Police in Malaysia said Thursday they had arrested 16 suspected militants, mostly Indonesian nationals, for allegedly planning terrorist attacks in the country and in neighboring Indonesia.
Twelve of the suspects are believed to be members of a newly established Islamic State (IS) cell in Malaysia, said Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the national police’s counter-terrorism chief.
“The group planned to launch attacks in Malaysia and Indonesia,” Ayob told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
Counter-terrorism officers arrested three Malaysians, a dozen Indonesians and an Indian national during a 12-day operation in six states that ended on Wednesday, he said.
The suspects – between 22 and 36 years old – had been actively promoting IS and recruiting new members via social media, Ayob said, adding that all the Indonesians who were arrested worked as laborers and plantation workers.
“Some of them hold proper travel documents, there were also those who entered Malaysia using fake passports and without valid travel documents,” Ayob told BenarNews after the news conference.
The suspects were trying to recruit enough followers to carry out an attack, he said.
“They had yet to discuss the exact location, but were planning to conduct lone-wolf and group attacks using firearms,” he said.
In Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo, two Malaysians were arrested on suspicion of spreading IS propaganda and managing the movements of eventual suicide bombers, Ayob said.
The duo also arranged for funds to be channeled to the Maute band, a pro-IS group in the nearby southern Philippines.
“Both of them had helped arrange the path for a couple … who carried out suicide bombing attacks at a church in Jolo,” Ayob told reporters. A married Indonesian couple carried out those twin bombings in the southern Philippines on Jan. 27, killing 23 people and wounding about 100 others, according to Indonesian and Filipino officials.
In Jakarta, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it could only confirm that three Indonesians had been arrested in Malaysia.
“We only received information about three people [being arrested] from Kuala Lumpur. The rest may not have been communicated,” ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told BenarNews.
He said Jakarta was awaiting further information from the Malaysian government.
“Usually there is a judicial process there and then we’ll see what the decisions are,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo, the spokesman for Indonesia’s national police, said he had not received detailed information about the arrests in the neighboring country.
Malaysia becomes transit point
For years, Malaysia has been a transit point for Indonesian militants seeking to travel to the Muslim areas of the southern Philippines, according to Taufik Andre, a terrorism analyst at the Prasasti Perdamaian Foundation, a Jakarta-based NGO dedicated to rehabilitating former militants.
“They are likely to be new recruits who have been radicalized through social media, because ISIS is currently more active in recruiting and indoctrinating people through social media,” he told BenarNews, using another acronym for IS.
Indonesian militants are more likely to carry out attacks in the Philippines than in Malaysia, according to Al Chaidar, a lecturer on terrorism at Malikussaleh University in Indonesia’s Aceh province.
“In the Philippines they can build networks to get recognition from ISIS leaders in Syria,” Al Chaidar told BenarNews. “I think Malaysia is just their place to transit or hide.”
Another arrest in Indonesia
Elsewhere, Indonesian counter-terrorism police arrested two suspected militants during a raid on a house in Cimahi, West Java province on Thursday, Dedi said.
Authorities said the suspects were believed to be members of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local IS affiliate, who were arrested on suspicion that they were assembling bombs to attack police targets, the Indonesian police spokesman said.
Police seized four plastic bags with bomb-making materials from the two.
The duo is believed to be connected to nine JAD suspects who were arrested in West Java and Jakarta on Monday on suspicion of planning attacks on police targets, West Java police spokesman Trunoyudo Wisnu Andiko told BenarNews.
On Monday, police confiscated 500 grams of explosives at the home of one of the nine suspects in Jakarta.
North Jakarta Police Chief Budhi Herdi Susianto said officers found what they described as a “goodbye letter” written by the suspect, who allegedly planned a suicide attack using explosives at a police station.
In January 2016, authorities blamed JAD for a gun and bomb attack that killed eight people, including the four attackers, in Jakarta’s central business district. It was the first terrorist attack claimed by IS in Southeast Asia.
JAD was also blamed for coordinated attacks in the Indonesian city of Surabaya in May 2018, when two families carried out suicide bombings on three churches and a police station. Twenty-four people were killed, including the attackers who used their children as young as 9 in the bombings.
An Indonesian court outlawed JAD in a July 2018 verdict that was seen as making it easier for law enforcement officials to arrest suspected members.