AN ambassador once remarked that I had it easy when we successfully brought down the Al Maunah militants at Bukit Jenalik in 2000.
He continued that events would have turned out differently if we had faced the more hardened and fanatical al- Qaeda, the precursor to the present-day Islamic State ideologues.
The sarcasm was audible in his tone, prompting me to retort that to the contrary, it would have been easier for us to end the matter, having known their identity and intentions. We would have mowed them down with machine gun fire instead of executing a “softer approach” with a deft-and-risky capture operation. An answer, I must confess, that was delivered tongue-in-cheek.
There is, of course, some measure of truth in the ambassador’s observations. The majority of the Al Maunah militants were poorly trained and not fanatical enough to pose a major problem for us.
That notwithstanding, they were not any less dangerous, for they were armed with M16 rifles and other weapons, which they had taken earlier from our Grik camp and security post. They were a difficult challenge because they were Malaysians. We had to remind ourselves of the backlash that came following the Memali incident, be mindful of the country’s laws and their rights as citizens, as well as the sensitivities of the people who were related to them.
Then, there was also this additional twist to the problem in the form of a suggestion from the highest echelon that we must minimise bloodshed and for the militants to be captured alive. We agreed to the suggestion and incorporated them into our plans.
An al-Qaeda or an IS quarry would have certainly been a more intricate matter and a harder nut to crack. The biggest problem they could present us would emanate from their ideology, which has turned them into ideological zealots capable of committing extreme acts of violence and other irrational behaviours, such as suicide bombings and random killings of security personnel and innocent civilians.
Their acts could also target anything using car or truck bombs and other tools of destruction. They are, therefore, not only a very potent foe, but also a foe whose thoughts and actions are the most difficult to fathom and predict. The initiative and tactical advantage would, therefore, be held by
them until they begin to expose their more overt moves and actions.
The belief was that we had it all — with the decades of service, training and experience we have had during the military and other national service. Al-Qaeda and IS was thought to be just another problem along the irregular threat continuum and that we have the answers and capabilities to see to its elimination.
The recent spate of terrorist attacks and violence worldwide, beginning with the one in Manchester, made me begin to have doubts. We are actually facing a new dangerous phenomenon and we do not have all the answers to it.
A feeling of helplessness will set in until we have the answers. There are too many hard questions. How could seemingly decent or even troubled people commit such irrational and unthinkable acts of cruelty and violence towards others and, at the same time, kill themselves? How can we provide full security for everyone or everything when they can target anybody or anything — civilians, women, children, a shopping mall, a bus station and an open-air concert? What can be done to modify parts of their ideological narrative that glorifies suicide bombings, demeans women to the level of the lowest of slaves and allows for the indiscriminate killing of fellow humans in the name of religion and of the Almighty? How can we mobilise everyone and make the fight to be a national effort, not unlike the counterinsurgency war we had before? What could be done to deny them the use of present-day communications tools and electronic media that help them spread their propaganda, obtain technical knowledge and also new recruits to join their ranks? What are the ways of the “soft approach” that we are now championing to deal with terrorism?
The way out of our present quandary will only become clearer when we have the answers to the hard questions, and then put the appropriate action in place.
The establishment of centres to help foster peace, counter religious extremism and terrorism, like the ones in Riyadh and its subset in Kuala Lumpur, will help towards this end.
It is humbling to realise that we have not got it all with regard to this terror phenomenon. This despite them having been around and had demonstrated their viciousness for a long time now. The hope is that these answers will soon come to help us recover some of the peace and security that is left in this small world of ours.
Lt- Gen (R) Datuk Seri Zaini Mohd Said is a former army field commander and recipient of the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa, Malaysia’s highest gallantry award, is well known for his role during the Al Maunah siege in Sauk, Perak, in July 2000. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org