Islamic militant's death sparks eulogies in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The death of a Malaysian Islamist in Syria has sparked an outpouring of eulogies on social media, including from his former political party, underlining sympathy for the militants’ cause that is creating a security headache for the government.

Lotfi Ariffin, a former activist in the Islamist PAS party that forms part of Malaysia’s opposition alliance, had attracted a large following on social media with regular posts of pictures, video and calls to jihad from the Syrian front line.

He died on Sunday from wounds suffered last week in an assault by Syrian government forces which also killed another Malaysian fighter called Mohammad Fadhlan Shahidi, according to postings on Facebook by a third Malaysian militant in Syria.

The Malaysians have said they were fighting for Ajnad al-Sham, a rebel group that operates near the capital Damascus and which has recently distanced itself from more militant groups such as Islamic State (IS) and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, a member of the PAS central committee and the son of its spiritual leader, praised Lotfi as a “martyr” in a Facebook posting and also recounted a religious anecdote from what he said was Lotfi’s final visit to Malaysia last year when he helped with PAS flood-relief efforts.

The party’s community service wing, Jabatan Amal, also posted eulogies to Lotfi, who had reportedly been the youth information chief for the party in Kedah state, and published a picture of the dead, or dying, fighter on its Facebook page.

“We pray he achieves the reward of blessings ... and to be rewarded his ambition for martyrdom,” Mahfuz Omar, the PAS information chief was quoted as saying by the Malaysian Insider news site.

PAS, which has millions of voters in Malaysia and disavows militant tactics, has said it terminated Lotfi’s party membership in May. A party spokesman declined to comment on Lotfi.

Security officials believe dozens of people from Muslim-majority Malaysia have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, including for the hardline IS group. Police have arrested at least 19 suspected militants loyal to IS this year and say they uncovered their plan to bomb a Carlsberg brewery near the capital, Kuala Lumpur.[ID:nL2N0QQ0BI]

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the IS militants in a statement in August, saying their actions were “counter to our faith, our culture, and our common humanity”. Najib’s ruling party has embraced more conservative Islamic positions in recent years, stepping up a drive to vilify Shia Muslims, for example.

The savvy use of Facebook and other social media by Malaysian militants in the Middle East has helped them attract thousands of followers and pull in more recruits.

Fadhlan, a Malaysian in his early 20s who reportedly died last week in the same battle as Lotfi, had said in a previous video posted on Facebook that he had been inspired to travel to Syria in May by Lotfi’s online accounts.

Posts about Lotfi’s death on Facebook had attracted hundreds of comments by Monday, most of them praising his sacrifice.

“I shed tears when I think about how fortunate my brothers are; they are in Syria to defend our religion. May they have all the protection and blessing from Allah,” wrote one Facebook user called Hassan Basri Hashim.

Additional reporting Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah; Editing by Robert Birsel