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Malaysia detains IS suspect planning jihad for Rohingya in Myanmar

Malaysia detains IS suspect planning jihad for Rohingya in Myanmar
Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters
Published: 5:55 PM, January 4, 2017
Updated: 11:34 PM, January 4, 2017

KUALA LUMPUR — The Malaysian authorities have detained a suspected Islamic State (IS) follower planning to head to Myanmar to carry out attacks, a top Malaysian police official said on Wednesday (Jan 4), as fears mount over possible strikes by supporters of the terror group in support of persecuted Rohingya Muslims.

The head of Malaysian police counter-terrorism division Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said the suspect, an Indonesian whom he did not identify, was detained in Malaysia last month. 

“He was planning to perform jihad in Myanmar, fighting against the Myanmar government for this Rohingya group in Rakhine state,” he said in an interview with Reuters, adding that more militants are likely to try to follow his lead in support of the Rohingya cause.

The suspect was among seven people arrested for suspected links to IS. The man was also involved in a plot to smuggle weapons to Indonesia’s Poso region, on Sulawesi island.

Mr Ayob did not say what group the suspect, a factory worker who had been in Malaysia since 2014, was trying to link up with in Myanmar, but he added the man was in contact with Muhammad Wanndy Muhammad Jedi, a Syria-based Malaysian militant.

Wanndy was the mastermind behind last year’s grenade attack on Movida, a nightclub in Puchong, Selangor. Eight people were injured in the incident, in what was the first IS-linked attack in Malaysia.

The suspect was to be charged for possessing materials linked to terrorist groups, which carries a seven-year jail term or a fine, Mr Ayob added.

An ongoing military crackdown — launched in response to attacks on police posts on Oct 9 — on the Rohingya in north-western Rakhine state has sent about 34,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh. 

The crackdown has sparked allegations of rape and violence from the military. The Myanmar government and military have denied the accusations, saying troops are defending the country from an armed insurgency.

Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population, have led calls in South-east Asia for Myanmar to stop the violence against the Rohingya.

The conflict in Rakhine risks becoming a lightning rod for Islamists in a shadowy network stretching from the Philippines to Indonesia and Malaysia, with links to IS in the Middle East, security analysts and officials say.

Malaysia’s military chief, General Zulkifeli Mohd Zin, urged the Myanmar government to resolve the Rohingya crisis before it is exploited by IS when he met his counterpart Min Aung Hlaing, as well as Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, last month.

But Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters that an official report into the violence in Rakhine found no evidence of an IS presence there, or that the attacks were linked to the militant group.

Regardless, Mr Ayob warned yesterday that there is a “high possibility” that Muslims, be they from IS or other groups, will find various ways to go to Myanmar to help the Rohingya. Analysts also warned that the large number of Rohingya migrants presents a potential pool of recruits for militants.

“The network between Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Rohingya is there,” said Mr Badrul Hisham Ismail, programme executive director of the Malaysian counter-militancy group, Iman Research, claiming that his group had discovered Malaysian militants involved in recruiting Rohingya and sending them to Poso for training.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said IS operatives in the region were “determined to mount attacks both inside Myanmar and against Myanmar targets overseas”.

In November, the Indonesian authorities detained an IS-linked militant for planning an attack on the Myanmar embassy there.

“The highest threat to Myanmar emanates from Islamic State networks,” Dr Rohan said. “The Rohingya conflict is emerging as one of the rallying issues for IS. At a strategic level, Myanmar should resolve the Rohingya conflict to prevent IS influence and expansion.” REUTERS