SANDAKAN, Sabah: Illegal immigrants from southern Philippines living in the Malaysian state of Sabah are believed to have helped kidnappers in the abduction of two Indonesians recently by providing them with inside information about their victims, security agencies and a former militant told Channel NewsAsia on Monday (Sep 17).
The incident took place in the early hours of last Tuesday, when two masked men armed with M16 rifles stormed a fishing vessel in the waters off Semporna town and grabbed the two fishermen.
The kidnapping was the first such case in almost two years since a coalition of the region’s maritime security agencies began ramping up patrols in the seas, after decades of being terrorised by pirates and militant groups.
"There was an opportunity and so the kidnappers struck," Hazani Ghazali, commander of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), told Channel NewsAsia in an interview at Esscom's headquarters in Lahad Datu, Sabah.
“We suspect the kidnappers may have handed over the victims to the Abu Sayyaf group. The victims are no longer in Malaysian waters."
The latest abduction highlighted once again the vulnerability of Sabah’s east coast and the challenges security agencies face in securing the 1,400km-long coastline located next to the Sulu Sea.
A combination of porous land and sea borders, and an influx of illegal immigrants from southern Philippines as well as Indonesia, makes Sabah's east coast vulnerable to attacks by criminal and militant elements who hide among the undocumented itinerants.
LOCAL INFORMERS HELPING KIDNAPPERS
Sabah's local government estimates that there are about 800,000 illegal immigrants residing in the state, some of whom are believed to have provided intelligence to the kidnappers in the latest incident.
“We believe they (kidnappers) received inside help, most probably from illegal immigrants who have stayed here for a long time,” said Hazani.
Sabah-based Abdullah Sandakan, a former member of the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), echoed the same view.
“The Abu Sayyaf and other kidnapping groups from southern Philippines have many family members living here,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
“They (illegal immigrants) act as informers and are very loyal to the kidnappers owing to their family ties. They help the kidnappers pick out a good place to carry out the kidnappings.
“The informers live by the sea; some of them are fishermen, labourers or traders. Some of them even work in the government departments as well as hotels.”
According to Esscom commander Hazani, previous kidnappings in hotel resorts involved hotel staff who were illegal immigrants.
“After Esscom was set up (in 2013), we ordered the affected resorts to register the names of every single employee with us and we went through the entire lists,” he said.
“We told hotels not to hire illegal immigrants.”
MANY SMALLER GROUPS WORKING WITH ABU SAYYAF
The Sep 11 incident has spooked residents in the area who fear that kidnap-for-ransom gangs the region was notorious for are back to haunt them.
The most prominent of these gangs is the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group from southern Philippines, which was founded in the 1990s with seed money from Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped dozens of locals and foreigners in the past 20 years, and beheaded their victims when ransom demands were not met.
But the Abu Sayyaf are not the only kidnappers operating in the waters off Sabah and in the Sulu Sea, which is known as one of the world’s most dangerous shipping lanes.
According to Esscom, there are many smaller groups who work in concert with the Abu Sayyaf.
“The Abu Sayyaf pay these groups and provide them with boats, arms and petrol and they (kidnappers) will come here (Sabah) to carry out kidnappings,” said Esscom commander Hazani.
“They will seize hostages and hand them over to the Abu Sayyaf who will then make ransom demands.”
The ransom money is sometimes shared with an “entire village”, as a reward for providing intelligence to the kidnappers.
The Abu Sayyaf carried out some of the big hits themselves.
In 2000, they staged an audacious raid on a resort on Sipadan island and took 21 mostly Western holiday-makers hostage.
From 2003 to 2014, hostages were taken from resorts in Pandanan island (2003), Pom Pom island (2013) and Semporna town (2014).
The year 2016 was the worst, with 10 kidnapping incidents reported.
In the past one and a half years, Esscom eliminated nine kidnapping syndicates, Hazani said.
FEAR OF BEING KIDNAPPED KEEPING SOME LOCALS OFF THE STREETS
Despite the region’s reputation, it still continues to attract tourists, with more than 3 million people visiting Sabah last year.
Foreigners were seen heading to diving spots off Semporna and the Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre in Sandakan city.
Meanwhile, the locals are worried.
“I never go anywhere without my husband. I am scared of kidnappings. I stay home most of the time since three years ago,” said 31-year-old housewife Ika.
She lives in Sandakan, a town still haunted by the beheading of Malaysian Bernard Then in 2015.
The 39-year-old engineer was snatched by Abu Sayyaf militants while dining at the Ocean King seafront restaurant along with the restaurant’s female manager Thien Nyuk Fun, who was later released.
A local trader shared housewife Ika's unease.
“Look at this playground. There are few people here even though it is only 5pm. People are worried about their safety,” said a local trader.
“Sandakan has become quiet. You will find that restaurants shut by 9pm while in the past, they stayed open until 11pm. The kidnapping of three years ago had an impact.
“There are also many illegal immigrants here and some of them are criminals and gangs. My car windows were smashed by them at this very parking lot.”
THREE-NATION JOINT PATROLS PRODUCING RESULTS
In an effort to curb piracy and kidnappings in the Sulu Sea, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines launched joint sea and air patrols in 2017.
The effort paid off as no incident of kidnapping was recorded in 2017, after spiking in 2016.
But Esscom said it foiled five kidnapping attempts in the past year, with nine kidnappers shot dead.
Out of the nine, seven were believed to be linked to the Abu Sayyaf.
“The joint patrols have helped greatly in reducing incidents of kidnappings,” said Esscom chief Hazani.
“After the latest kidnapping, we are conducting more and more operations in the sea. We hope to eliminate this threat.”