KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian police have arrested three men at Kuala Lumpur International Airport they believe were headed to the Middle East to join Islamist militants in Syria. Authorities say militant groups like the so-called Islamic State have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. Counterterrorism police say they are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Malaysians fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria appear in a YouTube video.
This 45-year-old religious scholar, Lotfi Ariffin, had thousands of Malaysian followers on Facebook, plus fan pages dedicated to following his exploits. It was on Facebook that people first learned he had been killed in combat.
In Iraq, another Malaysian blew himself up, killing 25 policemen.
Since early last year, Malaysian authorities have been trying to stop people from joining groups like the Islamic State. Police counter-terrorism unit deputy director Ayob Khan said he worried about more than the harm they can cause in Syria and Iraq.
“They also planning to carry out attacks in Malaysia against the Malaysian government, because for them Malaysia is not an Islamic government, it is OK to topple Malaysia through armed struggle," said Khan. "So that is the main objective, the same objective that what has been preached by the Islamic State.”
Earlier this year, Malaysian police arrested several people intending to join up with the Islamic State and who had also talked about attacking targets like nightclubs in Malaysia.
Last week, they nabbed another three people as they prepared to head to Syria.
Jufitri Joha of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia said his group is trying to help convince young Muslims not to join the so-called "jihad."
“We stress that this is not your priority, your priority if you want to help them, you should join the humanitarian mission sending food, aid, release the pain suffered by the refugees, by the internally displaced people that is your priority,” he said.
Joha said young Muslims here are attracted by the name, and concept of, the Islamic state. But police say the would-be jihadists also are keen to fight against the Shia, seeing them as heretics and therefore legitimate targets.
Malaysian political scientist Chandra Muzaffar said authorities in this Sunni Muslim country share the blame for fueling such sectarian thinking.
“It is obvious that there is a strong anti-Shia element in religious propaganda in Malaysia and this [is] emanating from the religious establishment, from certain elements in political parties, from NGOs, from various other groups,” said Muzaffar.
Police say they are closely monitoring social media, which they say are the militants’ main recruiting ground.
Aside from trying to stop Malaysians from linking up with groups like Islamic State, police say that if any of them return, they will be arrested immediately.