Protesters at a mosque outside a university campus in Kuala Lumpur, 22 June 2007.TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

How Malaysia Became a Training Ground for Hamas

The assassination of an engineer in Kuala Lumpur last month is another sign that the terrorist group is getting cozy in Asia

Jonathan Schanzer
May 04, 2018
Protesters at a mosque outside a university campus in Kuala Lumpur, 22 June 2007.TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images

It was like a scene out of the Mission: Impossible series. Two assassins on BMW motorbikes gunned down 34-year old Fradi Al-Batsh on the morning of April 21 in Kuala Lumpur. Al-Batsh was riddled with eight bullets before his attackers sped away.

Al-Batsh was a 34-year-old electrical engineer, a PhD in power systems and energy efficiency, and a lecturer at the British Malaysian Institute. As it turns out, he was also a loyal and active member of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, working on the development of drones and rockets. He may also have been negotiating arms deals on behalf of Hamas with the North Koreans.

Reports suggest that it was agents of the Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, who killed al-Batsh. This only seems logical. But less obvious is what a Hamas weapons developer was doing in Malaysia in the first place.

As it turns out, Hamas has a significant presence in Malaysia. For years, the terrorist group has used Malaysia to engage in financial activities and even plan operations from outside Gaza, particularly as the group has been forced out of its traditional Middle East areas of operations, such as Syria.

Malaysia doesn’t appear to be concerned about the optics of this Hamas presence. As the Inspector General of Police in Malaysia said at a press conference last year, “If they come in peace and do not create any problems, then what is the issue?”

The problem is that Hamas operatives don’t come in peace. In 2012, at least ten members of Hamas traveled to Malaysia for training to prepare for a cross-border attack against Israel. The group reportedly trained for kidnapping soldiers, anti-tank ambushes, and sniper attacks.

In 2014, Israel conducted a sweeping raid in the West Bank, during which it captured Majdi Mafarja, who admitted to training in message encryption and computer hacking for Hamas in Malaysia. Israeli security services arrested him for having served as courier for encoded messages on behalf of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades–the so-called military wing of Hamas.

In 2015, the Israeli press reported that at least two senior Hamas officials were operating out of Malaysia: Ma’an Hatib and Radwan al-Atrash. Hatib was described as “responsible in Malaysia for the Hamas foreign desk,” while Atrash was seen as “a senior figure in the Shura [consultative] council” for the organization. Hamas also operated a cultural organization in Malaysia called Rabitat Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria Association).

In 2015, Israel alleged that a group of Palestinian students had been sent to Malaysia back in 2010 to learn how to use hang gliders to infiltrate Israel for an attack. This came after the Israel security services arrested Waseem Qawasmeh, a 24-year-old student who had studied in Malaysia. He was charged with belonging to Hamas and receiving funding from the terror group. Both Malaysia and Hamas denied this accusation.

In the meantime, Malaysia’s political ties with Hamas have only grown closer. In 2013, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak visited the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, making him the first non-Arab leader to visit the coastal enclave after Hamas wrested control of it from the Palestinian Authority in a brutal civil war in 2007. Razak pledged political and financial support to the Hamas government during his five-hour visit—a move that generated significant goodwill for the prime minister back home among the country’s Islamists, and is likely the reason for his continued support to Hamas.

Soon after, a Hamas delegation led by then-Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal visited Kuala Lumpur for reciprocal official meetings. Meshaal even visited the university where the aspiring hang-gliding terrorists had studied. Subsequent visits included the December 2015 return to Kuala Lumpur of Meshaal, who openly advocated for violence against Israel. These exchanges had the effect of burnishing Hamas’ image worldwide, while also strengthening Razak’s standing with Malaysia’s Muslim community.

In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, the U.S. Department of State gives Malaysia high marks for its efforts to combat global terrorism, both in terms of arrests and halting the flow of terror funds. Curiously, it leaves out Malaysia’s longstanding and troubling support for Hamas, a group that features prominently on Washington’s terrorism lists. The presence of al-Batsh, not to mention the other operatives noted above, makes it difficult for Malaysia to deny that it is providing safe harbor to the group.

The longer Hamas operatives like al-Batsh are welcome on Malaysian soil, the more likely it becomes that Israel moves against them. But for Kuala Lumpur, the concern should probably be the financial links that can be drawn between the terrorist group and Malaysian banks or financial institutions. With the Hamas-Malaysia connection increasingly exposed, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where new U.S. sanctions are not under consideration.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.