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Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the head of the Malaysian police special branch's counter-terrorism division, speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur January 1, 2017. Picture taken January 1, 2017. REUTERS/Ibrahim Harris(reuters_tickers)
By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Myanmar faces a growing danger of attacks by foreign supporters of Islamic State (IS) recruited from Southeast Asian networks in support of persecuted Muslim Rohingyas, Malaysia's top counter-terrorism official has said.
Malaysian authorities have detained a suspected IS follower planning to head to Myanmar to carry out attacks, the head of the Malaysian police counter-terrorism division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, said in an interview.
The suspect, an Indonesian whom he did not identify, was detained in Malaysia last month. The suspect was scheduled to be charged on Wednesday for possession of materials linked to terrorist groups, which carries a seven-year jail term or fine, Ayob Khan said.
More militants are likely to try to follow his lead in support of the Rohingya cause, Ayob Khan said.
"He was planning to perform jihad in Myanmar, fighting against the Myanmar government for this Rohingya group in Rakhine State," Ayob Khan said.
A Myanmar army sweep since October in the north of Rakhine State, on its border with Bangladesh, has sent about 34,000 members of the Rohingya minority fleeing into Bangladesh, the United Nations says.
Residents and rights groups accuse security forces in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar of summary executions and rape in the army operation, launched in response to attacks on police posts on Oct. 9 that killed nine officers. The government of Aung San Suu Kyi denies the accusations of abuse.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters an official report into October's violence in Rakhine state found no evidence of an IS presence there or that the attacks were linked to IS.
The conflict in Rakhine risks becoming a lightning rod for Islamists in a shadowy network stretching from the Philippines to Indonesia and Malaysia, with links to Islamic State in the Middle East, security analysts and officials say.
Scores of Southeast Asian Muslims, most from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have travelled to the Middle East to join IS, counter-terrorism police in the region said.
Over the past year, IS has claimed several attacks - or been linked to foiled plots - in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
"There is a high possibility that Muslims, be it from IS or other groups, will find the ways and means to go to Myanmar to help their Rohingya Muslim brothers," Ayob Khan said.
The Indonesian suspect was among seven people arrested for suspected links to IS. The suspect was also involved in a plot to smuggle weapons to Indonesia's Poso region, on Sulawesi island, Ayob Khan said.
Indonesian authorities have detained several suspected foreign militants trying to reach Poso.
Ayob Khan did not say what group the suspect, a factory worker who had been in Malaysia since 2014, was trying to link up with in Myanmar. He said the suspect, was in contact with Muhammad Wanndy Muhammad Jedi, a Syria-based Malaysian militant who claimed responsibility on behalf of IS for a grenade attack on a bar in June last year.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said in a report last month the coordinated attacks on Myanmar police in Rakhine State were carried out by a group called Harakah al-Yakin. While the group had links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it would be wrong to "over-interpret the significance of the international links", ICG said.
"Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational,” it said.
LARGE POOL OF RECRUITS
Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, which has the world's biggest Muslim population, have led calls in Southeast Asia for Myanmar to stop the violence against the Rohingya.
Rohingya have for years been fleeing persecution in Myanmar, which denies them citizenship because it sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They often wash up on Southeast Asian shores in rickety boats seeking asylum.
More than 55,000 Rohingyas are registered with the United Nations in Malaysia. Non-profit groups estimate as many as 200,000 Rohingyas are living in Malaysia, many working in restaurants and constructions sites.
Analysts warn the large number of Rohingya migrants are a potential pool of recruits for militants.
"The network between Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Rohingyas is there," said Badrul Hisham Ismail, programme executive director of the Malaysian counter-militancy group, Iman Research.
Ismail said his group had discovered Malaysian militants involved in recruiting Rohingyas and sending them to Poso for training.
Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Islamic State operatives in the region were "determined to mount attacks both inside Myanmar and against Myanmar targets overseas".
In November, Indonesian authorities detained an Islamic State-linked militant for planning an attack on the Myanmar embassy there.
"The highest threat to Myanmar emanates from Islamic State networks," Rohan said.
"The Rohingya conflict is emerging as one of the rallying issues for IS. At a strategic level, Myanmar should resolve the Rohingya conflict to prevent IS influence and expansion."
(Additional reporting by Shwe Yee Saw Myint in Yangon; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Tarrant)