By Adil Sakhawat
July 21, 2016
A man who knew a Holey Bakery attacker well while he was studying in Malaysia says he did not see this coming.
Attacker Nibras Islam had been a student of Monash University’s campus in Malaysia.
The man, a Bangladeshi long residing in Malaysia, confirmed to the Dhaka Tribune that he was aware that some Bangladeshis in Malaysia were recruited into jihadist groups and indoctrinated there.
But he said he did not believe that they received tactical training there.
Nibras’ case has had the Bangladeshi expat, who has asked not to be named, wondering how a party-animal with a taste for foreign women like Nibras could have turned into a cool-headed mass murderer.
He wonders if Malaysia’s unique cultural context – where orthodox Islamic practice, near-universally admired, coexists with liberal lifestyles – creates a tension for Bangladeshis living there.
“Malaysia is a country where Muslims can practise their religion if they wish to, but any one, Muslim or not, is also allowed to go out to parties and enjoy themselves,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
On the surface, Nibras appeared to revel in the freedom he found in Malaysia, but aspects of his behaviour suggest an underlying streak of anti-Western sentiment in him.
Where he acquired this prejudice is unclear.
Take for example Nibras’ preference for drinking alcohol. Even when all was well, Nibras, buzzed by alcohol, would disparage United States foreign policy or the supposed victimisation of Muslims in the West.
His friends – who all requested that they not be named – say he often expressed frustration about his parents when drinking.
But otherwise, they say Nibras was a fun-loving party-goer who was fascinated by football and music.
They add that he was concerned about the state of Muslim countries like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
While hanging out with friends on campus or at a bar, Nibras would often express anger when he read something on his mobile phone regarding the situation in the Middle East or other Muslim countries.
His friends said Nibras would sometimes even shout against “Western domination and imperialism.”
His friends say Nibras was hardly what one might call religious.
Unlike other Bangladeshis students there who were fairly observant Muslims, Nibras was never known to offer any prayers.
High life, low grades
According to his friends, Nibras started his journey as an engineering student at Monash with high hopes, but soon became frustrated as his grades were not too good.
With his grades dropping to a CGPA of 2.34, Nibras had to face his education counsellor many times at the university.
“But we still did not see any sign that he was becoming radicalised during this time,” one of his friends told the Dhaka Tribune.
He remained active in extra-curricular activities at the university.
In 2014, Nibras was elected treasurer of the university’s International Students Union, and his friends said he had plans to run for president the following year.
During his stay in Malaysia, Nibras had three girlfriends of different nationalities, his friends told the Dhaka Tribune.
One of his university friends said he had rented a house in the Sunway township near the campus where they got together to socialise.
But things started to change in July 2015, when Nibras cut off all contact with his friends and stopped coming to campus.
One friend communicated with him via Facebook in September last year, but even then Nibras showed no sign that he had become radicalised.
His friends said that the tell-tale signs of radicalisation are frequent use of the As-Salaam u-Alaikum greeting and exhortations to become more religious.
The Bangladesh expat who knew Nibras said young Bangladeshis living in Malaysia are particularly vulnerable because many are undocumented students frustrated by legal complications.
Some struggle with drug addiction, he added.
Malaysia’s Muslim milieu makes it easy for tragedies in other Muslim countries to strike a chord, he said.
Local militant groups target young, disaffected Muslims, he said, and guessed after recruitment in Malaysia; training takes place in Bangladesh or a third country such as Syria.
IS Influence in Malaysia
According to Malaysian English-language daily New Straits Times, Islamic State’s expert bomb-maker Zainuri Kamaruddin is in charge of leading Malaysian IS members in Syria.
In a recently released IS propaganda video in May this year, Zainuri, 49, was seen to say that he and his men were part of a “righteous army,” and that the Malay Archipelago would someday be swarming with an army of IS fighters who would bring the fight home, particularly to Malaysia and Indonesia.