Divergent Dimensions of Radicalization Risk: Migration and Violent Extremism in Sabah

Project Details


State Department polling indicates that public support for the Islamic State (IS) is on the rise. Moreover, the Malaysian police claim to have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks since 2013. Importantly, Malaysia has served as a transit hub and training ground for terrorists, and approximately one hundred Malaysians, including women and children, have traveled to Iraq and Syria to support the creation of IS. Though only a handful have returned, radicalization and recruitment to violence remain a risk in Malaysia, as evidenced by more than 430 terror-related arrests since 2013.

There are undoubtedly opportunities to mitigate these risks in Malaysia by addressing the dynamics of radicalization and mobilization to violence. This, however, requires nuanced understanding of the threat, and extant research capacity on terrorism and violent extremism in Malaysia is unfortunately limited. This is especially the case outside of Kuala Lumpur.

This project will begin to fill this gap. The proposed work will be conducted at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), and will focus on Sabah, where radicalization risks are especially high. This is the case as Sabah has the highest rates of undocumented migration in Malaysia. Sabah’s close proximity to the Philippines, combined with longstanding trade routes and close, cross-border familial ties between the two countries facilitate migrant flows. While the vast majority of emigrants are motivated by economic opportunity, extensive evidence suggests that Filipino violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are also exploiting these flows. Sabah is not merely a transit point for Filipino VEOs; rather some groups are actively engaged in radicalizing and recruiting Malaysians and Filipino expats living in Sabah.

Primary Findings:

In August and September 2021, the project team co-hosted the "2021 Webinar Series: Migration, Security and Regional Militancy in Sabah and the Greater Sulu Celebes Sea" with the Universiti Malaysia Sabah and the International Islamic University Malaysia. The recordings of this webinar series can be seen on START's Multimedia page, at these links:

The team also published a final research report, which can be viewed at this link.


The project team will train local researchers to conduct sensitive interviews based on best practices for both focus group and key informant interviews in conflict zones.


Project Period: