KOTA KINABALU - Malaysia is on high alert for Abu Sayyaf members fleeing among hundreds of Filipinos for Sabah, after the Philippine military's offensive in the country's south.
Authorities say an estimated 400 are waiting for the "right time" to breach the Eastern Sabah Security Command's (Esscom) security cordon, among them elements of the militant group who plan to turn Sabah into their outpost, reported the New Straits Times on Saturday (Sept 24).
Federal police special branch director Datuk Seri Mohamad Fuzi Harun told the paper that intelligence showed Abu Sayyaf would intensify its kidnap-for-ransom operations to fund the organisation.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has sent 10,000 soldiers to southern Philippines, including the provinces of Sulu and Basilan, to elimate more than 400 heavily-armed militants.
"The threat is imminent...There is only one direction that they are heading, and it is towards our shores," said Mr Fuzi to NST.
"We will not allow them to enter. Our security forces will arrest them the minute they pass the country's maritime border."
Malaysia has deployed more manpower and assets to protect the 1,700km maritime border it shares with the Philippines.
"The military, together with Esscom, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and police, are working together to hold the fort," National Security Council (NSC) director-general General Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin told NST.
Mr Zulkifeli, who is also armed forces chief, said reports that hundreds of Filipinos seeking refuge on islands close to the Malaysian border were credible.
It is believed that as many as 400 of them, including rebels, are on the islands of Taganak and Bakkungan, hoping to make their way to Sandakan, the second largest town in Sabah.
"They are waiting to cross into Sabah and assimilate with their relatives and friends, who stand ready to harbour them."
Police picked up 37 Filipinos from the waters off Sandakan last week. Eighteen of them were from Basilan, while the rest were from Jolo, Abu Sayyaf's stronghold.
Sabah marine police chief Mohamad Mandun said that after questioning the 37 Filipinos, it did not seem they were members of any terrorist groups.
Last Thursday, 20 Abu Sayyaf militants in Basilan surrendered after the Philippine military's offensive.
Since 1991, the group has carried out attacks such as bombings, kidnapping and assassinations in the name of fighting for an independent Islamic province in the Philippines.