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Special Branch must return to fight crime too

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The SB should not be used for chasing ghosts and shadows in the form of politicians and activists. Those are not real threats; people with guns are, says Nicholas Chan.

Police move in on a vigil in Petaling Jaya to mark 50 years of the ISA on 1 August 2010 - Photo courtesy of sayaanakbangsamalaysia.net
Police move in on a vigil in Petaling Jaya to mark 50 years of the ISA on 1 August 2010 – Photo courtesy of sayaanakbangsamalaysia.net

On 7 May 2012, the Associated Press reported a top-secret mission combining the forces of American, British and Saudi Intelligence that had foiled an airline bombing plot by the Arabic branch of Al-Qaeda, the AQAP.

Apparently, a double agent was employed and succeeded in tricking the terrorists that he was a suicide bomber volunteer but instead turned the ingeniously designed underwear bomb over to the FBI after receiving the package.

The leakage of the top secret mission has brought about a massive investigation into the Associated Press by the Justice Department, but it also highlights the fact that when it comes to national security, intelligence is paramount. You could have all the weapons in the world, but you would not know where and when to strike without solid intelligence.

But intelligence is something that was recently felt amiss with the Malaysian police. The reactionary stance and sometimes stuttering and anxious response towards the current spate of firearms murder cases in the nation exposes this lapse in our intelligence network.

No doubt the Malaysian public is told a significant portion of these cases is a result of turf wars, but if the police knew in advance a power struggle was to come, wouldn’t they be able to suppress it prematurely to prevent a massive spillover like what we have been seeing lately in the forms of gunshot killings?

The belated and sometimes perplexing response by the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs (like quoting that we have 260,000 criminals roaming free in the streets) certainly supports the hypothesis that there is a lapse of intelligence. And by intelligence it means more than intercepting communications or installing tracking devices, something the government plans to do by dusting off the aged old the Prevention of Crime Act 1959.

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If the May 2012 airline bombing plot has taught us anything, it is that in spite of all the gadgets and technologies, good ol’ fashioned intelligence action on the ground is still highly indispensable. This is because intelligence certainly doesn’t always come in the form of electronic data or paper trails.

We are not dealing with white collar crime here. Without deep throats within criminal organisations, the police certainly can’t grasp the thinking and manoeuvrings of the criminals, and if one can’t think like a criminal, there is no way of catching one.

Generally, the responsibility of mending this intelligence gap on criminal networks (if there is one) falls on the shoulder of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), but then how can one expect this from them when the entire division only consisted of 9 per cent of the entire police force?

The 5,000 men Special Branch (according to 2011 data) should step up to fill in these shoes. With a glorious record of successful infiltration operations into the communist insurgents, the Special Branch should have focus on doing the same with the underworld of Malaysia.

In my opinion, undercover cops or double agents would seem a dramatic albeit effective way to tackle the rise of gunshot killings in the country. For example, bogus hits can be commissioned by the undercover cops, and through it, establish liaisons with the network of hired killers or their contacts and used the taped conversations or dealings as instruments for the prosecution of these assailants. This would also in a way solve the plight of insufficient evidence that is constantly being quoted as the major hindrance in bringing these perpetrators to justice.

If we were to give the Special Branch the benefit of the doubt by assuming that some of them do work on criminal intelligence instead of political monitoring, then what is causing them to be observably failing in their duties? I would suggest that the racial imbalance in the police force is a major contributing factor to this. As we examine the cases of gunshot killings in terms of victims, we can see the majority of them are individuals of ethnic Chinese and Indian origins, most alleged to have a criminal background. It is also widely acknowledged that criminal organisations in Malaysia are also race based, with Chinese and Indian gangs said to be the more notorious ones.

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With a police force that is understaffed in terms of ethnic Chinese and Indian recruits (2 per cent and 3.4 per cent out of the total police force respectively as of July 2010), it is understandable that the police might find infiltration efforts difficult, especially when it comes to the Chinese and Indian gangs. This is because for one to blend into a secret society, speaking the same language and understanding the culture greatly facilitates the process. If the police force is seen as too homogenous and rather distant from the demographics and cultural affiliations of the underworld, it would also be hard for them to not just recruit informants, but also to understand the motivations, goings-on and psychology of the criminals.

It is to be clarified that by using the word understand, I am not insinuating that the police should get involved in criminal activities (unless it’s an undercover operation). Nor am I expressing the idea that the police should be sympathetic to the criminals. The point to be stressed is that understanding forms the basis of intelligence. For instance, the police could only offer sufficient witness protection to the informants if they understand their predicament. If they don’t, nobody is going to come forward as informants or court witnesses.

You can’t have spies with posh jackets and nicely kempt hair to carry out operations for you. That only work in the movies. In the actual world, you will have to look and act like a criminal to gain trust. I can’t think of a better division to do it than the always secretive Special Branch.

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An effective police force should in fact be both good and bad cop. Good cop for establishing confidence and trust of the public towards the police and the rule of law, while bad cop is for better immersion into the criminal world for better intelligence and useful connections with informants.

Perhaps we could explore the option of re-assigning a significant portion of the officers from Special Branch into CID to streamline the process of criminal intelligence gathering and to also signify the police’s conviction on the Prime Minister’s declaration of War on Crime. By crime, I mean both violent and property crime, although we can see that violent property crime is becoming a worrying trend.

By the same theory, the Special Branch officers working on counter-terrorism affairs should also be integrated into the Special Operations Force Department that was formed in 2009 dedicated to anti-terrorism efforts. The remainder of the Special Branch should be kept as a small but elite unit to gather, monitor and coordinate intelligence details on other subversive elements that are potentially a threat to national security.

The once pride of our police force should not be used for chasing ghosts and shadows in the form of politicians and activists. Those are not real threats; people with guns are. If the Special Branch was known to have successfully infiltrated the Communist party chain of command in the Emergency Days, there is no reason for them to fail now, especially when the setting has changed from the more challenging dense rainforests to the comparatively accessible, open streets of Malaysia.

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