Malaysia's Sabah is South-east Asian terrorists' preferred transit point: Experts

A file photo from 2019 shows Malaysian security officers arresting a suspected militant in Sabah in an anti-terror raid.
A file photo from 2019 shows Malaysian security officers arresting a suspected militant in Sabah in an anti-terror raid.PHOTO: COUNTER TERRORISM DIVISION, SPECIAL BRANCH, MALAYSIA

SABAH (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - As security threats posed by extremists rise in South-east Asia, Malaysia's Sabah state has emerged as a preferred route for Indonesian militants to enter the southern Philippines to carry out their terrorist activities, according to a regional intelligence source.

The source, who asked not to be identified, said that travelling through Sabah had become the favoured option for militants as other routes, like from Manado, north of Sulawesi in Indonesia, to Davao, south Mindanao in the Philippines, had proven unreliable.

"The ferry service from Manado to Davao is off and on. But there's a daily ferry service from Makassar to Tarakan and then Nunukan in Kalimantan and then to Tawau, on the east coast of Sabah," the source said.

From Tawau, the radical fighters would go to Sandakan or Semporna to take boats - legal or illegal - to Tawi Nunan or Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines.

Even with Covid-19 restrictions, people are still travelling daily from Indonesia to Sabah and then to the southern Philippines.

Sabah appeared to be a transit point for Indonesians who want to join terror groups or learn to make IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the Philippines, according to the source.

"They will not conduct terror attacks in Sabah. It is only a place to rest, look for money, smuggle arms and then move out," he said.

Stanislaus Riyanta, a security and terrorism expert based in Jakarta, said Sabah is a transit point for JAD members heading to the Philippines from Indonesia. (JAD is Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, an Indonesian radical group connected to the Islamic State group.)

He said JAD top brass Saefullah also has strong ties with the Abu Sayyaf group on Jolo island in the Philippines.

"Indonesia's radical groups have long had a relationship with the Abu Sayyaf and other groups in the Philippines," he noted.

Lucrative midway point

But for some, Sabah is not only a transit point but also a lucrative place to make money to fund their terror activities.

Some Indonesians do not go straight to southern Philippines destinations like poverty-stricken Jolo Island because there are no jobs there.

"In Sabah, they can do odd jobs on highway projects, oil palm plantations or vegetable farms," the intelligence source said, adding that they could earn between RM1,000 (S$323) and RM1,500 a month.

From Tarakan in Indonesia, the militants would then enter Kalabakan in Tawau, Sabah, and go by road to Keningau to look for jobs.

Former Sabah police commissioner Datuk Hazani Ghazali said there was no doubt areas within Sabah made for good hiding places for militants. The Malaysian police work hard to collect intel on militants hiding out in these places.

"We have managed to arrest suspects in Keningau, Tenom and Sipitang in the last few years," says Hazani, who was promoted to Internal Security and Public Order Department director on Thursday (Sept 2).

But some Indonesian fighters, like the suicide bombers Rullie Rian Zeke and his wife Ulfah Handayani Saleh in the 2019 Jolo cathedral bombings, did not stay in Tawau, Semporna or Sandakan on Sabah's east coast, where most militants from Indonesia and the Philippines could blend in as part of the large immigrant communities there.

The intelligence source said the Indonesians of Bugis descent picked Keningau to stay instead because no one there would have suspected them of being militants.

"They knew... security forces won't think a militant would be staying (there) as they (militants) are known to prefer to live on the east coast of Sabah," the source said.

"They also knew the terrain. From Keningau, they could escape to Luasong in southern Tawau bordering Kalimantan and Pensiangan (in Sabah)."

The source noted that intelligence officers also tended to be less alert about militants in Sabah's interior, unlike their counterparts on the state's east coast.

It was easier to travel by road to Keningau from Tawau as well, as there were fewer security checkpoints, he said.

Targeting the vulnerable

The source said JAD has a base in Sabah to recruit Indonesians, Filipinos, Sabahans (of Indonesian origin) as well as those who are stateless and hence vulnerable.

"They (stateless people) can't find work or enter university, so they are frustrated. One way they can release their frustration is through militant activities," he said.

The source said recruits were sent to Indonesia for religious studies in religious boarding schools, after which they would return to Sabah and head for Jolo island for weapons training or to learn how to make IEDs.

Asked how he would assess JAD's presence in Sabah, the source said there was no concrete threat at the moment.

"They are in Sabah to raise funds. Once they have money and after the Covid-19 vaccination, they will travel to Jolo and back to Indonesia. In Jolo, they do arms training and meet brother fighters," he said.