Malaysia's universities have become prime recruiting grounds for Islamic militants looking for youngsters to draw into terrorist networks, security experts warn.
Unlike neighbouring Indonesia and Thailand, the moderate Muslim-majority nation has remained largely free of terror attacks but there are fears that lax admission policies have created a haven for jihadists.
A string of arrests and detentions this year have highlighted the growing presence of radicals using Malaysia as a base to sign up supporters and plan attacks.
"The terror threat to Malaysia is very real in terms of terrorists who come in as students," Zamihan Mat Zin, deputy head of the Malaysian Islamic Training Centre, told AFP.
"They are under the radar so they can recruit and create terrorists in our midst," said Zamihan, who is among a group of Muslim scholars engaged by the government to rehabilitate terror suspects in custody.
In June, authorities deported 45-year-old Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian scholar Aiman Al Dakak along with eight other foreigners from Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and Jordan, most of them students.
Al Dakak gave lectures to Malaysian and foreign students at his Kuala Lumpur home, allegedly indoctrinating them with jihadist ideology and urging them to carry out bombings on places of worship in the multi-ethnic nation.
The following month, engineer Mohamad Fadzullah was detained under internal security laws for trying to recruit students at Malaysia's national university and technical institutes for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) extremist group.
Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said after the deportations that the phenomenon was an "unhealthy trend which can affect national security".
He said foreign militants were using Malaysia as a base to carry out financial transactions, share information and sign up new followers.
"Despite the arrests, we believe there are still many who are here now and this process is continuing," said Zamihan, who was given permission to interview the nine deported terror suspects.
"Some of these Al-Qaeda operatives who are caught overseas but not prosecuted because of a lack of evidence or a good lawyer, they are able to escape so they then come to Malaysia to study to do a Masters or PhD, but at the same time they are busy recruiting undergraduates."
"Once they have their recruits, whether local or foreigners studying here, they plan regional attacks. Many of them have confessed this," he said.
Kamarulnizam Abdullah, who heads national security studies at the National University of Malaysia, says better screening is needed.
"Our system is very lax and we just accept whoever without thinking of consequences," he said.
Malaysia has been effective in traditional counter-terrorism, but the threat at educational institutions tends to be forgotten, he said, adding that high regard for religious teachers from the Middle East meant they had a willing and uncritical audience for their radical brand of Islam.
"The arrests and deportations are a worrying development because it means the threat is still there that such recruitment is going on at universities," he said.
Zamihan said the nine deported in June were Al-Qaeda operatives who were quietly trying to resurrect JI, a militant Southeast Asian group blamed for a string of major attacks including the 2002 Bali bombings.
"They were recruiting locals or even foreigners studying here to radicalise them and create new terrorists," he said.
The developments have drawn international concern, with FBI assistant director for international operations Joseph Demarest saying recently that the organisation was deeply concerned over home-grown militancy in the Asian region.
"It is the affiliated groups that we are very concerned about... the smaller group, the individuals that we may not know about, these are the top concerns at least for the FBI," he said on the sidelines of a regional security conference in Kuala Lumpur.
Sidney Jones, an expert on Indonesian Islamic terror groups, said it was difficult to say how pervasive campus recruitment is, and whether it is part of a regional plot to rebuild JI.
"There are reports of terror recruitment on Malaysian campuses but Malaysian officials are tight-lipped so it is hard to pin down how extensive this is or what their connections are," she said - Agence France-Presse