Malaysia is de-programming terrorists’ brains. The U.S. could learn a lot from this.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

By Joseph Hammond

 Late last year, when U.S. President Donald Trump met with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, the media missed a key turning point in Asia’s war on terror.

That is, that Trump and Razak have forged a new partnership that builds on Malaysia’s unique way of fighting terrorists — undoing the brainwashing.

The Malaysian model of counter-terrorism stresses psychological deprogramming. Asking what personal value lured people into the terrorist lifestyle, the Malaysian intelligence services slowly unwind the motivations and mental traps that make killers out of ordinary men. Its multi-layered approach should become the model across Asia.

Meeting at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit held in Riyadh in May, Trump and Razak wasted little time on diplomatic appetizers. Malaysia’s successes in converting terrorists away from their killing creed caught Trump’s attention. The White House meeting built on this earlier conversation.

With U.S. funds and encouragement, Malaysia launched its Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Center in Kuala Lumpur this year. This marks the third such center for de-programming extremists in Malaysia. Saudi Arabia and China help fund yet another center while a third is funded by Malaysia alone.

Each of these nations face both home-grown threats and bombers from abroad, just as the U.S. does. All three nations urgently need a way to save the host while killing the terrorist virus among their citizens and visitors—and all three are looking to Malaysia for answers.

Malaysia can help the United States in what the Malaysian prime minister calls “ideological warfare” against Islamist totalitarian ideology.  By this he means taking extreme ideas seriously and presenting genuine and compelling counter-arguments.

Malaysia’s counter-terrorism model doesn’t avoid what the U.S. military euphemistically calls “kinetics.” Malaysia has created a new integrated counter-terrorism force–the first of its kind globally—that draws specialists from the police, army, navy, and coast guard.

Though yet to be tested in a large attack, this quick reaction force breaks down bureaucratic barriers and can simultaneously bring to bear air, land and maritime assets to deal with terrorist attacks.

The reach of Malaysia’s intelligence services extends far beyond its tropical island archipelago. Take the Sudan, where Malaysia has carried out intelligence operations for decades while helping stabilize that key African state – while maintaining economic ties through its state-owned oil company.

Let’s not forget how much things have changed. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the last years of former Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad, he never hesitated to sharply criticize the United States. He continues his vitriol, though he is no longer in office. One example: Following the Hollywood film Avatar in 2010, he wrote in a blog post that the special effects used in that film could also been used to fake the 9/11 attacks.

By contrast, relations between the current prime minister and U.S. president could hardly be better.

Part of the reason is golf. Long before the 2016 presidential election put Trump in the White House, Razak and a group of Malaysian diplomats decided to duck out of a UN general session and play a round at Trump’s course in New Jersey. Trump unexpectedly joined the group. The future president and current premier joined the same team and beat the other Malaysian diplomats. It was a joyful afternoon of jokes and stories. Trump signed a photo for Najab, saying: “To my favorite Prime Minister. Great win!”

Now Razak and Trump can team up against a greater foe than the 18th hole. A robust relationship between Kuala Lumpur and Washington will pay dividends. Malaysia, as a large and moderately wealthy Muslim country, is a vital ally in U.S counter-terrorism strategy—not just as a launching pad for new American drone strikes, but as an incubator for new ideas.

After nearly 17 years of strike and counter-strike, U.S. generals have learned that moving minds is at least as important as cruising missiles. Now politicians are learning the same lesson. Malaysia’s progress in unmaking terrorists is encouraging and points the way toward eventually ending the war on terror. Also encouraging is President Trump and Prime Minister Razak’s enthusiastic bridge building.

Both leaders defied media stereotypes during their White House visit and the press failed to notice.

Joseph Hammond is a Senior Editor for the American Media Institute and has reported extensively throughout the Middle East and Africa. His twitter handle is @thejosephh

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