia as well as Malaysia.[30] Under the K.M.M. movement, they were allegedly responsible for a bank robbery in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia in May 2001.[31] He later joined the sectarian conflict in Sulawesi and Ambon, Indonesia, which ended in 2002.[32] After he was released in 2006, he became a taxi driver until reengaging in jihadist activity in the war in Syria. Rafi Udin used a propaganda video to call for ISIS supporters to shift their focus to Southeast Asia by supporting their “appointed leader” in Asia, Abdallah al-Filipini. He urged supporters to join the caravan in the southern Philippines, indicating that foreign fighters could extend external support to domestic insurgent groups. As of July 2016, Rafi Udin was reported to be operating from Syria with two other Malaysians (Zainuri Kamaruddin and Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi), engaged in efforts aimed at setting up a local ISIS network in Malaysia.[33] The recent bombing in the Movida pub in Puchong on June 28, 2016 appeared to have been carried out by Muhammad Wanndy.[34] Rafi Udin’s previous experience as a militant has undoubtedly improved his prospects for becoming a leading figure in the movement to establish an ISIS cell in Malaysia. Together with his comrade Wanndy, Rafi Udin could possibly garner support from ISIS sympathizers in Malaysia. There are signs that they might already have made progress in this respect. In July 2016, 15 people linked to ISIS suspects were arrested in a plot foiled by authorities to assassinate Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak and Special Branch counter terrorism division head Datuk Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay.[35]

Patterns and Possible Implications

Taken together, these four profiles offer a glimpse of the background and composition of Malaysia’s current contingent of foreign fighters and of the nature and gravity of the threat they pose.

Some of Malaysia's new counterterrorism measures might have the perverse effect of redirecting the activities of Malaysian jihadist recruits and sympathizers towards other battlegrounds within Southeast Asia and beyond. 

Three of the four subjects were arrested under Malaysian authorities’ intensified counterterrorism efforts and imprisoned for five years. They emerged from their period of incarceration, if anything, further radicalized and determined to re-establish their contacts with fellow militants and resume their jihadist activities. Malaysia’s recently enhanced legal authority in counterterrorism—lodged in the Security Offences Special Measures of 2012 (SOSMA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2015 (POTA)—has already resulted in the apprehension of a number of terrorist suspects and the disruption of domestic terror plots.[36] However, these measures might have the perverse effect of redirecting the activities of Malaysian jihadist recruits and sympathizers towards other battlegrounds within Southeast Asia and beyond. 

All four subjects obtained training and/or found sanctuary abroad. Like the previous generation of Malaysian jihadists, they utilized Indonesia as a safe haven and as a platform to plot and conduct attacks. However, it appears that in recent years—as illustrated in the case of Marwan—the southern Philippines, which is home to several militant factions, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, has figured ever more prominently as a terrorist safe haven. In early 2014, the Abu Sayyaf Group and Indonesia’s Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid declared their support for ISIS.[37] The Abu Sayyaf Group officially gave its vows to ISIS on January 4, 2016 in a video displaying more than 30 militants.[38] Given the southern Philippines’ proximity to Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah, this area’s increasing importance in the regional terrorism landscape is a particularly disturbing development. 

Two of the subjects made use of social media, including Facebook and YouTube. Here, it is important to note the various purposes for which terrorists have employed social media: to attract sympathizers, recruit foot soldiers, solicit financial and other forms of logistical support, and intimidate and threaten adversaries.

The four subjects knew each other and at least two of them collaborated in planning and conducting terrorist attacks. Ultimately, however, they all followed separate paths. Thus the characterization of many of today’s terrorists as “lone wolves” or as members of relatively small outfits, though not necessarily inaccurate, is deceptively simple. Transnational jihadist networks are complex and opaque, where personal relationships, not just shared ideology, matter; and where foreign fighters returning from one conflict zone can reengage in ongoing insurgencies elsewhere.

The distinctive paths followed by each of the four subjects reflects a broader pattern among the current generation of Malaysian foreign fighters. The allegiances that Malaysian foreign fighters have forged and the battlegrounds that they have chosen vary. A significant number of Malaysian recruits have joined ISIS. However, others have thrown in their lot with ISIS’ rivals—Ajnad al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. A smaller number have gone to the southern Philippines. This apparent variegation or fragmentation reflects broader trends in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where, for example, some militant outfits are aligned with al-Qaeda and others with ISIS.

The actions of these four individuals have had both immediate and longer-term consequences. Terrorist attacks for which they have been responsible have claimed many innocent lives. In addition, evidence suggests a direct connection between their activities and the recruitment of new jihadists. Moreover, in their role as combatants, they have helped, as in the southern Philippines, fuel local insurgencies and thereby hamper ongoing peace processes.

In recent years, the threat posed by Malaysian foreign fighters has grown stronger in some respects while weaker in others. 

In recent years, the threat posed by Malaysian foreign fighters has grown stronger in some respects while weaker in others. Even as Malaysian security forces appear to have become more adept at dismantling jihadist groups and detaining individual suspects, the Malaysian jihadist phenomenon has become more robust, given the ability of individuals to join various foreign insurgent groups.

The geography of jihadist terrorism today is complex and dynamic. It is a wide and varied terrain with multiple training grounds, battlefields, and sanctuaries both near and far. And though Malaysia itself has thus far been spared deadly attacks on its own soil, Mohd Rafi Udin’s warning indicates that Malaysian foreign fighters are not content to train their sights exclusively on foreign targets.

[1] Kristin Bakke, “Help Wanted?: The Mixed Record of Foreign Fighters in Domestic Insurgencies,” International Security 38, 4 (2014): 150-151.

[2] Thomas Heghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35, 3 (2010): 60.

[3] “High Alert as Local IS Fighter Warns of Slaughter in Malaysia,” Free Malaysia Today, June 23, 2016, accessed June 30, 2016,

[4] Estimates vary as to the total number of fighters from Southeast Asia and the proportion from each of the countries from which they originate. According to the Soufan Group, analysts believe that the number is no more than 500, whereas the Indonesian government claimed that the number of Indonesians in Iraq and Syria is about 700. In contrast, Greg Fealy states that the number of Southeast Asian fighters range in between 400 and 500 fighters. Meanwhile, based on the authorities from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, Zachary Abuza reported there are about 600 to 1,000 Southeast Asian foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria; Joshua Kurlantzick, “Is ISIS Poised to Launch Attacks in Southeast Asia? Indonesian, Malaysian, Philippine and Thai Authorities Say Up to 1,200 Have Traveled to Syria and Iraq to Fight with ISIS,” Newsweek, January 1, 2016, accessed June 30, 2016,; Podcast, “ISIS in Southeast Asia: The Apocalypse, Just War and Pragmatic Jihad Monday” December 7, 2015; 2.00 - 4.00pm; Room B.13, 32 Lincoln’s Inn Field (32L) Speaker: Dr. Greg Fealy; Chair: Dr Kirsten Schulze, accessed June 30, 2016,; “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters Into Syria and Iraq,” The Soufan Group, December 15, 2015, accessed June 30, 2016,

[5] Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003): 132.

[6] Carolyn Hong, Noor Adzman Baharuddin, Carol Murugiah, “Suspected bomber held in Jakarta a Malaysian from Kluang,” New Straits Times, August 14, 2001, accessed July 1, 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] According to the International Crisis Group’s report, two Malaysians, Azhari Husin and Noordin Mohammed Top, were not involved in the initial part of the planning of the Bali bombing I, although Azhari was brought in at the last stage, while Noordin was not one of the operatives. Noordin and Azhari initiated the JW Marriot bombing in 2003, and then directed the next attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004 and then the Bali bombing II in 2005. Azhari was known as a master bombmaker and was finally captured during a police siege in East Java in November 2005. Noordin was known as the most wanted man in Indonesia until he was captured in April 2006 in Wonosobo, East Java Indonesia. He built a tightly organized cell in military operations. The I.C.G. report argues that even though the police managed to crack down on his operation, “the networks he drew on will survive as a potential source of recruits for future operations;" Indonesia: The Hotel Bombings, International Crisis Group Asia Briefing 94 (July 2009): 2; Terrorism in Indonesia: Noordin’s Networks, International Crisis Group Asia Report 114 (5 May 2006): 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10]“Indonesian and Malaysian Support for the Islamic State,” United States Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.), January 6, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[11] Edward Delman, “ISIS in the World’s Largest Muslim Country. Why Are So Few Indonesians Joining the Islamic State?” The Atlantic, January 3, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Not All Malaysian Militants Are With Islamic State,” The Star, January 24, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[14]“Indonesian and Malaysian Support for the Islamic State.”

[15] Hariati Azizan, “Taking the Fight to IS Online,” The Star, February 7, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[16] Zachary Abuza, “Terror Attack Could Rip Apart Malaysian Society,” Southeast Asia: Globe, March 7, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[17] “Bukit Aman: 46 Malaysians Ready to Die,” The Star, February 1, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[18] Lee Keng Fatt, “Lunas Assemblyman Fernandez shot dead,” New Straits Times, November 5, 2000; P. Chandra Sagaran, “Seven involved in KMM identified,” New Straits Times, September 20, 2001.

[19] Farik Zolkepli, “Malaysian in IS Trained to Become Snipers and Suicide Bombers,” The Star, October 1, 2015, accessed July 1, 2016,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Farik Zolkepli, “Third M’sian Killed in Syria,” The Sta, September 15, 2014, accessed July 1, 2016,

[22] “The Social Media Life of a Malaysian Jihadist,” BBC, August 14, 2014, accessed July 1, 2016,

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Tony Emmanuel, “Gun-running Racket (HL),” New Straits Times, August 18, 2001; P. Chandra Sagaran, “Seven Involved in KMM Identified,” New Straits Times, September 20, 2001; “Killing Marwan in Mindanao,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict Report 17, March 5, 2015, accessed July 1, 2016,

[26] “Killing Marwan in Mindanao,” 5-11.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Emmanuel, “Gun-running racket (HL).”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Amy Chew, “Could Asian jihadists bring terrorism back home?” South China Morning Post, July 3, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016,

[33] "Report: Malaysian trio planning to set up local IS cell," The Malay Mail Online, July 13, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016,

[34] “IGP: Muhammad Wanndy’s Influence The Deadliest,” The Malaysian Digest, July 6, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016,

[35] Ibid.

[36] According to Iman Research, as of March 2016, 177 Malaysians had been detained under the new counterterrorism legal dispensation; “An Analysis of the IS Threat in Malaysia,” MalaysiaKini, May 17, 2016, accessed July 1, 2016,

[37] Moh Saaduddin “Abu Sayyaf rebels officially vow allegiance to ISIS,” January 11, 2016, The Manila Times, accessed July 20, 2016,

[38] Priyanka Boghani, “What a Pledge of Allegiance to ISIS Means,” Frontline, November 12, 2014, accessed July 20, 2016,