KUALA LUMPUR • Operatives of terror group Abu Sayyaf have been planted in strategic areas in Sabah, ready to carry out kidnap-for-ransom assignments the minute they get the "go-ahead", according to a counter-terrorism expert quoted by New Straits Times (NST) newspaper yesterday.
Mr Andrin Raj, the South-east Asia regional director for the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals-Centre for Security Studies, said the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) - a small but violent group known for bomb attacks, kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines - was getting a lot of help from local sympathisers in identifying potential targets among tourists.
He told NST a Filipino group based in Sabah, known as the Knights of the Right Keeper, was also supporting the ASG.
"Besides having their operatives rooted in Sabah and areas outside the state, they also have a large network that allows them to tap critical information.
Knights of the Right Keeper hold dual nationality or permits, allowing their presence here to go unsuspected.
"There are other operatives linked to the ASG operating from within the Kota Kinabalu International Airport and other airports in the state," said Mr Raj, who works with governments and enforcement agencies to combat terrorism in South-east Asia.
The operatives are believed to monitor arrivals to identify potential victims, then provide detailed information on the targeted tourists' residence and duration of stay, as well as other information to facilitate the kidnapping.
Mr Raj told the NST that the ASG - which has been linked previously to Al-Qaeda but has now pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - might continue to abduct tourists from Sabah as it seeks to strengthen its foothold in the region.
Targeting tourists was one way for ASG to get international attention. "Many countries have a strict policy on ransom demands and do not pay up as this will only increase the threat within the region. The targeted victim will depend on the group's specific needs," said Mr Raj.
"If they want more money, then they will demand a high ransom. If it is politically motivated and they want international media attention, then they will choose targets from the West."
Mr Raj also warned that maritime disputes in the region allowed piracy, armed robbery and kidnapping to continue unchecked.
"Militaries of these nations would not trespass into the disputed waters for fear of creating a military stand-off. This allows the ASG to move from one area to another without any security intervention," he said.