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By Stuart Grudgings and Trinna Leong
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Suspected Malaysian militants loyal to the extremist Islamic State movement bought bomb-making material ahead of a proposed attack on a Carlsberg brewery near the capital Kuala Lumpur, a top anti-terrorism official said.
The plan, which the official said was at a "discussion" stage, would be the first time Southeast Asian militants inspired by Islamic State's rise have sought to launch a major attack at home, adding to officials' fears of a domestic "blowback" from Islamic State's expansion in Syria and Iraq.
Ayob Khan Mydin, the police counter-terrorism division's deputy chief, told Reuters that the group of 19 suspected militants had attained aluminium powder, which is often used as an ingredient in bombs.
"In terms of ideology and intention it was very clear," Ayob Khan said in an interview. "It would have been carried out."
The group, seven of whom have been charged under anti-terrorism and weapons laws, had discussed bombing the Danish beer-maker's factory in Petaling Jaya on the outskirts of the capital as well as other targets such as pubs, Ayob Khan said.
Alcohol is forbidden under Islamic rules, but is widely available in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Carlsberg Brewery Malaysia said in a response to Reuters' questions that it had taken "necessary steps to ensure security at our premises, as employee safety is a priority".
Ayob Khan said that 12 of the suspects had to be released due to lack of evidence tying them to specific plans for an attack or to join the banned Islamic State.
Islamic State's sweep through northern Iraq, bringing it close to Baghdad and in control of the second city, Mosul, has energized radical Muslim followers in Malaysia and Indonesia, partly due to teachings that "the final battle" would take place in the greater Syrian region.
RECRUITMENT THROUGH FACEBOOK
At least 20 Malaysians and up to 500 Indonesians are estimated by security officials to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Indonesia's government this month banned support for Islamic State and warned its citizens not to join their fight in the Middle East, according to media reports.
"Our information is that thousands of people have pledged loyalty," Sri Yunanto, of Indonesia's National Counter Terrorism Agency, said last week.
Malaysian officials believe that a Malaysian, 26-year-old factory worker Ahmad Tarmimi, carried out a suicide attack at a police station in Iraq in May.
Despite the arrests, the group's Malaysian supporters had continued to send followers to Syria, said Ayob Khan.
"We are very sure that if we allow them to go to Syria they will come back with the expertise and experience. Their ideology will be stronger than ever," he said.
Ayob Khan, who has worked in counter-terrorism since the early 1990s, said Islamic State sympathisers were attracting a small number of Malaysians from a wide variety of backgrounds via recruiting on social media, particularly Facebook, which they also used to raise funds.
Among the 19 suspects arrested between April and June were a municipal council member, religious students and a food stall worker, and their ages ranged from 20 to 54, he said.
In contrast, Malaysians who joined the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiah (JI) movement in the 1990s and 2000s tended to take longer to recruit and were often veterans of conflict in Afghanistan, Ayob Khan said.
"With JI, it took one year to be recruited," he said. "This group, in one or two days, they will take an oath."
(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta; Editing by Nick Macfie)