A Cham Muslim was charged by Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday with international terrorism acts linked to the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah—the first Cambodian to face such charges, Investigating Judge Oun Bunna said.
The charging of Sman Esma El, 23, comes as final security preparations are being made for next week’s Asean Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, which will be attended by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and foreign ministers from more than 20 other countries.
Three suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah—which is blamed for last year’s car bombings on the holiday island of Bali—were also arrested in Bangkok this week for allegedly plotting to bomb five foreign embassies and tourist spots in the Thai capital.
“[Sman Esma El] was involved with a foreigner who is a most wanted man,” Oun Bunna told reporters at the courthouse.
Warrants have also been issued for the arrest of three foreign suspects, and three more Cambodian Chams are also under investigation, said Oun Bunna, who declined to give any further details.
Sman Esma El returned to Cambodia in April, having studied at Islamic religious schools in Thailand for the past three years. He was employed as a teacher at a Kuwaiti-funded orphanage located in Dangkao district, Oun Bunna said.
Cambodian police last month closed two Islamic schools and charged Thai nationals Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Egyptian Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali, 40, with terrorist acts linked to Jemaah Islamiyah.
Cambodian officials said the arrests followed information provided by the US government.
A police official close to the ongoing investigation said Thursday the three foreigners being sought by police are Yemeni and Thai.
Four Chams are also likely to be arrested after Powell’s visit, the officer said.
“All information [on the suspects] is from overseas,” the police officer added.
The arrests in Thailand and Cambodia have flung both countries to the forefront of regional terror fears despite previous claims by both Phnom Penh and Bangkok that Islamic militants were not operating inside their borders.
Earlier this year, Zachary Abuza, a US-based security analyst who has written extensively on al-Qaida, warned that Jemaah Islamiyah networks in Southeast Asia were still highly dangerous despite the arrests of some 120 suspects in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Abuza told the Associated Press that among the most wanted Jemaah Islamiyah members was Riduan bin Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, who is described as al-Qaida’s liaison to Southeast Asia.
One of Hambali’s wives is a Cambodian Cham, and he could be hiding in western Cambodia, Abuza said.
Police in Koh Kong province and Sihanoukville confirmed earlier this year that they were searching for Hambali.
Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said Thursday that the latest arrest does not indicate a greater threat to the security of next week’s Asean meeting.
Security preparations are well advanced and involve thousands of police officers and cooperation with Cambodia’s secretive military intelligence, Khieu Sopheak said.
“Everything has already been well prepared,” Khieu Sopheak said. “We feel confident the meeting will go smoothly,” he said.