Malaysia has appointed its first female counterterrorism chief in a major milestone for the country’s police intelligence arm, which has won international praise for its work in foiling plots by Islamic State (Isis). Normah Ishak on Friday took over from Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay as the principal assistant director of Special Branch’s Counter Terrorism Division. Among the first jobs in her in-tray is likely to be the challenge of dealing with the pending return of 65 Isis militants and their families to Malaysia from Syria , some of whom are hardened jihadists. Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador, who confirmed the appointment to the Post , described Normah as “gutsy, brainy, highly qualified and an experienced officer of very high integrity and an excellent commander”. Militants seek fake passports as Isis eyes Southeast Asia as new base Normah, who joined the Royal Malaysian Police in December 1991, had been Ayob Khan’s deputy since 2016, a particularly busy time for the counterterrorism division when Isis was at the height of its power. During that period the division foiled 26 terror plots by Isis that targeted Christian and Hindu places of worship as well as entertainment outlets. It also arrested 533 suspected terrorists, comprising Malaysians and foreigners thought to belong to groups including Isis, al-Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf. Ayob, who has been involved in counterterrorism since 1995, has been promoted to police chief of Johor state. Earlier this month, police chief Abdul Hamid said Ayob had “done a wonderful job” in difficult circumstances. During his time in the top job, Ayob had regularly received death threats from militants including Malaysia ’s top Isis recruiter, Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, who was killed in a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria, in 2017. In addition to dealing with militants returning from Syria, Normah’s role is likely to include taking on Isis online, where the terror group continues to radicalise and recruit Malaysians. Indonesia on alert as Isis fighters escape Syria to awaken sleeper cells Other issues she will face are the threat of lone-wolf terror cells and how to police the porous border of the eastern state of Sabah, which has long been exploited by the Isis-linked Abu Sayyaf group as it enters the country to hide from law enforcement agencies in the Philippines . In 2018, the counterterrorism division arrested six Abu Sayyaf suspects, including one who was thought to be recruiting children for use as human shields during fighting with the Philippine military in Mindanao island. The suspect was also thought to have been involved in beheading hostages. Former Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leader Nasir Abas has warned that Sabah is an important transit point for Indonesian Isis members wanting to fight alongside Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. “The route they will use will be Tawau, Lahad Datu, Semporna as the jumping off point into Mindanao. This is the same route I used to use myself,” said Nasir, who set up JI’s paramilitary training camp in Mindanao in the 1990s. The route may be used even more in the wake of the Indonesian government’s decision last week not to repatriate former Indonesian Isis members stuck in Syria. Experts say they expect many returning Indonesian fighters to head to the southern Philippines, via Sabah, to fight alongside the pro-Isis Abu Sayyaf. “Mindanao island in the southern Philippines has long been viewed as a jihad zone for militants,” said Nasir. In January 2019, an Indonesian husband and wife who were later to kill 23 people in a suicide bomb plot against a cathedral in Jolo, had used Sabah as a transit point to slip into the southern Philippines. Two Indonesian Isis militants who were working in Keningau, Sabah, helped facilitate the couple’s travels. At the time, Ayob Khan said the involvement of the duo was concerning as it showed that there was cooperation between Isis militants in Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines.