By Ahmad Sayuthi Yusoff
FIVE years in prison, and all because of taking a bai’ah (pledge) through the Telegram chat application…
That sounds harsh at first glance. Especially when the offender is just 24 years old and with no previous record.
But that sentence by the High Court in Kuala Lumpur last week was the latest in a series of actions and events over the past months that send out a very clear message – the authorities have zero tolerance when it comes to anything related to Islamic State (IS)/Daesh or any group that promotes the use of violence and terror.
And the law enforcement and judiciary have a very good reason for adopting this firm, no-nonsense stance consistently – to nip the problem in the bud before it gets a chance to gain momentum and fester.
Many didn’t know what to make of IS when it first grabbed the headlines a few years ago.
Reports, images and video clips of groups of armed men in black on trucks, storming out seemingly from nowhere and taking over whole towns and provinces in Syria and Iraq, defeating regular army units in the process.
But they had to have come from somewhere, and the authorities are extremely keen to ensure they are not from here.
That means to identify and take immediate action against the potential jihadis before they have the chance to take root and grow.
Reports over the past months show that the authorities were not exaggerating about the threat posed by these Malaysian militants.
Last December, the Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division disclosed some disturbing news – Malaysians have been involved in suicide bombings in Syria and Iraq.
They include Hasan Zakaria, a 25-year-old from Terengganu who had carried a suicide attack in the town of Ain Issa in Syria, killing 14 Kurdish fighters and injuring scores more.
In January 2016, another Malaysian along with seven other suicide bombers blew themselves up in Tikrit, Iraq and killing 12 policemen.
How was it that Malaysians could have been convinced to join these organisations, go to other countries and commit such acts of violence against fellow Muslims who are citizens of those countries?
To put it simply, they had obviously been led to believe that they “were in the right” and everything they did was justified.
Including in killing others.
Alarmingly, some of these militants appear to also have the support and blessing of their families.
It was reported that Hasan was already on the authorities’ radar and they had initially stopped him from going overseas.
However, his parents and siblings had insisted that he was only going to Indonesia to send off his brother.
But from Jakarta, he immediately flew to Turkey and onwards to Syria where he joined up with IS.
Counter-Terrorism Division principal assistant director, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay also revealed that many of these Malaysian militants had made contact at one time or another with the most wanted IS leader from Malaysia, Melaka-born Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi.
As with other jihadis around the world, Wanndy also utilised social media and the internet to promote his cause, find new recruits, create new cells and plan their moves.
But through their actions over the past few years, the authorities had sent out a clear warning – they are not going to give these militants and their would-be recruits the time and space to propagate.
To its credit, the government had been decisive from very early on in its response to the threat by IS and similar groups.
So far, at least 240 people have been arrested on suspicion of being involved in IS-related activities.
As of late last year, 77 have been charged with 48 convictions secured.
A look at some of these cases show that the authorities are not tolerating any kind of interest or participation in such activities.
The courts had also consistently taken a hardline stance against those convicted based on the sentences meted out.
This was emphasised in the Court of Appeal’s review of terror cases last year where sentences were enhanced for those convicted.
They include cases where those convicted had not been directly involved in violence or possessed any weapons.
Last June, the sentences for two men convicted on soliciting contributions for IS were enhanced from 3 years to 15.
Before that, the Court of Appeal had increased a five-year sentence on an individual convicted of training individuals to participate in terrorist activities to 15 years.
Last December, a policewoman who had intentionally failed to divulge information on a terrorist group was sentenced to the maximum seven years imprisonment provided for under the Penal Code section she was charged under.
The zero-tolerance by the authorities on anything to do with IS and such groups is to be taken seriously, as some people found out to their detriment.
That includes in possessing items linked to those terror organisations.
Digital or hard copies of IS reading material like its periodicals, flag and such may look `harmless’ but these are enough to land one in big trouble.
If convicted under Section 130JB(1)(a) of the Penal Code, he faces a maximum seven years in prison.
And being involved online via social media or Telegram or WhatsApp groups could lead to one being charged under the more serious Section 130J(1)(a) of the Penal Code that provides for imprisonment of up to 30 years, or a fine and forfeiture of assets, upon conviction.
It is interesting to note that the various political parties, Bar Council and NGOs that were usually so vocal in protesting against perceived “attacks against free speech and freedom of expression” had been quiet about these actions by the authorities.
That is a clear indication of their quiet acknowledgement that the authorities are doing the right thing when it comes to dealing with these militant groups.
And especially after the Movida attack in Puchong last June – the first IS attack against a target in Malaysia.
The past couple of weeks have been a period of festivity for Malaysians, beginning with Chinese New Year, Thaipusam and Chap Goh Meh to follow.
It is fortunate that all those loud explosions over this period were from fireworks, and not bombs with shrapnel that maim and kill.
It is regrettable that firm and harsh action had to be taken by the authorities, resulting in dozens being incarcerated and their families suffering.
But indecisiveness and failure to act would have been disastrous for the whole country when militants are emboldened to exist and operate.
The message by the authorities and Malaysians is clear – we will do what it takes to prevent militancy and violence from taking root here.