Updated at 12:52 p.m. ET on 2019-05-15
Two Rohingya were among suspects apprehended in a foiled Islamic State (IS) plot in Malaysia to attack worship sites and assassinate “high-profile personalities” during Ramadan, police said Monday, in the first terror-related arrests there involving members of the Myanmar ethnic minority.
Officials said the Rohingya and two other suspects were arrested in raids in Kuala Lumpur and Terengganu between May 5 and 7, and planned to bomb Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, churches and entertainment spots during the first week of the Islamic month of fasting, which began May 6.
“This is the first time we arrest Rohingyas. Prior to this, there was no case involving them,” a police source close to the investigation told BenarNews.
The order to execute the plot was given by a Malaysian militant operating in Syria, but his identity was not known, Abdul Hamid Bador, Malaysia’s new chief of police, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
“A Malaysian had instructed the cell members to launch the attack. They have been planning it since January. We are still trying to identify the person. They communicate via WhatsApp,” he told reporters.
One of the Rohingya suspects in custody was a 20-year-old who held a U.N. refugee card and had admitted to showing support for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group operating in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, home to the stateless Rohingya community, the police chief said.
“He was also planning to launch an attack at the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur,” Abdul Hamid said, adding that the second Rohingya suspect was a 25-year-old laborer who had admitted to being part of a local IS cell.
ARSA later reacted via social media to news reports about the arrests in Malaysia, pointing to the case of an individual who, it said, allegedly claimed to be one of its members.
“It is again reassured that #ARSA only legitimately and objectively operates as an #ETHNO-NATIONALIST movement within its homeland #Burma & its activities had not & will not transcend beyond its country,” ARSA said on its Twitter channel.
The group also expressed its gratitude to Malaysia and other ASEAN nations for hosting displaced Rohingya people, saying “their sovereignty will be duly respected all the time.”
In Myanmar, ARSA insurgents were blamed for deadly attacks on police and army outposts in Rakhine state in August 2017 that precipitated a brutal military crackdown. That, in turn, caused more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee and seek shelter in neighboring Bangladesh.
Last year, Bangladeshi authorities arrested some ARSA members near the Myanmar border, including some who were “shooting at the Myanmar security forces,” a senior government official told BenarNews then.
“We urge all #Rohingyas to abide by the laws of all host countries in the World while abstaining from any destructive elements and related radical actions,” ARSA tweeted on Tuesday.
Malaysian, Indonesian among suspects
The four suspects in custody in Malaysia were led by a Malaysian and included an Indonesian national, police chief Abdul Hamid said.
They were plotting to carry out assassinations and terrorist acts to avenge the death of a Malay Muslim firefighter, who died in November 2018 after allegedly being attacked during rioting at a minority Hindu temple in Selangor state, Abdul Hamid said.
“The four suspects arrested admitted to being part of the IS cell and ready to launch attacks in Malaysia during the first week of the Ramadan to avenge the death of Mohd Adib, who succumbed … following the injuries sustained during the violence at the Sri Mariaman Seafield in Petaling Jaya,” the police inspector-general said.
All four suspects were being held under Malaysia’s Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, police said.
Police were also hunting for three more members of the cell who went into hiding after last week’s arrests, Abdul Hamid said.
Officers seized an automatic pistol, 15 bullets and six improvised explosive devices (IED) during operations that led to the suspects’ arrests.
“These four men had planned to kill personalities in the country. They are highly placed individuals whose identities cannot be revealed because it is sensitive,” the anonymous police source told BenarNews.
“He was also planning to launch an attack at the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur,” Abdul Hamid said.
Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, has been seen a safe haven in Southeast Asia for Rohingya fleeing from persecution in Buddhist majority Myanmar and violence in Rakhine state. There are at least 90,200 Rohingya living in Malaysia, according to UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Last year, Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu expressed worry about the possibility of Rohingya expatriates turning to extremism.
“We are concerned that the Rohingyas could be manipulated to become suicide bombers or recruited into terrorist cells in this region,” he told a Kuala Lumpur meeting of counterterrorist security professionals in August.
The alleged involvement of the Rohingya and Indonesian in the terror plot showed that IS was capable of using foreigners to exploit local issues in advancing its ideology, said Ahmad El Muhammady, a Malaysian counterterrorism expert.
“The regional environment today is ripe for such [an] attack. We have seen similar events taking place in Sri Lanka and New Zealand,” Ahmad told BenarNews, referring to deadly mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch and massive coordinate suicide bombings that targeted churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
To date in 2019, about 30 people have been arrested for alleged terror activities in Malaysia. Of the number, 10 have been charged while nine were subsequently released, six were deported and one was referred to a foreign agency. The last four remain in custody.