The Evolving Role of Women Extremists in Malaysia
Malaysian women have played increasingly active roles in extremist organisations in recent years. They have acted as propagandists, provided financial support to terrorist plots, and attempted to carry out attacks. The rise in women's militancy in Malaysia reflects global trends, with a growing number of women adopting active roles in extremist groups elsewhere. Experts attribute the growth of female terrorism to the rise of social media, which has facilitated higher rates of female radicalisation and enabled women to pursue roles formerly reserved for men.[i] This article explores the rise of women extremists in Malaysia and explores options for how the government should respond to this challenge.
Malaysia’s Extremist Landscape
Southeast Asia is home to a complex, interconnected network of terrorist organisations, a number of which pose a threat to Malaysia. Militants from Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – a Philippine Islamist extremist organisation – were identified in Malaysia’s Northern Sabah state as recently as 2021. Although there has been a decline in attacks committed by regional organisations since 2019, analysts believe they are currently keeping a low profile in order to regroup; they continue to train militants, procure weapons, and amass funds.[ii]
Islamic State (IS) also gained traction in Malaysia. In 2015, 70 members of Malaysia’s armed forces were found to be connected to IS. Although IS were defeated in Syria in 2019, they continue to create challenges for Malaysia. In March 2021, police revealed that they stopped an IS sympathiser from attacking the Malaysian Prime Minister.[iii] In addition, around 60 Malaysian nationals who travelled to IS-occupied territories remain in detention centres in Syria along with their children, where rates of radicalisation are high. Without their controlled repatriation, these individuals could return to Malaysia with illegal documentation.[iv]
The Changing Role of Malaysian Women in Extremism
Over the past decade, Malaysian women have adopted increasingly active roles in extremist networks. They have disseminated propaganda, sent money to terrorist groups, and attempted to perpetrate attacks. They have also travelled independently to IS-occupied territories, with women from Malaysia reported to have travelled to the IS caliphate to marry jihadists in 2014.[v] Before the emergence of IS, women belonging to extremist networks in Malaysia did not travel unless accompanied by their husbands.[vi]
Beyond independent travel, Malaysian women have worked as propagandists. In 2014, a team of Malaysian housewives and widows were arrested for recruiting undergraduate students to IS over social media. Women in Malaysia have also sent funds to imprisoned terrorists and their families.[vii]
Malaysian women have attempted to carry out attacks. One IS-affiliated woman was arrested in 2018 for planning an attack on a non-Muslim neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. The woman hoped that the attack would coincide with Malaysia's elections, telling prominent members of IS that it would demonstrate the group’s opposition to "any form of un-Islamic democracy." Although the number of Malaysian female assailants remains low, it is worth pointing out that the woman in question held a pivotal role in the country's jihadist network; she ran an online group with over 600 members and was the first Malaysian female leader of an IS cell.[viii] The rise in women’s militancy in Malaysia mirrors the rise in female-led terrorism across the wider region, with women in the Philippines and Indonesia involved in a number of successful suicide attacks since 2018.[ix]
Social media is believed to be the driving force behind the increase in female terrorism in Malaysia for a variety of reasons. First, women extremists have harnessed the internet to perform a range of functions, such as recruitment, fundraising, and supporting extremist ideology. The internet has allowed women to conduct these activities while conforming to conventional gender roles and responsibilities that are promoted by extremist groups, such as remaining in the home and caring for children. Women are also able to carry out these tasks while abiding by strict gender segregation rules. Such roles and regulations are espoused by Islamist extremist organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terrorist organisation and the dominant group in Malaysia before the ascendency of IS.[x]
Second, extremist groups have used gender-specific recruitment messaging which has generated higher rates of radicalisation among women in Malaysia. For instance, in 2016, images of women terrorists holding rifles were shared to websites visited by Malaysian and Indonesian women. Other images shared to these sites displayed women holding babies while brandishing guns.[xi] Around this time, IS used social media to encourage women to commit violence, a message that is believed to have reached women in Southeast Asia. IS’ decision to support female terrorism was part of an effort to regain lost territory. IS also viewed women terrorists as strategically advantageous as they can evade security checkpoints due to perceptions that they are non-violent. The fact that women suicide bombers typically garner large amounts of media attention likely also contributed to IS’ decision to encourage female terrorism.[xii]
Third, the internet enabled widespread coverage of women terrorists around the world who succeeded in committing attacks, which legitimised and fuelled Southeast Asian women in their pursuit of violence. For instance, a woman who was believed to have been involved in the 2015 Paris attacks as a suicide bomber was celebrated by women extremists in Southeast Asia.[xiii]
Finally, before the rise of social media, women in Malaysia typically accessed extremist groups via familial networks. Today, women are typically recruited online and often have no previous ties to extremist networks. Experts believe that women from families with no prior links to extremism are less inclined to conform to gender roles promoted by extremist organisations since they were not raised to comply with these roles, nor have they undergone long periods of indoctrination.[xiv]
Options for Addressing the Problem
The Malaysian government should take steps to prevent women in Malaysia from becoming extremists. First, the government should ensure that any deradicalisation and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programming adopts a gendered lens. Policymakers often view women as the victims of terrorism, or mothers able to prevent their sons from becoming radicalised. However, the rise in female jihadism in Malaysia and further afield indicates the need for a more nuanced approach to gender. The Malaysian government should consider how extremist groups attract women through gendered recruitment strategies, as well as how women radicalise other women and men.[xv] Steps should be taken to create gender-specific counternarratives to extremist propaganda. More research should be commissioned into the gender dynamics of radicalisation.
Second, the government should ensure that women’s voices are amplified in counterterrorism and P/CVE policies. Women should be granted access to leadership positions in creating these policies. It is also critical that the government consults women’s civil society organisations committed to P/CVE in designing policies. These organisations can inform the government about challenges on the ground, allowing for context- and gender-specific P/CVE planning that addresses women’s needs.[xvi] Maintaining avenues of communication with civil society could also ensure that local grievances that could lead to radicalisation can be relayed to the government through non-violent means.
Third, Malaysia is currently creating a National Action Plan on P/CVE.[xvii] This plan should be informed by consultations with local women’s CSOs who can provide information about challenges on the ground. The Plan should also adopt a gendered approach, acknowledging the diversity of women’s roles in extremism.
Finally, extremist groups that threaten Malaysia operate across Southeast Asia and have international links, and the internet has only served to strengthen these regional and transnational ties. Malaysia should, therefore, continue in its efforts to share knowledge and best practices with other countries, including by sharing information on gender and extremism and the tactics used by extremist organisations to recruit women. The Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism (SEARCCT) would be a particularly useful vehicle for communicating knowledge and best practices.
[i] Jamille Bigio and Rachel B. Vogelstein, ‘Women and Terrorism: Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners’ (Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019), https://www.cfr.org/report/women-and-terrorism. [ii] Kenneth Yeo, ‘As Southeast Asia Reopens, Will Transnational Terrorism Return?’, The Diplomat, 15 April 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/04/as-southeast-asia-reopens-will-transnational-terrorism-return/. [iii] Marco Ferrarese, ‘Malaysian Filmmakers Highlight “collateral Damage” in Fight against Extremism’, Nikkei Asia, 28 January 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Life-Arts/Life/Malaysian-filmmakers-highlight-collateral-damage-in-fight-against-extremism. [iv] Reuben Dass and Jaminder Singh, ‘The Challenges of Repatriating Malaysian IS Fighters from Syria’, The Diplomat, 24 February 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/02/the-challenges-of-repatriating-malaysian-is-fighters-from-syria/. [v] ‘Malaysia: Extremism and Terrorism’, Counter Extremism Project, accessed 20 November 2022, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/malaysia-extremism-and-terrorism. [vi] Amalina Abdul Nasir, ‘Women in Terrorism: Evolution from Jemaah Islamiyah to Islamic State in Indonesia and Malaysia’, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 11, no. 2 (2019), https://www.jstor.org/stable/26627977. [vii] V. Arianti and Nur Azlin Yasin, ‘Women’s Proactive Roles in Jihadism in Southeast Asia’, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 8, no. 5 (2016): 9–15. [viii]Piya Sukhani, ‘The Route to Radicalisation for Malay-Muslim Women: Tracing the Nexus between Universals and Particulars in Malaysia’ (RSIS, 7 August 2020), https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/idss/the-route-to-radicalisation-for-malay-muslim-women-tracing-the-nexus-between-universals-and-particulars-in-malaysia/#.Y49Mm-zP1uU. [ix] Chai Chin Neo, ‘How Female Jihadis Became the New Face of Terror in Southeast Asia’, CNA, 20 August 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/cna-insider/women-jihadis-growing-force-terrorist-attacks-southeast-asia-2889101. [x] Arianti and Yasin, ‘Women’s Proactive Roles in Jihadism in Southeast Asia’. [xi] UN Women, ‘Who’s behind the Keyboard?’, 2019, https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2019/03/whos-behind-the-keyboard. [xii] Lydia Wilson, ‘Gender Dynamics in Violent Extremism’ (London: Wilton Park, 2018), https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/event/wp1630/. [xiii]IPAC Indonesia, ‘Mothers to Bombers : The Evolution of Indonesian Women Extremists’ (Jakarta, Indonesia: Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, 31 January 2017), https://www.loc.gov/item/2017344162/. [xiv] IPAC Indonesia. [xv] Alexandra Phelan and Irine Gayatri, ‘Gendered Online Messaging, Women’s Insecurities and the Impact of COVID on Violent Extremism Throughout the ASEAN Region’, GNET (blog), 30 November 2022, https://gnet-research.org/2022/11/30/gendered-online-messaging-womens-insecurities-and-the-impact-of-covid-on-violent-extremism-throughout-the-asean-region/. [xvi] Phelan and Gayatri. [xvii]INITIATEMY, ‘National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism: Civil Society Deserves a Seat at the Tabl’, accessed 6 December 2022, https://initiate.my/policy-brief-issue-1-2022/.