In the latest evidence of the growing presence of militants in the region, Malaysian police arrested a female immigration officer and six others linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last week.
The woman officer is alleged to have arranged for militants to travel without valid documents to Sabah state on Borneo Island before heading to the southern Philippines nearby, police said in a statement yesterday.
Extremist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf that have professed loyalty to ISIS are based in the southern Philippines.
Regional security officials have warned that ISIS terrorists fleeing battle losses in the Middle East could be heading to South-east Asia, with Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines being one key destination.
The other suspects arrested by Malaysian police last week included three Filipinos with Malaysian permanent resident (PR) status, police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said in the statement.
The arrests were made last week in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur.
The 31-year-old female immigration officer was nabbed in Sandakan town in Sabah last Thursday. "Two suspects with PR status are believed to have assisted in the transit of three Indonesian ISIS militants to southern Philippines through Sabah."
Police said yesterday that the third Filipino suspect with Malaysian PR status was believed to be channelling funds to Mahmud Ahmad and Mohamad Joraimee Awang Raimee, two Malaysians who had joined up with ISIS in the southern Philippines.
"The immigration officer had arranged for the entry of people without valid travel documents, including ISIS militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, into Sabah before heading to southern Philippines," Tan Sri Khalid said.
Malaysian police arrested some 250 suspected militants between 2013 and last year. They included policemen, military officers, civil servants and students from international universities in Malaysia.
Criminologist P. Sundramoorthy from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang said diverse groups of people tend to lean towards ISIS' violent ideology.
The immigration officer was possibly an empathiser - a person who shelters militants or facilitate their movements.
"They are just as dangerous (as fighters) because they are contributing to the acts of aggression and violence of ISIS," Associate Professor Sundramoorthy told The Straits Times.
Malaysia suffered a terror attack in June last year, when two suspected militants threw a grenade into a nightspot in Puchong, Selangor, injuring eight people.
Police said last week that four Yemenis based in Malaysia were planning to attack the entourage of visiting Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud, but the plot was foiled by the authorities.