Tag Archives: Malaysia

LOL: The Art of Assassination

On the morning of 14 February 2017, a grainy closed circuit television video shows a middle-aged Korean man striding casually into the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He is approached from behind by a young woman in a white t-shirt and blue skirt and in a flash she throws a cloth over his face to administer a lethal dose of a colorless, odorless liquid. The victim, Kim Jong Nam, is the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He did not yet realize he was already doomed; assassinated by unknown assailants wielding an unidentified chemical weapon. The ongoing international manhunt that followed revealed the greatest strengths of the storied Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch and the brutality and skill of the North Korean intelligence service. The incident also strained relations between Pyongyang and one of the few countries in the world with which it enjoys normal relations.

The brazen murder also captivated millions and brought a shadowy underworld briefly to the surface. What is not apparent to most is that last week’s dramatic events were not a lucky strike by clever opportunists, they were the end result of a sophisticated intelligence operation – actually several separate operations – spanning multiple countries and likely involving dozens of intelligence officers and their agents. (In the professional jargon of the intelligence community, an agent is someone recruited by an intelligence officer.) Coordinating their activities to achieve the final spectacular, and previously impossible result is the real art behind the assassination.

The Cat and the Mouse

Once considered a likely successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam was passed-over following a careless indiscretion and went quickly into exile while his younger sibling thrashed about in the tense early days of his rule. Despite great doubt about his ability to muster the ruthlessness required to retain power over the isolated country, Kim Jong Un quickly consolidated his hold using imprisonment and death to control anyone presenting the slightest political threat. In an environment where even kinship was less important than loyalty, Kim Jong Nam was bound to be targeted even if he had not made statements questioning the stability of his brother’s regime.

Nam Assassination
Before his fortunes faded, Kim Jong Nam (left) was the presumptive heir to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Now his half-brother, Kim Jong Un (right), leads the country. Photo credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/exclusive-two-female-secret-agents-behind-murder-kim-jong-unsbrother/

The elder Kim withdrew deeper into a dark exile after his father’s death in 2012. In China and Macau he was assumed to be under state protection and travelled under numerous aliases. He had already survived at least two attempts on his life and reportedly begged his half-brother to spare his life and that of his family. His final minutes in Kuala Lumpur were a bizarre drama. After being assaulted by the woman in white, he was initially treated at an airport clinic before being evacuated by ambulance to a local hospital. He died en route, just as police were beginning their hunt for his alleged attackers, an Indonesian girl – Siti Aisyah – and a Vietnamese national, Doan Thi Huong, the now infamous woman wearing the coldly ironic “LOL” t-shirt.

After her attack on Kim Jong Nam, CCTV footage shows Doan calmly leaving the scene and catching a taxi outside. Despite having just administered a lethal dose of an unknown chemical, she displayed no concern for her own safety and wore no obvious protective equipment. She had clearly practiced the sequence. Both Doan and Siti Aisyah later told police separately they believed they were taking part in a made for television prank. But Doan’s actions in the 48 hours prior to the attack suggest she had received some training in tradecraft. During that time she stayed in three hotels in the immediate vicinity of the airport and paid cash for her lodging. At one point she borrowed a pair of scissors and cut her hair, leaving the remnants in the trash can in her room. Her activities during the day are just coming to light but are now known to have included numerous rehearsals and examinations of the target area; possibly in conjunction with Siti Aisyah. These are classic, if clumsy techniques to avoid detection and rehearse the operation. They certainly signal a nefarious intent.

The Art of Assassination

To the casual observer, Kim Jong Nam’s death may seem like the handiwork of a couple clever and highly trained operatives. The reality is that intelligence operations of this kind are highly choreographed, involve dozens of actors, and are compartmented for security. Assassinating Kim Jong Nam required at least five, and as many as seven separate operations managed by seven or more intelligence officers with perhaps dozens of agents in Macau, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The overall operation likely consisted of the following supporting operations:

  • Recruit the assassins. Siti Aisyah was recruited in Indonesia. Doan may have been recruited in Vietnam.
  • Determine Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans. Doan was aware of Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans at least 48 hours prior to the attack. She used this time to rehearse and to complete her reconnaissance. Information gleaned from his social media feed is not reliable enough for this purpose and had to be corroborated with direct knowledge from intercepted communications or recruited agents in a position to provide assured access to his itinerary.
  • Report Kim Jong Nam’s movements. The attack required very precise information about his flight, his mode of transportation, his likely arrival time at the terminal, the gate/check-in counter for his flight, what he was wearing, etc.; all of which had to be communicated to the assassins in a timely manner. A botched operation would have been far too damaging to leave this to chance. This could have been as simple as a phone warning from his hotel but doing this reliably requires layers of mobile and static surveillance at the hotel, the airport, and his many residences.
  • Deliver the chemical. The chemical used to kill Kim Jong Nam was smuggled into Malaysia or manufactured locally. It likely required special skill to make and specific equipment to store and administer. For Security, Doan would have received the chemical secretly and been trained in its use at the last possible moment raising the risk it could have killed bystanders or the assassins themselves.
  • Kill Kim Jong Nam. There is a possibility Doan and Siti Aisyah may have been employed separately to ensure redundancy. They may even have been unaware of each other’s activities. The leaked CCTV footage of the attack supports this conclusion, though there is new information that they rehearsed the attack together.
  • Observe and report the outcome. Though this could have been conducted overtly through North Korean diplomats and/or monitoring of the press, it is a critical piece. At a minimum, Doan needed to report her task complete or a separate observer had to be in place at the scene to do so. Emerging information suggests this was the task of the four North Korean nationals still sought by Malaysian police.
  • Exfiltrate the assets. The four remaining fugitives all left Malaysia within a few hours of the operation. They took circuitous routes back to North Korea via Indonesia, Dubai, Russia, and elsewhere. Their roles are not certain but probably also included passing intelligence and issuing final orders. One, Ri Jong Chol, remained in Kuala Lumpur and was apprehended Monday. Doan and Siti Aisyah seemed to lack viable escape plans. It is possible they were left as a diversion to throw investigators off the trail of fleeing North Korean intelligence officers.
assassination malaysia
Deputy National Police Chief of Malaysia Noor Rashid Ibrahim, left, speaks as Selangor Police Chief Abdul Samah Mat listens during a press conference at the Bukit Aman national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Photo credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, http://time.com/4676018/kim-jong-nam-death-north-korea-suspects/

Though it was possible to conduct some of the supporting operations above clandestinely, meaning the operations themselves remain hidden, the politically explosive death of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother could never be kept secret and therefore had to be done covertly, meaning the sponsor’s hand remains hidden. A covert operation is much more difficult to execute than a clandestine one and requires layers of separation between intelligence officers and their agents that are typically not highly trained operatives. Agents are deniable and sometimes coerced. Occasionally they do not know whom they are working for or even that they are working for someone at all.

As an additional security measure, the supporting operations would be kept completely separate. The risk of detection is highest when these operations come together through communications or physical contact, meaning the moment of greatest vulnerability was during the attack itself when all the pieces were brought together in time and space. At that point, all the complicated designs of the North Korean regime rested on the element of surprise and the skill and demeanor of half-trained agents.

Ultimately, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam was a well-planned and skillfully executed intelligence operation, but the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch is untangling the knot with great efficiency. With its roots in the long, difficult fight against Communist insurgency, Special Branch is a tough adversary in the ongoing spy game. Known locally as SB, Special Branch serves as both the internal and external intelligence service of the Malaysian state. They enjoy good relationships with counterparts in the region and are receiving excellent mutual support from Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry which is aggressively setting the conditions for international cooperation in the investigation. Though culpability for Kim Jong Nam’s death may never be fully proven, SB has managed to minimize political damage to Malaysia and imposed a high cost on North Korea. With the dust still settling, only Kim Jong Un himself can say if his brother’s murder was worth the resultant damage to relations with Malaysia and the increased suspicion that the operation has inspired around the world.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016. Read about one of his encounters with the North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia on the Brink

Malaysia is at a political crossroads. In what appears to be a conflict between the scion of a dynastic political order and the powerful personality of one of the country’s founding fathers, Malaysians ponder a frightfully uncertain political future. The setting is an ongoing corruption scandal involving quasi-governmental development firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, that reaches all the way to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. In a story alleging appalling arrogance and complexity, Najib is accused of pocketing $700 million USD in funds siphoned away from 1MDB.[1] Son of the country’s respected second Prime Minister, and President of the ruling coalition’s United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Najib’s lineage gives him unique importance as a link between the country’s present and its political past. Such shocking accusations against him are particularly wrenching for Malaysia’s Malay (Muslim) community but what’s less obvious to casual observers is that they may actually threaten political stability in this peaceful Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia’s Real Malay Dilemma

The appalling scandal appears to be the result of a dispute between Najib and Mahathir Mohamad, longtime UMNO strongman and former Prime Minister. Both are important figures, but admiring Malays regard Mahathir with near religious devotion, a source of great political power that he routinely uses. His political whims still shape Malaysian politics and though he’s been out of office since 2003, his influence is ever-present. Malaysians largely credit Mahathir’s leadership with their country’s emergence from colonialism as a modern and wealthy democracy. A conflict between these leaders puts Malaysians in a schizophrenic quandary because at one time, Mahathir was Najib’s sponsor.

If Najib survives as Prime Minister, the perception of corruption in the system may sour the disillusioned Malaysian electorate to the point that they finally abandon UMNO and the rest of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).  The last two elections were extremely close for BN and notwithstanding the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy (yes, sodomy), his opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) holds together despite its enormous ideological fractures.  Facing abandonment by its Malay constituency, UMNO may be forced to make a deal with the Islamic party, PAS. Like Islamic parties elsewhere, PAS is seen as a less corrupt alternative, though its periodic insistence on implementing Sharia and Hudud laws makes it abhorrent to Malaysia’s sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities as well as its more worldly Malay communities.

An UMNO-PAS deal would solidify communal stresses into geographic blocks, something of a security nightmare for Malaysia’s leadership which has traditionally depended upon the diversity of its neighborhoods to deny safe-haven to would be insurgents. More Islamization and more power for Malay-majority northern states would push minority Chinese and Indians away from BN in favor of Pakatan. This would position minority communities in Penang and Selengor firmly against rural Malay communities in Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan.  This creates for the first time a very distinct political geographic divide within the country that will very negatively affect its stability.

Malaysia Racial Distribution
The Geographic Divide. An UMNO-PAS deal could divide Peninsular Malaysia into political-racial voting blocks; a geographic separation for the first time in the country’s history.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Malaysia

Mahathir Waning

If Mahathir emerges victorious, there will be massive turnover at the pinnacle of UMNO resulting in many second tier leaders rising to the top. The current Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yasin will likely take the top job with Hishamuddin Hussein (son of another former Prime Minister) as Muhyiddin’s deputy…But this will be a pyrrhic victory for Mahathir.  He’s 90 years old and finding it increasingly hard to continue wielding power from his “retirement” villa.  His son and daughter aren’t proving to be quite the political pit bulls that he is and perhaps most importantly, Malaysians are tiring of his antics.  As one Malaysian colleague put it, they want to honor his accomplishments, not continue to be ruled by proxy.  Eager to avoid exposing his hand in Najib’s impending downfall, Mahathir has allowed Muhyiddin to portray himself as the anti-Najib and build an independent power base. Ultimately, Muhyiddin will finish the job Najib began of freeing Malaysia from Mahathir’s influence and though the country will remain ruled by the party of its founding fathers, UMNO will be greatly diminished and without Mahathir for the first time in a generation.

One way or the other, UMNO is facing a survival decision for the first time in its sixty-nine year history: get rid of Najib or sideline Mahathir. It is a decision UMNO is not really prepared to make and while most view this as a conflict between two political stalwarts, it is actually a more significant symptom of real democratic change within Malaysia. Poor management of the transition may destabilize Malaysia itself so let’s hope they get it right.

[1] He now claims this was a $700 million election contribution from Saudi Arabia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Sulu Arms Market: Globalized Gunrunning Since 1521

In March 2013 a Malaysian Air Force F-18 initiated an assault on a tiny East Malaysian village near the city of Lahad Datu. Its target was the final stronghold of the Royal Sulu Army, armed henchmen loyal to the Sultanate of Sulu, a defunct political entity that at one time spanned the borders of the modern Philippines and Malaysia. In the smoking aftermath of the final battle with the group, 80 people lay dead (including 10 Malaysian soldiers and policemen), over 700 were in custody, and police confiscated a surprising assortment of powerful weapons and ammunition.

Portrayed as misguided terrorists by Malaysian leaders, the ethnic Tausug invaders that confounded Malaysian authorities for over a month armed themselves with assault rifles and ammunition from an illicit arms market that thrives in the poorly controlled border areas of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Although Malaysia dealt decisively with the Royal Sulu Army in 2013, the arms market that supplied them is part of the history and culture of the area and remains a security problem for at least five member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Sulu Arms Market, described in the 2011 book by the same name, is not a market in the physical sense, rather it is an economy of guns where firearms and ammunition are the currency of a thriving international trade in violence. Its 500-year history of competition and conflict is older than most, yet the Sulu Arms Market is quite common in that it is both a source and a destination for smuggled guns. Due to the richness and politically fractured characteristics of the tri-border area, the Sulu Arms Market is intertwined with piracy, terrorism, and the traffic of other illicit commodities. At various points since the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in 1521, European colonialists, Moro (Philippine Muslim) independence groups, Communists, Islamic militants, and criminal gangs all played a major part in the market’s development making it a truly globalized enterprise.

Smuggling routes in the approximate area of the Royal Hashemite Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, a defunct political entity. A number of factors have contributed to both abundance of and demand for weapons that are easily trafficked into and out of the Sulu Arms Market. Source: https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/
Smuggling routes in the approximate area of the Royal Hashemite Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, a defunct political entity. A number of factors have contributed to both abundance of and demand for weapons that are easily trafficked into and out of the Sulu Arms Market. Source: https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/

The Players

While the Sulu Arms Market has its origins in colonial struggles between Spain, England, Germany, and the Netherlands its modern foundation was established in the political chaos of Southeast Asia following the Second World War. Communist guerillas across Southeast Asia, trained and equipped by the Allies during the War, turned against their post-war governments and became the primary recipients of arms shipments from abroad. As the Cold War set in, these groups drew direct support from communist China, the Soviet Union, and eventually Vietnam and North Korea. Added to the massive volume of guns remaining from the fighting in the Philippines, this Communist supply spilled over to similar movements throughout Asia including the Khmer Rouge, the Pathet Lao, the communist parties of Indonesia and Thailand, as well as Nepalese and Indian groups.

The Moros also rearmed after the Second World War. Organized initially as a secular nationalist movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) waged guerilla warfare against Manila for control of historically Muslim southern islands. Led by an ethnically Tausug leftist agitator and Sulu nationalist named Nur Misuari, the MNLF received political support and clandestine logistics (including arms) from Malaysia.[1] It was not long before Misuari developed direct ties with a number of powerful external sponsors, including Libya’s Muammar Ghadaffi and Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan, both of whom sponsored Islamic causes around the world. MNLF’s secular approach began to fall apart however in the 1980s when a number of its officers established a religiously inspired splinter group: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF brought jihad to the southern Philippines and with it, Islamist arms sources. Powerful new sponsors, inflated by victory over the Soviets, found the religious MILF more worthy of support than the secular MNLF. As Misuari and the MNLF pursued a secular agenda in peace talks with Manila, jihadi suppliers like Al Qaeda shifted their support (mostly in arms and training) to the MILF and Abu Sayyaf Group, another Islamist Moro faction. The MILF’s connection to these jihadi groups was critical to finance the import of weapons from Sabah during the 1990s. Guns poured into Mindanao from every corner of the globe via well-known smuggling routes through the Sulu archipelago. In 1992, the scale of black arms shipments to the Moros attracted suppliers from Afghanistan, Colombia, China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, North Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia (Sabah); with transit points in Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Myanmar. As a result of this influx of weapons, the MILF was secure enough to continue fighting independently when Misuari’s MNLF reached a peace agreement with Manila in 1996. With as many as 12,000 men under arms, the MILF sat atop an enormous black arms trade and controlled roughly 10 per cent of Mindanao and large parts of the Sulu archipelago. Control of this territory allowed large arms shipments to become routine and with violence at a low ebb, the Sulu Arms Market once again became a source of guns for the rest of Asia.

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/sulu-guerrilla-tactics-wont-work-in-sabah-says-analyst
Violent conflict between Malaysian forces and the Royal Sulu Army around Lahad Datu, Malaysia in 2013 provided proof that a market for illegal arms exists in the Sulu Archipelago. Image Source: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com

Sensing opportunity, Asia’s criminals soon became significant players in the Sulu Arms Market. At the lowest end of the scale are the “ant traders”; Sulu or Sabah natives that benefit from access to both sides of the border. Their opportunistic, few-guns-at-a-time operations thrive in border areas where one country has a legal market and the other does not. As a result, ant trading accounts for much of the arms and ammunition transiting between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

At the other end of the scale are transnational organized crime gangs from Japan, China, and Taiwan. Strict and well-enforced gun laws in northeast Asia make high quality handcrafted Filipino counterfeits called paltiks very popular among these gangsters. In an effort to control this dangerous cottage industry, the Philippine government created licensed manufacturers in Cebu with the idea of luring paltik craftsmen into legitimate employment in state factories. Not surprisingly, this move created ideal conditions for parts-smuggling that feeds the very paltik industry it was designed to destroy.

The criminality of arms trading is less clear when it involves wealthy and influential Filipinos. They are primarily arms consumers, stockpiling enormous arsenals that offer them increased prestige and protects them from weak gun laws. When these politicians and businessmen also identify themselves as either leftist, Moro or Christian, the lines between criminality, politics, and terrorism become extremely blurred as we saw in the case of the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009.

Sulu as a Source

The rise and fall of the Royal Sulu Army demonstrates that the Sulu Arms Market is real. It persists despite a multitude of countermeasures against it by governments both in and out of the region. It is a security problem of unmeasured proportions and its deadly products flow increasingly outward as violence reaches a low ebb. Moro weapons have made their way into the hands of separatists and militias in Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, East Timor, and the Malukus. But insurgent guns are not the only ones supplying the demand. Legally produced rifles, ammunition, and machine guns also end up in the black market through intentional overproduction, diversion, theft or loss. Known paltik manufacturing operations in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines reinforce the supply from legal sources. Lastly, leakage from regional military and police sources is famously commonplace. Pilferage of stocks of obsolete weaponry continues to occur as both the Philippines and Malaysia replaced their standard infantry rifles with 45,000 M-16 rifles from the United States in 2009.

It is not hard to imagine that as violence reaches historic lows in Mindanao due to MILF-Manila peace efforts, cash-strapped armorers in those countries will ignore the long-term profit potential of black arms exports. If the governments of the region fail to keep a close eye on the Sulu Arms Market (or perhaps even if they do), peace in Mindanao could come at the cost of the southern Philippines evolving once again into a for-profit illicit gun store for Asia.

[1] Though Nur Misuari served Kuala Lumpur’s interests in 1969, he was widely seen as provoking the Royal Sulu Army’s invasion of Sabah in 2013.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.