KUALA LUMPUR - Thirteen suspected militants, including six pro-Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members allegedly involved in the deadly Marawi siege in southern Philippines, have been detained by Malaysian authorities.
Malaysia's national police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said 12 Filipinos and a Malaysian were arrested on March 11 and 12 by police's Counter Terrorism Division, with the help of Special Branch, Sabah police and elite multi-tasking special forces unit 69 Commando.
"They were detained for their suspected involvement in several terror groups... either the ASG, Maute combatants or the Royal Sulu Force (RSF)," he said in a statement on Monday (March 18).
"Some of them were also involved in giving protection to foreign terrorist fighters who are hiding in Sabah."
The first arrests, the Inspector-General of Police said, were five Filipinos and a Malaysian - all men aged between 40 and 60 - on March 11 in Semporna, Sabah.
"Four of them are suspected to have been involved in the Marawi siege in 2017, together with the Maute group," he said.
"They were also involved in giving protection to the Maute and several Middle Easterners who are hiding in Sabah."
Tan Sri Fuzi added that two others are believed to be the RSF members who were involved in the Lahad Datu incursion in 2013.
"They're also involved in recruiting new members for the RSF by selling the group's membership cards among Filipinos who reside in Sabah," he said.
"Both suspects fled to the southern Philippines after the terror group was defeated. In November 2018, the duo managed to infiltrate into Semporna, in an attempt to activate the RSF in Sabah."
On May 23, 2017, about 1,000 gunmen stormed and seized large parts of Marawi in an audacious bid to turn the city into a province of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). What followed was a war that raged for five months.
By the time the Philippine military declared victory five months later, more than 1,000 militants, government troops and civilians were dead, half of Marawi lay in ruins, and about 400,000 people living in and near the city were displaced.
Meanwhile, the bloody incursion in Lahad Datu in 2013 by some 200 Islamic militants from the southern Philippines was inspired by a self-proclaimed Filipino sultanate's claims of historical dominion over the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island.
The assault, the most serious security crisis faced by Malaysia in years, led to a siege between the militants and Malaysian armed forces sent to root them out. At least 70 people were killed, mostly militants, over the six-week ordeal.
Later on March 11, the authorities moved in to arrest five men and a woman - all Filipinos between 23 and 63 years old - in Tambunan, Sabah.
"One of the suspects who worked as a construction worker is believed to be part of the ASG involved in the Marawi siege. The suspect had sneaked into Sabah in December 2018 together with another group member to avoid the military operations against them in the Philippines," said Mr Fuzi.
"Meanwhile, the other five from the second arrests were nabbed for providing protection to several ASG and Maute members who are still at large."
The last arrest was a 39-year-old Filipino in Tambunan, Sabah, who worked as a construction worker. He was detained on March 12 for providing protection to ASG and Maute members.
Malaysia recently deported and blacklisted seven suspected Islamic militants who police said were involved in plans to launch large-scale attacks in several countries.
In its long battle against increasing militancy in the country, Malaysia uncovered a plan by foreign militants to use the country as a "safe haven" transit and logistics centre, following the collapse of terrorist outfit ISIS in the Middle East.
Mr Fuzi on March 10 said the militants plan to marry local women to get spousal visas to enable them to live in Malaysia, or to remain in the country by using education facilities or by being involved in business.