KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Southeast Asia faces the threat of Islamic State-inspired attacks designed to “glamorize terrorism”, a Malaysian minister said on Wednesday, voicing fears of battle-hardened fighters returning from Syria to launch Paris-style attacks.
In September, Malaysian police thwarted a plot to detonate bombs in Kuala Lumpur’s vibrant tourist area of Bukit Bintang. Other recent plots frustrated by Malaysian security forces included plans to raid army camps and seize weapons.
“I think the Paris situation can also be transplanted here, in Southeast Asia, where we also have fertile ground for recruitment of such operatives who will receive directives from Syria to carry out attacks,” Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, said in an interview.
“Such attacks, they hope, will glamorize terrorism and therefore attract more people to join their cause,” he said, singling out tourist and entertainment centers in the region as a favored targets.
Terrorism is high on the agenda of world leaders gathered in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people.
And the minister’s comments follow news of the execution this week of a Malaysian businessman in the Philippines by Abu Sayyaf, and Islamist militant group that had past links to al Qaeda but has more recently shown support for Islamic State.
Estimates suggests that more that 500 Indonesians, over 40 Malaysians and a handful of Singaporeans have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of others were arrested or detained before they could leave the country.
In Malaysia, 150 terror suspects have been arrested since Islamic State rose to prominence in 2013.
Counter-terrorism will doubtless be on the agenda when Southeast Asian leader gather in Kuala Lumpur next week for a regional summit, and security has been ratcheted up in the Malaysian capital.
“We have upgraded our security information at immigration to make sure there are no suspicious foreigners coming into country and activated anti-terrorism unit locally,” Nur Jazlan said.
Enforcement officials and security experts fear Malaysian militants hiding in Southern Philippines are trying to bring together groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines to form a regional branch of Islamic State.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the al Qaeda linked group that carried out the Bali bombings in 2002 that killed over 200 people, that could be used to build a network.
JI has been most active in Indonesia, but has had cells in several other Southeast Asian countries, whereas there is an array of smaller Islamist militant groups, like Abu Sayyaf, operating more locally in the region.
“These groups are just looking for an umbrella organization and IS is becoming that organization for these disparate and separate groups to get together,” said Nur Jazlan.
Sidney Jones, the head of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and an regional expert on terrorism issues said there is increasing pressure from Indonesian and Philippine supporters of IS to declare a province of IS in Southeast Asia that would cover Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.
“So far Indonesian would-be terrorists have been pretty incompetent and their Philippine counterparts have been mostly interested in money,” she said.
“If we got a few experienced professionals coming back from Syria to train local groups, that could be the game-changer.”
Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore