Terrorism is ever-evolving. As recently as 2016, a disturbing new trend is on the rise: small terrorist cells that operate independently of each other.

So says Datuk Ayob Khan Bin Mydin Pitchay, Head of the Counter-Terrorism Division of the Royal Malaysia Police. “We are talking about lone wolves, or a wolfpack of not more than six members,” he explains.

This is why good intelligence is crucial to taking down these wolfpack terrorist cells, he tells GovInsider.

Under the radar

Previously, the IS presence in Malaysia was “structured”, and arresting the group leader meant that you could also nab the deputy and members, Khan explains. This is not the case anymore: there could be several wolfpack cells operating on their own across Malaysia, planning and carrying their own separate attacks.

Furthermore, they do not have any contact with each other – making each cell harder to detect. “If you have arrested a member from cell A, they do not have any contact with cell B, and cell B does not have contact with cell C either,” Khan says.

Social media and chat apps complicate things. These terrorists use Facebook for propaganda, recruitment and other non-secret matters, but “when they want to discuss detailed parts of the operation, they will use Telegram and other apps that are difficult to monitor”, he notes.

Working together

Good intelligence plays a part in sniffing out these small cells, for without it, “we are doomed”, Khan declares.

“If we have any intelligence, we must develop it, do follow-ups and share with our counterparts. We cannot sit on the intelligence that we have and wait for maybe a few months,” he believes.

If a Malaysian suspect has Indonesian or Singaporean contacts on their phone, this piece of intelligence must be shared with the relevant authorities in bilateral or multilateral briefings, according to Khan. “The need to share is very important because we are fighting our common enemy,” he says.

For instance, last year, Khan’s team arrested a suspect in Johor Bahru, a city in southern Malaysia. This arrest led to good tactical intelligence with regards to the operation of certain IS terrorists in Indonesia, and “our Indonesian counterparts managed to disrupt the cell”, he says.

To reduce the risk of radicalisation within Malaysia’s shores, Khan is active in community engagement. He goes on the ground with his officers to give lectures on the dangers of IS terror activities at local universities, religious schools, and mosques. “At the same time, we also give our contact number to the public, and if they have any information with regard to IS activity, they will call us directly,” he says.

2018 priorities

A priority for Khan is to stem the flow of terrorist financing. In 2017, his team managed to arrest 20 suspects that were channeling money into Malaysia to finance terrorist activities, he says. They came from mainly from southern Philippines, Syria, and Iraq, he adds.

And while the amount from each terrorist sympathiser may not be very big – around MYR100,000 (US$25,400) – these add up quickly if you have hundreds of suspects, he remarks.

“Financing is a very important aspect,” Khan says. “If we can manage to disrupt the financial activity and assistance for Malaysia to any group operating either in Malaysia or outside Malaysia, I am very sure we will able to control and contain the threats from IS groups.”

Like wolves, terrorists prey on vulnerable communities and feed off fear. Agencies must evolve and change their response to tackle this threat, all in the name of keeping citizens safe.

Main image by Ryan AlbreyCC BY 2.0; Portrait image from the Public Venue & Soft Target Security Summit