KOTA KINABALU • The escape of a key sub-commander of terror group Abu Sayyaf during an armed assault last week has raised concern that militants are still targeting Sabah's east coast to carry out kidnappings despite a recent Philippine military crackdown in their stronghold on Jolo island.
Regional intelligence sources said Hatib Hajan Sawadjan escaped unhurt in last Friday's 90-minute combat in Jolo.
Abu Sayyaf is a notorious militant network formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
It has earned millions of dollars from banditry and kidnappings-for-ransom, often targeting foreigners. It has beheaded hostages when ransom money was not paid.
Sources have confirmed that Hajan's brother Taha was killed in the gunfight with the Philippine military during an operation to locate 15 hostages, including two Indonesian trawler crew members snatched from Semporna waters in Sabah on Sept 11.
The sources said Taha was not involved directly in the kidnappings but served as one of the key men guarding the hostages.
Hajan, together with another sub-commander, Indang Susukan, had sent out groups to prowl the Sulu sea between Tawi-Tawi and Sabah's east coast to kidnap high-value targets, the sources said.
Following the clash in Jolo, the Philippine media, quoting Western Mindanao Command spokesman Gerry Besana, initially reported that Hajan was among those critically wounded.
Lieutenant-Colonel Besana said Hajan was immediately carried away from the scene by his followers. Seven soldiers and a militant were killed.
Intelligence reports from the Philippines have said that Abu Sayyaf has been recruiting criminal elements from Tawi-Tawi since September to carry out fresh kidnappings.
Eastern Sabah Security Command commander Hazani Ghazali said security forces have thwarted at least 10 recent attempts by suspected Filipino kidnap groups trying to sneak into the state.
Datuk Hazani said the intruders were spotted by air patrols and fled when sea patrols moved closer to the border with the Philippines' Tawi-Tawi islands.
"We have good cooperation with our counterparts in southern Philippines, who provide us information about criminal movements on the border," he said, adding they believed most of the criminals have split up in recent weeks.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK