KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian police have arrested more foreign terrorist fighters this year than in the past four years combined, with more possibly lying in wait - some sent by Marawi siege leader Mahmud Ahmad.
The head of the Malaysian special branch's counter-terrorism divison, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, told Channel NewsAsia 70 foreign fighters have been detained by Malaysian officials since 2013.
Of that number, 45 were picked up this year alone, in operations sparked by intelligence that Islamic State (IS) militants were shifting focus, working with terror groups in Asia, as they lose ground in the Middle East.
Nine arrested were suspected militants from the southern Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), some of whom are thought to have been in contact with Mahmud, who is Malaysia's most wanted terrorist.
Police have intelligence he ordered militants from the group to slip into neighbouring Sabah in 2015 and form a sleeper cell that would launch attacks on Mahmud's command.
"One of the members we arrested was a senior member of ASG and he was involved in six kidnappings before and in terms of commitment, he had a strong commitment to terror," Ayob told Channel NewsAsia in an interview on Sunday.
"We do believe they have long term plans to carry out attacks in Malaysia."
However, if reports of Mahmud's death are true, any cell members still in the country could remain dormant.
"There are no other characteristic leaders to take over (Mahmud's) leadership," he said.
The Philippines says some 20 others involved in the Marawi siege, including Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and Maute Group’s Omar Maute, were killed in a military assault on Monday.
Malaysia, however, has yet to receive formal confirmation of Mahmud's death.
HOW ARE THE MILITANTS COMING IN?
Police in general are arresting more terrorists this year than they have in the past five but the entry of foreign fighters into Malaysia - whether they are transiting or planning attacks here - have been bolstered by several factors.
Authorities believe there are syndicates helping to create fake travel documents and employment visas for terrorists. Others have come in using student visas.
For many from Middle Eastern nations, however, including those from Syria and Iraq, entry into Malaysia is visa-free.
A proposal from the National Security Council last year to change this to avoid easy entry for terrorists was rejected by the cabinet, with the tourism minister then citing unfair profiling of Middle Easterners as well as safeguarding bilateral ties and tourism as factors.
Ayob could not comment on this decision, but he said even those who come in on legitimate student visas are difficult to vet.
"It is almost impossible also for the Ministry of Higher Education to do the background vetting or checking; it takes time," he said.
"For example, a student from Yemen applies for a student visa. Of course, the ministry can share their details with us, but we need to check with our counterparts and it will take maybe a few months before they can get back to us."
He said it is also possible that people who enter using student visas have no record at the time. However, once they reach Malaysia, they are recruited by terrorist groups.
Countries deporting terror suspects to "friendly" Malaysia is another issue. Turkey has taken advantage of Malaysia's visa-free provisions, deporting foreign terrorists trying to enter Iraq and Syria to Kuala Lumpur if they ask to go there.
In August, police launched a large scale manhunt for 16 terrorists deported to Malaysia by Turkey.
"Of course, we do have a small problem with certain countries ... Actually not 'certain', I'm referring to just one country," said Mr Ayob.
"If they arrest a foreign suspect involved in terrorist activities or using their country as a transit point to enter Syria and Iraq, those suspects should be deported to their country of origin, not to Malaysia.
"But this one, they're asking them where they want to go, and of course they want to come to Malaysia because we're the so-called friendly country, the Muslim country you see."
Porous borders are another way militants enter the country. Groups like Abu Sayyaf are much closer to home - entering Sabah from the southern Philippines and Indonesia via the 1,400km porous coastline.
"We have the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) there, we have the navy patrolling the area - but it's almost impossible to cover the area unless there is intelligence," said Ayob.
"Recently, we have the trilateral border patrolling; intelligence agencies have also had trilateral meetings recently - so we are beefing up our cooperation and collaboration."
Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines launched joint maritime and air patrols over the Sulu Sea this year in a bid to block the movement of terrorist groups between their nations.
However, those still managing to slip in via Sabah have also made it to Kuala Lumpur without valid travel documents.
Police and immigration authorities are carrying out investigations into how this could have happened.
In March, an immigration officer stationed at the Sandakan airport was arrested for aiding people without valid travel documents, including IS militants from Malaysia and Indonesia, to travel into Sabah before heading to the Southern Philippines.
WILL MALAYSIANS OVERSEAS RETURN TO JOIN THESE FOREIGN FIGHTERS?
Even as terrorists are tasked to shift focus to Southeast Asia, Ayob does not expect the dozens of Malaysians fighting overseas to return to the region to join them.
"So far, we have no intelligence to suggest they want to come back," he said. "We have 53 Malaysians now in Syria.
"They want to die as martyrs, so that's their main objective (and) they're very sure if they come back they'll be arrested, charged in court and most probably convicted and serving a jail sentence."
However, Ayob foresees more Malaysians being radicalised to join a cause closer to home: Fighting alongside Rohingya militants in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
So far, they have arrested two suspects - one Malaysian and one Indonesian - who were planning to go there.
'We are very sure later there will be more as the issue in Rakhine is getting out of control, very serious," he said.
"Hopefully every country takes action to tackle the internal problem because if they don't, it will create opportunities for terrorist groups to recruit new members."
As for the more than 60,000 Rohingya who have fled the violence to Malaysia, Ayob said so far there is no intelligence so far to suggest they have been radicalised.