Malaysia uncovers ISIS cell transiting through Sabah

Lecturer turned militant was planning to smuggle terror recruits into the Philippines

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysian police have uncovered a new ISIS terror cell using Sabah as a transit point under the orders of Dr Mahmud Ahmad, a former Universiti Malaya lecturer turned militant.

The revelation follows the arrests in Malaysia of a Filipino, two Bangladeshis and a Malaysian, said police chief Khalid Abu Bakar.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, counter-terrorism unit Densus 88 is questioning 17 Indonesians who were deported from Turkey for allegedly attempting to join the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a police spokesman said yesterday.

In Malaysia, the four suspects were netted in the latest raids by the Counter Terrorism Division.

Tan Sri Khalid, the inspector-general of police, said that the first suspect was a 31-year-old Filipino watch peddler who was picked up in Kota Kinabalu on Jan 13, according to The Star newspaper.

The Filipino was described as the cell's chief recruiter.

"Initial investigations have revealed that he was taking orders from Dr Mahmud," the Malaysian police said in a statement yesterday.

The second suspect is a 27-year-old Malaysian woman from Selangor who was recruited by the Filipino via social media.

"She was arrested along with the first suspect in Kota Kinabalu," said Mr Khalid. "She took a flight to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and we believe she was planning to fly to Sandakan before travelling to (the) southern Philippines."

Questioned by police, the woman claimed she was planning to marry her recruiter.

On Sunday, Malaysian police nabbed the two Bangladeshi men, aged 27 and 28 years old.

"They have connections to ISIS cells in Bangladesh as well. The duo were also recruited by the first suspect," said Mr Khalid.

Malaysia is battling a rise in support for ISIS, which often recruits members using social media tools such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

The Muslim-majority country arrested 119 suspected militants last year, up from just four in 2013. Those nabbed included foreigners.

The police said last week that 30 Malaysians have died fighting for militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including several who acted as suicide bombers.

Yesterday, the Malaysian police said that Dr Mahmud has been tasked by ISIS with arranging the safe passage of new recruits from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to Marawi City in Mindanao.

Dr Mahmud is known to be planning to use Sabah as a transit point for new ISIS recruits from South-east Asia and South Asia, before booking passage for them to the southern Philippines.

Mr Khalid said that intelligence had indicated that Dr Mahmud's cell has been combined with the Abu Sayyaf group led by the militant Isnilon Hapilon.

"Like Dr Mahmud, Isnilon has also sworn a bai'ah or oath of allegiance to ISIS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," said Mr Khalid.

In Indonesia, police inspector-general Boy Rafli Amar said that the 17 Indonesians who were deported from Turkey on Saturday included eight women.

The Immigration Office's director-general Agung Sampurno said that the suspects were detained as their travel route in Turkey was judged to be "unnatural".

It is now also a standard procedure to question those returning from conflict areas, he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia uncovers ISIS cell transiting through Sabah'. Print Edition | Subscribe