SANDAKAN, Sabah: A sense of unease has overcome parts of the east Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island after a kidnapping incident off the waters of the coastal town of Semporna last week (Sep 11).
Masked men armed with M16s, allegedly linked to the notorious kidnap-for-ransom Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) based in southern Philippines’ Mindanao island, snatched two Indonesian men from a fishing vessel.
It was the first such incident Sabah has seen in almost two years.
Now there are concerns that they could strike again in a bid to raise funds for terror activities in the southern Philippines.
That warning comes from an intelligence official and a former militant.
A combination of Islamic State’s (IS) call to arms in Mindanao and the Philippine military’s operations against militants are pushing ASG to seek funds through kidnapping. Likewise, poverty in southern Philippines makes for easy recruits by militants and kidnapping gangs.
“This incident (kidnapping) is something that is difficult to stop. However, it (situation) is under control,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of Special Branch counter-terrorism division, told Channel NewsAsia.
Special Branch is the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police and the lead agency in counter-terrorism operations.
“The kidnappings are still occurring because these groups (ASG) are pressured to seek funds to continue with their (militant) activities as Filipino authorities are conducting clearance operations against militants,” Ayob added.
According to Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) chief Hazani Ghazali, events in Philippines have a significant impact on Sabah.
“Whatever happens in Philippines will impact on Sabah. Sabah is a very important border for the whole of Malaysia and the Sulu sea,” said Hazani.
ABU SAYYAF SEEKING FUNDS FOR TERROR ACTIVITIES: FORMER MILITANT
“ASG and pro-Islamic State groups (in southern Philippines) need money for their daily needs, mobilisation from one place to another, procurement of communication equipment and weapons,” Abdullah Sandakan, a former member of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group that has ties with Abu Sayyaf, told Channel NewsAsia.
ASG pledged allegiance to IS in 2014.
“The recent kidnapping … to get money to fund small acts of terrorism ... moving in the direction for something similar like Marawi,” said Abdullah.
Pro-Islamic State militants, including a faction of ASG, seized control of Marawi in May 2017 and laid siege to the city for five months. More than 1,000 were killed in the fighting.
It was Islamic State’s most serious assault to gain a foothold into Southeast Asia, unsettling governments across the region.
Prior to Marawi’s siege, Sabah and the surrounding Sulu Sea experienced a spike in kidnappings, jumping to 10 incidents in 2016 versus one incident in 2015.
According to Abdullah, the 2016 kidnappings were to raise funds for the battle in Marawi.
“You see how many kidnappings took place prior to the Marawi siege? It was to raise funds for Marawi. Kidnapping was the easiest way as you get cash,” said Abdullah.
East Sabah Security Command (Esscom) chief Hazani Ghazali agreed.
“Yes, those kidnappings (2016) were for Marawi,” Hazani told Channel NewsAsia.
The latest kidnapping is the first in almost two years as joint maritime patrol launched in 2017 by Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines at the Sulu Sea helped to reduce incidents of piracy and kidnappings.
SABAH A GATEWAY INTO SOUTHERN PHILIPPINES FOR MILITANTS
As IS loses its territories in Syria and Iraq, it has called on its followers to go to Mindanao island to fight, saying it is the new “land of jihad".
Moreover, Turkey and other countries have tightened up their borders with Syria.
“This in turn has diverted militants to southern Philippines who is also pro-IS,” said Ayob Khan.
Since 2013, 41 militants were nabbed for attempting to enter into Mindanao through Sabah. Of that number, 27 were foreigners who were mainly Indonesians.
Sabah is an important jumping off point for Malaysians and foreign fighters wishing to wage jihad in Mindanao given its close proximity to southern Philippines.
According to former JI member Abdullah, foreign fighters enter Sabah through the east coast towns of Lahad Datu, Tawau, Kunak and Semporna.
Abdullah said he knows this route well - he used to smuggle foreign fighters from Indonesia through the same route.
But increased operations from Esscom has led militants to use a new route on the west coast of Sabah.
“They (foreign fighters) are now starting to use Indonesia’s Kalimantan-Keningau route on the West coast to enter Sabah to avoid increased operations on the east coast,” said Esscom chief Hazani.
Similiarly, Sabah is also a gateway for ASG members and other foreign fighters to escape from Philippine military operations to travel all the way to Peninsular Malaysia.
“From Semenanjung (Peninsular), they can fly to anywhere in the world via Kuala Lumpur airport.,” said Esscom’s Hazani.
ABU SAYYAF MILITANTS WORKING AS SECURITY GUARDS IN KL
Since 2013, a total of 27 Abu Sayyaf members have been arrested by police in Malaysia.
“They (ASG) come to Malaysia to hide ... they are usually wanted in the Phillppines. There are some of them who come here to get away from their past life with ASG. However, they will still give their support to ASG,” said Ayob.
Once in Kuala Lumpur, ASG members were reported to be working as security guards, labourers and members of a paramilitary civilian volunteer corp known as RELA.
“A total of seven ASG members were arrested while working as security guards,” said Ayob.
ASG also tried to recruit new members in Malaysia to join them in southern Philippines, he added.
Last year, Malaysian police foiled a plan by ASG to attack the closing ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur.
NO END IN SIGHT TO PRO-IS GROUPS FIGHTING IN MINDANAO
“Their (IS) movement will continue with no end in sight as the death of one leader, meaning Isnilon Hapilon, will be replaced by another,” said ex-JI member Abdullah.
Hapilon headed the pro-IS faction of ASG.
ASG also has access to weapons which they buy from the black market.
“ASG gets most of their weapons from the black market. They also have their own arms-producing factory,” said Andrin Raj, Southeast Asia regional director, of International Association for Counter terrorism and Security Professionals (IACSP).
JI’s Abdullah also warned that pro-IS groups’ fighting capacity in southern Philippines was becoming more strategic and “integrated” as foreign fighters trained in urban warfare were converging there.
“This is a solid convergence of warfare – you have foreign fighters trained in urban warfare that fought in Syria combined with ASG that knows jungle warfare,” said Abdullah.