Seven foreigners were among eight men arrested by Malaysian officers on suspicion of involvement in Southeast Asian recruitment efforts by a terror cell linked to a Yemen-based Salafi extremist group, Malaysia’s police chief announced Saturday.
The arrests were carried out during coordinated raids in Perlis, Kuala Lumpur and Johor on Sept. 24, Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement. Six of the foreigners were students at an Islamic school located in the northern state of Perlis, Fuzi said.
The arrests by counter-terrorist police were made “following an intelligence report obtained by the police regarding efforts by a Salafi Jihadist terror group in Yemen to establish a school in the Southeast Asian region to propagate Salafi Jihadism ideology,” Fuzi said.
Five of the suspects came from the same European country while a sixth suspect was a citizen of a country in the Americas. He did not elaborate, but said the eight suspects ranged from 24 to 38 years old and that most of them, based on information shared by foreign intelligence, were linked in their home countries to the so-called Islamic State (IS) organization or other extremist groups.
A former student of the school and a former member of its faculty were among those arrested, Fuzi said. He did not disclose the school’s name.
The former teacher, 33, who comes from the Middle East, was arrested in Kuala Lumpur and known to be giving unsanctioned classes in the Malaysian capital on Salafi Jihadism, the police chief said.
All eight suspects were connected to a madrassa, or Islamic boarding school, in Yemen that was founded by an icon of Salafi Jihadist movement, the late Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, according to Fuzi.
“The Yemeni madrassa adheres to strict Salafi Jihadist ideology that allows for the murder of non-Muslims and Muslims who differ from them in their beliefs,” Fuzi said.
“They also label democracy as a system hostile to God.”
The eight men were arrested on suspicion of committing terrorist-related offenses and were being investigated under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), Fuzi said. None of the suspects have been charged yet.
Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the chief of the Malaysian police’s counter-terrorist special branch, told BenarNews that the school in Perlis where most of the suspects were arrested had been operating since 2011. He declined to reveal the campus’s name.
Perlis is reputed for permitting the Salafist or Wahhabist strain of Islam that has been exported to Southeast Asian Muslim countries by predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia. Salafism is a revivalist movement that advocates for the return to the Islam as practiced during the time of Prophet Muhammad.
Reacting to the Fuzi’s announcement about the arrests, Asri Zainal Abidin, the mufti of Perlis, said the state was not “a center for radical teachings,” according to Bernama, the Malaysian government-run news service.
He said students who intended to pursue their studies at religious learning centers in Perlis, as well as teachers who wanted to work there, must first be screened by police as a security measure.
“I always ask the state police chief about the students at these learning centers, especially the foreigners,” Bernama quoted him as saying. “Only with police confirmation will we allow them (to pursue studies at the religious learning centers).”
Earlier last month, Malaysian police said they had arrested five other suspects who were allegedly involved in a terrorist plot targeting a country in the Middle East. When he announced those arrests at the time, Fuzi did not identify the country in question but said the five were believed to be members of an extremist group known as Asoib.
A government source told BenarNews then that the suspects had planned to travel to Yemen to carry out the attack in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
“Yemen has been a hotbed of al-Qaeda, like in other countries in the Middle East. Some groups which advocate Salafi Jihadism set up school there,” Ahmad El Muhammady, an expert on counterterrorism at the International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews.
According to him, such groups are taking advantage of an interest in Islamic studies among Malaysians by importing Yemeni-based teachings into the country.
“Unfortunately the content is Salafi jihadism,” El Muhammady said.