Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Recruiting for terrorism in Malaysia

By GRAEME SMITH

KOTA BARU, MALAYSIA -- Iwan Suhaimi barely had time to turn around when the masked man with an automatic rifle leaped out from behind a crate and started shooting.
When his imaginary character crumpled to the ground, the computer announced, "Terrorists win." The 13-year-old in a Playboy T-shirt winced, slouched away from his keyboard and looked around the Internet café.
"I like the police," Iwan said a bit sadly, leaving his friends to play Counter-Strike, a video game in which police battle terrorists.
In the conservative town of Kota Baru, on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, video games are one of the few entertainment choices young men have when heavy rains wash out their soccer fields. The government of Kelantan state has outlawed other amusements such as discos, bars, nightclubs, karaoke rooms, rock concerts and any performances by women.
But in Kota Baru's arcades, young men and boys such as Iwan know the match between police and terrorists is now much more than a game. In a land that was once considered an economic miracle, the remote villages around Kelantan are now feared to be magnets for al-Qaeda and its sympathizers.
"Before the Afghanistan war, they were training in Afghanistan," a criminal investigator with the national police said. "Now they come back to Malaysia to make more members."
The officer, who asked not to be named, said two terrorist-training centres have been discovered in outlying areas around Kota Baru. He said the centres are operated by the Kumpulan Mujahedeen Malaysia (KMM), a group allegedly controlled by the Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian-based network thought by many intelligence agencies to be connected to the Oct. 12 bombings in Bali.
"Most people here are very moderate, but some go deeper into religion now," said Zahini Abdullah, 41, a shopkeeper who has seen a rise in extremism. "They cause the problems."
Talk about terrorism was once out of place in Malaysia, a relatively wealthy country where the Muslim majority has enjoyed decades of peace with the Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Hindu, Christian and Sikh minorities. Its biggest export is electronics, and the people here enjoy cranking up the volume on their Radiohead MP3s or riding their motorbikes while chatting on mobile phones.
But religious extremism is less incongruous around Kelantan, which has not kept pace with the country's economic growth and has repeatedly elected Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) as its local government since 1990.
Long before the world was concerned about al-Qaeda, the PAS enacted traditional Islamic law, punishing theft with amputation and adultery with death by stoning. The party also successfully pushed women to wear modest dresses and head scarves. In Kota Baru's bookstores, scarce paperbacks from the United States are turned backward on the shelves to hide the women on their covers.
But if the shift toward conservative law is widely acknowledged, people here disagree about the causes and whether they have anything to do with terrorism.
"A lot of bad things -- robbery, terrorism -- they happen because people don't have religion," Mohd Yusoff, 57, a retired army combat instructor said.
Like many people, Mr. Yusoff is adamant that even strict forms of Islam are entirely peaceful. Religion does not inspire terrorism, he said. America does.
"What America has done in Palestine is not very fair, and what they say about Iraq, it makes people frustrated. Some people, it makes the hate accumulate in their heart," he said.
But few people in the city expect the hatred to explode locally. There is widespread support for the police, who have revived the Communist-era Internal Security Act to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely, without trial. Many cite the absence of any major attack in Malaysia as proof that the strict enforcement is working.
But that feeling of safety fades in the countryside around Kota Baru, where taxi drivers refuse to turn off the highway for fear of bandits.
A foreigner draws suspicious stares in the town of Pasir Puteh, about an hour's drive south of Kota Baru, where the main road is so quiet a rooster can cross without hurrying.
Ramlan Jusoh, 43, gestured at a few military tanks clanking past with sleepy-looking teenagers leaning on the machine-gun turrets.
"Security here is very good, very tough," said Mr. Jusoh, who described himself as a collections agent. "But they might have more work to do now. . . . This part of Kelantan, they are very religious, like the Palestinians. They suffer a lot. They have nothing. A lot of people are angry here."
Caught in the middle, many Malaysians try not to worry. Monsoon season may be approaching, but that doesn't stop Samsuajni Omar, 24, from enjoying a sunny morning near the town's central square. He laughed in response to a question about terrorism.
"I don't know. Maybe it could happen here. Most people don't like America. But they don't like terrorists."