Malaysia Has Become Hub for Iranian Activity, Western Intel Suggests

Led by a corrupt, proudly anti-Semitic prime minister who supports Islamist groups, Southeast Asian country's long-standing connection with Hamas gets a new twist

File photo: Men holding up a poster portrait of Palestinian professor and Hamas member Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh who was killed in Malaysia outside his family's house in Jabalia, Gaza, April 21, 2018.
Mahmud Hmas/AFP

Under cover of the predawn darkness of April 21, 2018, two tall, burly men lay in wait for Fadi al-Batsh. He took no special precautions as he left his apartment building to head for the mosque where he often prayed.

Spotting him, the two men approached and shot him 14 times at close range. He didn’t stand a chance. The security cameras in the area did not pick up anything, and the pair – who were carrying false passports from Serbia and Montenegro – fled on a motorbike. Then they switched to another vehicle and somehow made their way out of the country. Israel was said to be behind the assassination.

Born in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, al-Batsh later moved to Malaysia where he married and had three children. He had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and taught the subject in his new country of residence. This knowledge also helped him in another role. Al-Batsh was a Hamas engineer who took part in the development of Hamas’ drone project and also helped to improve the accuracy of Hamas’ rockets. His death was a serious blow to the Palestinian organization. A mourning tent was erected in Jabalya following Hamas’ announcement of his slaying.

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Al-Batsh was one of a number of scientists who were either arrested or killed in various circumstances around the globe, in operations that have been ascribed to an attempt by Israel to damage Hamas’ technological infrastructure and prevent it from obtaining more advanced capabilities.

Before his mysterious death (to this day, it is not known how he was exposed and located), al-Batsh enjoyed a nice life in Malaysia, and he wasn’t alone. Many Palestinians found a warm home in the Southeast Asian country led by Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad, who wears the “anti-Semite” label proudly. After the Hamas engineer’s death, statements from the Malaysian government indicated that he had also been openly active in pro-Palestinian organizations. Al-Batsh was also said to have been involved in mediating arms deals between Hamas and North Korea, and to have nurtured friendships with Iranian intelligence personnel.

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world which Iranians can visit without a visa; upon arrival, they are immediately issued a 14-day visa. A 2015 article in a Malaysian newspaper described the country as a “bridge” between Iran and other countries. This may explain why 15,000 Iranians come to Malaysia to study, and why some seek to stay on afterwards. (Five thousand Palestinians are studying there too.)

Western intelligence analysts have noted extensive and growing activity by Iran in Malaysia, and that Iran has been shifting more activity to Malaysia from African countries. “Iran has very significant infrastructure in Malaysia,” says one Israeli official. “It has religious infrastructure there that is trying to promote Shi’ite Islam. There’s a very dangerous convergence there between Palestinian students and Iranian knowhow.”

Another connection between Tehran and Kuala Lumpur has to do with the sanctions that were placed on Iran because of its nuclear program. Malaysia continued to support Iran and assiduously maintains good commercial relations with it. But are there other types of relations between the two countries as well?

“Malaysia is the meeting point between various terrorist organizations and the Iranians,” an Israeli official says. “Malaysia is a convenient place for communication, organization and training for various terror groups and states hostile to Israel. It’s a place where they share technologies and plot operations.”

File photo: A group of Muslim demonstrators carrying Palestinian flags rally outside the Australian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 21, 2018.
Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Israeli sources say that over the past 10 years, dozens of terrorist operatives have entered Malaysia to train and use it as a base of operations. In 2012, Hamas operatives trained there for abductions, anti-aircraft fire and sniper fire; in 2014, Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank arrested Majdi Mafraha, who confessed that he had been trained in Malaysia for Hamas’ cyber division; in 2015, two Hamas officials were reported to be running Hamas activity in Malaysia as emissaries of the organization.

Furthermore, in the course of the affair that was uncovered in 2014, which included the arrests of 93 Hamas activists suspected of building a terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and of attempting to bring about a coup there, some of the threads led back to Malaysia – where some of the men had trained before returning to the West Bank. In another episode, in 2015, Wasim Qawasme of Hebron was arrested after recruiting Hamas activists in Malaysia. The information about this came from a Palestinian who was arrested during Operation Protective Edge and who turned out to be part of a group of 10 from Hamas who had gone to Malaysia to train in the deployment of parachutes. The public will probably soon hear about more activity tied to Malaysia.

The connection between Malaysia and Hamas is not new. The previous Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, visited Gaza and pledged his country’s political and economic support. Today, once again under Mathahir Mohamad, relations between Malaysia and Hamas are tighter than ever, and Malaysia’s foreign policy is seen as being strongly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

Anti-Semitic leader

The Federation of Malaysia is home to 32 million people, two-thirds of them Muslim. Mohamad, the 93-year-old prime minister, has been in Malaysian politics for 70 years, serving as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and returning to the post last May. Israel sees Mohamad as giving support to radical Islamist groups and promoting anti-Israel policies. One example came last January, when Mohamad decreed that Israeli swimmers could not compete in the World Championships to be held in his country. The reason: Malaysia wants nothing to do with Israel and its people. Not now or in the future. The International Olympic Committee responded by moving the competition to another country.

File photo: Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during his joint statement with Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, March 7, 2019.
Ted Aljibe/AFP

This action fits in with other statements made by the prime minister in the course of his long political career. During his previous term as he made numerous antagonistic comments about Jews, some of which found their way into his book “The Malay Dilemma.” “The Jews don’t just have long and crooked noses, they also have an instinctive understanding of money,” he wrote. He said something similar in an interview with the BBC last October. In that interview he also claimed that 4 million and not 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

In most of his statements, Mohamad refers to “the Jews” and not to Israelis, without bothering to differentiate between the two. And he makes no attempt to hide this. In 2012, he said he was proud to be called an anti-Semite. In his personal blog, he wrote, “The Jews control the world by a proxy,” and last August he said that “the term anti-Semitism was only coined to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for their evil deeds.”

At a conference in support of the Palestinians, he exclaimed that Jews “were always a problem in European countries. They had to put them in ghettos and slaughter them from time to time. But they survived and flourished and they hold entire governments hostage. Even after the Nazis slaughtered them they continued to be the world’s biggest troublemaker.”

Mohamad’s odious statements are not confined to Jews and Israel. Other countries in the West are also a target. At the same conference, he said, “There is significant evidence that the attack on the Twin Towers was staged.” He claimed the goal was to enable the U.S. government to operate against different Arab countries. No such theory was ever mentioned before it appeared on the website of the Malaysian Foreign Ministry.

Government as a family business

Even in years when he wasn’t in power, Mohamad remained a key figure in Malaysia, especially its economy, which he controlled through a web of companies subject to his authority and to that of his extended family. This did not hinder him from waging a successful anti-corruption campaign against his predecessor, Najib Razak, that led to Razak’s ouster and Mohamad declaring that corruption is “a problem of the past.”

But it isn’t clear that replacing the prime minister is the solution for the corruption that has plagued Malaysia for so many years. According to local reports, Mohamad and his associates exploited the privatizing of national industries so they could get their hands on the huge sums the state received. Today the ruler’s family has holdings in 480 different Malaysian companies – for example, in the company that last August was chosen to supply fuel to all Malaysian company vehicles.

File photo: Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad welcomes Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad and his wife during the opening  of the Women in Business International Forum 2005, Damascus, May 21, 2005.
Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

Two of Mohamad’s four children are among Malaysia’s richest people. One is Mirzan Mahathir Mohamad, who was involved in one of the country’s biggest corruption cases. For years, Mirzan was the owner of a huge courier and logistical company called Consortium. The company at one point was on the verge of going bankrupt because of failed management and large debts. But it was thrown a life preserver when Malaysia’s national oil company acquired it for hundreds of millions of dollars. And who made the decision for the national oil company? Naturally, Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad.

Another son, Mukhriz Mahathir Mohamad, who is governor of the state of Kedah, has been linked to some dubious deals. Mukhriz was a partner in the founding of the communications company Opcom and still holds ownership through his wife. From corporate documents one learns that a third son, Mokhzani Mohamad, himself a billionaire, is CEO. It wasn’t a great surprise in Malaysia when only a month after Mohamad returned to power, Opcom won a huge infrastructure tender being managed by the Malaysian national communications company, Telekom Malaysia.

Mukhriz has been linked to other corruption cases. It has been reported that as governor of Kedah, he used his political connections to help his father when he wasn’t serving as prime minister. In one case he signed a 60-year leasing agreement for a desirable piece of beachfront land with a company owned by his father. The cost: around $50,000.