Malaysian counter-terrorism officers arrested seven suspected Islamic State (IS) supporters last week, six of them in the eastern state of Sabah, the nation’s top cop announced Monday.
The statement came one day after an Indonesian police official said nine militants captured Friday by the elite counter-terror squad Densus 88 were linked to IS through a new Middle East network.
The six arrests in the part of Malaysia closest to the southern Philippines followed four counter-terrorism arrests there in mid-January. Officials then said IS militants were planning to make Sabah a transit point for South and Southeast Asians seeking to join IS Philippines (ISP).
The seventh suspect, a former medical assistant at a local government hospital, was arrested at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday after he was detained and deported by Turkish authorities, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said.
“Two of them are Malaysian citizens, three are Philippine citizens having Malaysian permanent residence (PR) status and two others are Philippines citizens,” he said, adding that all were being held under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act 2012.
Indonesia: a new network
On Sunday, meanwhile, an Indonesian police official said nine militants captured Friday were linked to IS through a new network.
“They are a new group of a radical Middle East network affiliated with IS,” Central Sulawesi Police Chief Brig. Gen. Rudy Sufahriadi told reporters at a press conference in Poso regency.
The nine were not linked to the Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen (MIT) as previously reported, he said.
The MIT was seen as the remnants of the Jemaah Islamiyah network responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing. In 2016, security forces reduced the group from about 30 members hiding in the mountains of Poso to some nine fugitives.
Rudy denied reports from Friday that one of the militants arrested that day had been shot dead.
Six suspected militants were arrested Friday in a house in Tolitoli, a regency about 428 km (266 miles) north of Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province.
About two hours later, three others were captured in neighboring Parigi Moutong regency.
The leader of the group lives in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Rudy said, but he did not elaborate or name the new network.
Police identified one of the Malaysians arrested as a 31-year-old female immigration officer at an airport in Sandakan, a coastal town near the southern Philippines, who allegedly arranged for militants from Malaysia and Indonesia to travel there without valid documents.
On Wednesday in the capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, officers arrested two men, a 27-year-old Filipino with permanent resident status and an 18-year-old Filipino, over alleged direct links to IS in Southern Philippines.
“The suspect with the Malaysia PR status is believed to have secured funds for Malaysian fugitives Mahmud Ahmad and Mohamad Joraimee Awang Raimee,” Khalid said.
Mahmud, 37, is a former lecturer in comparative religion at Universiti Malaya and one of several Malaysian militants operating in the southern Philippines, according to Southeast Asia terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna.
“The other suspect is an IS militant who has sworn allegiance to Isnilon Hapilon, a senior leader of the ASG in Basilan who is also an IS emir in Southern Philippines,” Khalid said.
Isnilon, the leader of the Philippine branch of IS, was wounded by a military operation in Lanao del Sur in January, according to reports.
On Thursday, Malaysian authorities arrested two Filipinos with permanent resident status in Sandakan, a 53-year-old female ferry ticket seller and a 40-year-old male laborer who allegedly smuggled IS members through Sabah.
The sixth suspect, a 36-year-old male Filipino car mechanic detained in Sandakan on Thursday, was planning to leave for Syria to join IS, Khalid said.
The last suspect, according to Khalid, was the Malaysian man arrested at the airport on Sunday.
“He is a former medical assistant at the Jerantut Hospital in Pahang who left for Istanbul in October 2016, trying to enter Syria,” Khalid said.
Since 2013, Malaysian authorities arrested 285 people with suspected IS links, of whom 66 have since been freed, according to the latest figure obtained by BenarNews.
Anis Natasha in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.