LAHAD DATU • Since a Dec 8 shoot-out between police and would-be kidnappers last year, there have been no abductions reported in the notorious seas off Sabah's eastern coast, in a surprisingly quiet six-month span.
That was, in fact, the first time Malaysian security forces had engaged Filipino gunmen since the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) was set up in 2013 to reverse a spiral into anarchy along the porous 1,700km coastline and the waters facing the Philippines.
Esscom commander Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid believes the killing of five gunmen and the capture of two others have given kidnap-for-ransom groups operating in Malaysian waters pause.
"We showed them we mean business," he told The Straits Times in an interview in Sabah.
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The progress did not come easily.
Datuk Wan Bari revealed that Esscom worked with local fishermen to identify patterns of attack by the gunmen and spent 72 days out at sea before the successful ambush.
But it has been worth the effort so far, as 2016 had been a record year for kidnappings.
Such incidents increased following the shocking 2013 invasion by Sulu royalists from the Philippines asserting their claim over Sabah.
In 2014, there were four abductions and, the next year, gunmen from the Abu Sayyaf militant group were even bold enough to come ashore to a Sandakan restaurant. They grabbed two persons, one of whom was later beheaded.
Last year, there were 10 cases, eight of which involved fishing vessels. As Esscom stepped up patrols around "static targets" such as resorts and aquaculture farms, and imposed a night curfew, kidnap-for- ransom groups began targeting fishermen who still had permits to be at sea in the dark.
The December ambush was the culmination of a concerted effort by Malaysian enforcers and their Filipino counterparts. Esscom released a list of 23 "most wanted" men in November, and Manila issued warrants for six of them.
Media reports said those eliminated last year included the notorious Maktadil brothers linked to the Abu Sayyaf.
"More than 65 per cent of those involved have been eliminated. It will take some time before they come back because now they are more cautious," Mr Wan Bari said. "We will see the changes in the trend. Whatever we do will be intelligence-led."
He also revealed that Esscom plans to unveil another list by the end of the month, as intelligence has been gathered on new suspects.
Abductions have been a huge money-spinner for Filipino outlaws, with ransoms reported to be as high as $900,000 per victim. Many of the perpetrators are Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the Maute group, which has laid siege to Marawi city in the southern Philippines.
"It is a system of getting fast money. It is a form of business," said Mr Wan Bari.
Eliminating the perpetrators can also be difficult as they may have gained the sympathy of some communities. Mr Wan Bari said: "They are like Robin Hood. Whatever they get, they share among the villagers."