Wanted Malaysian militants hiding in the southern Philippines are planning to form an "official" faction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South-east Asia by bringing together terror groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, including Jemaah Islamiah and Abu Sayyaf .
Former Universiti Malaya lecturer Mahmud Ahmad and his comrades - sundry goods shop owner Mohd Najib Husen and former local council employee Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee - who have been on Malaysia's wanted list since April last year, have been identified as individuals integral to this unification plan, The Star reported.
The head of the Malaysian police's Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division told the newspaper in an exclusive interview that Mahmud, who is a high priority on the wanted list, was not satisfied with just participating in the Abu Sayyaf, but wanted to form a South-east Asian faction of the ISIS.
"He has performed the bai'ah or the oath of allegiance on video but to form the South-east Asian cell of IS, Mahmud has to travel to Syria and swear his allegiance in front of IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," Senior Assistant Commissioner Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said, using another name for ISIS.
"We discovered through intelligence sharing that going to Syria is his priority now," Datuk Ayob said, adding that the veteran militant, who trained with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, had previously used his lecturer position at a private college to recruit students into militancy.
He warned that if Mahmud, also known as Abu Handzalah, were to succeed in uniting terror cells in the region under one banner, the region would face more danger.
Besides the Jemaah Islamiah and the Abu Sayyaf, other terror groups in the region include Tanzim Al-Qaeda, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia and Darul Islam Sabah.
Sources in the Philippines military said the three Malaysian militants remain their top-priority targets and operations to get them are ongoing.
Criminologist P. Sundramoorthy told The Sunday Times that he believed the Malaysian militants' attempt to form an inter-nation terror group was due to the fact that they have been unable to gain sufficient support from any individual country.
Associate Professor Sundramoorthy, who is from Universiti Sains Malaysia's Research Team on Crime and Policing, said these militants have now gone beyond the scope of religion.
"Many still think IS champions the rights of Islam but it has got to do with social injustice, economic inequalities, political suppression and other reasons. But unfortunately, religion has been used as an anchor to all these motivations," he said.
Philippine defence analyst Jose Antonio Custodio believes the militants use the ISIS flag as a ploy to get more support from abroad and money.
"They're just after money. They're still basically merchants. The dynamics are different. There is sectarian violence there (in Syria). We don't have that here (in the Philippines)," he said.
"The trend is that they have deteriorated into a cottage industry - kidnapping. Muslims in the Philippines are generally more predisposed to mercantilism, not idealism."
To stem the growth of such terror groups, Prof Sundramoorthy said international efforts are needed to address the root causes, such as social injustice, so as to prevent divisions in society that may lead to problems of terrorism.
Earlier this year, Malaysian police foiled an ISIS terror plot to attack the Saudi Arabia and Qatar embassies in Kuala Lumpur.
They also arrested and deported five Maldives residents, including a suspect believed to be involved in an assassination attempt on Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen.
•Additional reporting by Raul Dancel