KL's detention of Filipino terror suspect tests bilateral ties

Rescue workers at work after an explosion in Davao City on Sept 2 last year. Suspected bomber Mohammad Abduljabbar Sema was arrested by Malaysian police in November after he fled from the Philippines.
Rescue workers at work after an explosion in Davao City on Sept 2 last year. Suspected bomber Mohammad Abduljabbar Sema was arrested by Malaysian police in November after he fled from the Philippines.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Malaysia's continued detention of a Philippine terrorist suspect, believed to be involved in the deadly bombing in the southern Mindanao city of Davao last September, is testing bilateral relations and presenting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with new challenges in his bid to bring peace to the region.

Malaysian police arrested Mohammad Abduljabbar Sema in late November last year after the Philippines declared him a suspect in the Davao bombing on Sept 2 that left 15 people dead and wounded 69 others, according to diplomats and regional intelligence officials.

But Manila's demand for his repatriation has yet to be approved by Kuala Lumpur. It is unclear why the Malaysian authorities have delayed handing over the suspected militant, although regional intelligence officials say it is common for local security agencies to carry out their own interrogation of suspects before deporting them. Malaysian police have declined requests for comment.

Mohammad Abduljabbar, 26, is no ordinary terrorist suspect. His parents, Mr Muslimin Sema and Ms Bai Sandra Sema, are powerful political warlords in the southern province of Mindanao, and are key players in the ongoing peace talks between Mr Duterte's government and the Muslim Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Diplomats and regional intelligence officials said Mr Muslimin, the chairman of the largest faction in the MNLF, and his wife have been actively lobbying Mr Duterte to pardon their son for his alleged involvement in the bombing.

It is an option Mr Duterte is considering as part of a strategy to get the faltering Mindanao peace talks back on track, and it is against this backdrop that the Philippines want Mohammad Abduljabbar deported, say human rights executives involved in the peace talks.

The delay in deportation has led to some behind-the-scenes tension between KL and Manila.

"The Philippine government is upset (with Malaysia) because Duterte wants a peace deal as quickly as possible," said a senior executive of a conflict resolution agency who is tracking the Mindanao peace talks.

Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose declined to discuss Mohammad Abduljabbar's detention in Malaysia, noting that it was a "matter for the Philippines' intelligence and security agencies".

Senior superintendent Dionardo Carlos, spokesman for the Philippine National Police, told The Straits Times that the issue over Mohammad Abduljabbar's detention was being coordinated by the police attache at the embassy in KL. Embassy officials have declined to comment.

Mohammad Abduljabbar fled the Philippines immediately after the September bombing, which investigators believed was carried out by a radical fringe cell known as the Maute group. The Philippine National Police have so far detained seven of the 12 suspects.

Regional intelligence officials said Mohammad Abduljabbar fled some time after the attack, making his way first to Cambodia and then trying to travel to Bangkok in November. After being denied entry by Thai immigration, he took a flight to Malaysia.

Philippine intelligence agencies tracking his movements tipped off the Malaysian police and he was arrested at the budget terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Regional intelligence officials said Mohammad Abduljabbar has become a person of particular interest for the top-secret Research Division in the Malaysian Prime Minister's Office.

Officials from the division have played key mediating roles in dealing with separatist movements in the restive southern regions of Thailand and the Philippines.

• Additional reporting by Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'KL's detention of Filipino terror suspect tests bilateral ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe