KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AFP) – Malaysian police said 14 people arrested this week for suspected links to the Islamic State group included a government engineer and two others who used Facebook to recruit fighters for the extremist group in Syria.
“Three of them are key players of a cell whose role was to recruit, finance and arrange trips for Malaysians to join terror groups in Syria,” national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said in a statement late Wednesday.
Those arrested ranged in age from 14 to 48 years old and include two women, the statement said.
Khalid had been quoted by Malaysian media earlier Wednesday saying the arrests were made Monday in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. Authorities in the Muslim-majority country – as well as some of its Southeast Asian neighbours – have expressed mounting alarm over the extremist group’s efforts to lure recruits from Malaysia, which has historically practiced moderate Islam.
Police have arrested a total of three dozen people this year for suspected IS-related activities, and say that at least 40 Malaysians have left for Syria.
Khalid’s statement said this week’s arrests include a 37-year-old recruiter who is a senior government engineer with the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water.
He is believed to have funded recruits’ travel to Syria, Khalid said. Another suspect is a 34-year-old man who fought for the IS group in Syria for four months beginning in December 2013. After he returned to Malaysia, his role was to guide and motivate new recruits.
A 37-year-old man who was also arrested had used Facebook to disseminate IS propaganda materials to lure new recruits, according to Khalid.
A family of five – including a 14-year-old child – was among those arrested this week, and books on extremism were seized from their home, Khalid said, adding that the family had plans to travel to Syria.
Malaysia’s authoritarian government has long kept a lid on extremists, but conservative views have gained increasing traction in recent years as the regime’s controls have loosened.
A range of Muslim groups that espouse divisive religious rhetoric have been allowed to flourish under current leader Najib Razak, prime minister since 2009, worrying the multi-racial nation’s sizeable religious minorities.
Local media reported earlier this year that 26-year-old Malaysian factory worker Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki killed 25 elite Iraqi soldiers in a suicide car-bomb attack there in May.
Police also said in August that 19 people arrested earlier this year had planned a series of bombings in the country.