KUALA LUMPUR • Terrorist group ISIS is now "desperate" and may be looking to the Asean region as its next terror base instead of the Middle East, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said.
His views dovetailed with recent analysis by other security officials, that with its territory shrinking, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is more and more eyeing South-east Asia as a new base.
"The Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups have stated their support for the Islamic State," he said, using an alternative name for ISIS.
"If they (ISIS fighters) flee from Iraq and Syria - as what is happening now in Aleppo, Mosul and Raqqa - I hope the cooperation between Asean countries can be increased as there is a possibility that they might create an Islamic caliphate in our region."
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin was speaking to reporters after attending the graduation ceremony for officers at the Royal Military College on Saturday.
"That is why strong regional cooperation among Asean countries is vital to prevent this from happening. We have to cooperate closely to make sure these worries do not become a reality," he said.
"They (ISIS militants) are quite desperate. If they have already gained a foothold in the region, by then it will be too late."
Mr Hishammuddin said that one example of Asean cooperation on the issue was the trilateral agreement between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, under which they would conduct coordinated patrols, joint patrolling and hot pursuits in the seas off Sabah and the southern Philippines. "These three SOPs (standard operating procedures) have been agreed upon and are now at a level that we have never seen before," he added.
Earlier this month, the commander of the Indonesian military, General Gatot Nurmantyo, warned that ISIS - which is in retreat in Iraq and Syria due to battle-zone pressure from internationally backed forces - is building its base in Mindanao, a restive island that borders Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
The United Nations has estimated that there are 516 Indonesians, 100 Filipinos, 100 Malaysians and two Singaporeans who have left home to fight for ISIS.
Experts say these militants can be expected to take the fight back home if they are flushed out of Iraq and Syria in the months ahead.
Gen Gatot said the recent rise in abductions by terrorist groups from vessels passing through the southern Philippines' waters indicates that ISIS militants in the area are raising money to build the base.
Militants believed to be linked to the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group have kidnapped dozens of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors and demanded millions of dollars in ransom.
It is unclear how much ransom money the group has collected so far, but the Philippines' Inquirer newspaper reported in October that Abu Sayyaf pocketed at least 353 million pesos (S$10.2 million) in ransom from January to June.
Abu Sayyaf has pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who, in turn, has appointed former Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, alias Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, as leader of ISIS forces in South-east Asia.
Gen Gatot argued that ISIS, which he said is motivated more by economic factors than ideology, had chosen South-east Asia as its future headquarters because its lucrative financial sources in the Middle East have been severely reduced.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK