By Praveen Menon
Suspected militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) had planned to raid Malaysian army camps and police stations to seize weapons and to attack “strategic locations” in the capital, Malaysia’s police chief said on Tuesday.
Hours after news of the arrest of 17 suspects, lawmakers passed an anti-terrorism bill early on Tuesday following more than 10 hours of debate on legislation that reintroduces detention without trial three years after it was revoked.
Police arrested the 17 on Sunday saying they wanted to establish an Islamist regime in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country.
“The purpose of this new terrorist group is to establish an Islamic country a la IS in Malaysia,” police chief Khalid Abu Baker said in a statement on Tuesday.
Malaysia has not seen any significant militant attacks but has arrested 92 citizens on suspicion of links to the Islamic State. Authorities have identified 39 Malaysians in Syria and Iraq.
Militants have used Facebook and other social media to draw recruits, attracting thousands of followers online.
The 17 were arrested in various locations in the northern state of Kedah and in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
They had also planned kidnappings and to rob a bank. Khalid did not identify any locations he said they planned to attack in Kuala Lumpur and the nearby federal administrative centre of Putrajaya.
Prime Minister Najib Razak oversaw the repeal of an Internal Security Act, which allowed for detention without trial, in 2012 under a reform agenda.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch described the legislation reintroducing it as “a giant step backwards for human rights”.
“Malaysia has re-opened Pandora’s Box for politically motivated, abusive state actions,” he said in a statement.
The law permits police to arrest and detain individuals suspected of terrorist activities, with decisions for extension of detention made by a Prevention of Terrorism Board, and ruling out courts from having jurisdiction over board decisions.
Khalid did not identify any suspects but said among them was a 49-year old former member of the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia militant group who was suspected of getting military training in Syria last year, and earlier in Afghanistan and Indonesia.
A 38-year-old suspect was a religious teacher who went to Syria in September 2014 to join Islamic State and returned in December. Two other suspects were in the army, and one was a security guard who had access to weapons.
A former member of the Jemaah Islamiyah militant group from Indonesia who was skilled in handling weapons was also detained, Khalid said.