At least 24 foreign fighters were arrested in 2018 in eastern Malaysia’s Sabah state, a known transit point for Islamic State militants trying to reach the southern Philippines, officials told BenarNews.
Local security forces said they were boosting efforts to curb cross-border crime, amid signs of resurgent Islamic State activity in the neighboring country. Twin bombings at a cathedral on southern Jolo Island killed 23 and injured more than 100 in late January, and a man suspected by Filipino authorities of planning the attack has emerged as the likely new acting IS leader in the Philippines, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
“During 2018, twenty-four militants were arrested in Sabah under SOSMA,” the Security Offences (Special measures) Act 2012, said Sabah Police Chief Omar Mammah, who added that none of them were Malaysian nationals.
“Sabah Police will continue to fight Daesh elements and terrorists from other groups who use Sabah as a haven,” he said, using another name for IS.
Asked to confirm the information, Malaysian counterterrorist police chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay put the number of IS arrests in Sabah in 2018 at 29. He did not explain the discrepancy.
Nationwide last year, authorities arrested 85 IS suspects – 44 of them foreign and 41 Malaysians, he said.
Two other states with significant numbers of arrests were the southern state of Johor (15) and Selangor (14), he said.
Overall, the 2018 numbers represent an ongoing decline from the peak year, 2016, with 119 such arrests.
Lai Yew Meng, a regional security analyst at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews that the decline probably was a result of efforts by Malaysian authorities to combat militant movements. He pointed to a dusk-to-dawn curfew at the eastern front maritime border, among other programs.
In 2017, authorities also arrested 106 suspected militants, Ayob said. The breakdown of arrests by state or nationality in those years was not immediately available.
However, in October 2017, Malaysian officials announced that they had arrested 45 foreign militants thus far that year, and a total of 70 since 2013.
Key transit points
Two coastal towns in Sabah, Tawau and Sandakan, are among the key transit locations for Islamic-State militants, Malaysian police chief Mohd Fuzi Harun said in a Jan. 31 press statement.
During the past two months, six terror suspects, including four foreigners, were captured in anti-terror raids in Selangor, Johor and Sabah states, Fuzi announced on Friday.
Fuzi said the foreign suspects were from Singapore, Bangladesh, the Philippines and an unspecified South Asian country. Some of the suspects were linked to the militant groups Islamic State (IS) and Abu Sayyaf, he said.
“The first arrest was made on Dec. 19 in Johor, where a 48-year-old Singaporean businessman was nabbed,” Fuzi said in the statement. Singapore officials have identified the suspect as Mohamed Kazali Salleh.
Fuzi said the suspect has been handed to Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD), which assisted in his arrest, after being questioned by Malaysian police. He remains in custody on charges of violating Singapore’s Internal Security Act for his alleged involvement in terror activities.
The other five suspects have been detained in Malaysia under the Security Measures (Special Offences) Act (Sosma) of 2012.
“The suspect was actively in touch with Akel Zainal (a Malaysian linked with IS in Syria), and assisted in channeling funds to him,” Fuzi said, referring to the Singaporean. “The suspect also received instructions from Akel to recruit several individuals to launch an attack against the Freemason building in Johor Bharu.”
Singapore officials said Kazali failed to carry out the attack because he feared being captured.
Akel, whose real name is Wan Mohd Aquil Wan Zainal, became famous as a drummer in a 1990s Malaysian rock band and left for Syria in 2014. Previously, authorities labelled him as one of four Malaysians who would likely become a top recruiter for the militants after the death of Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi in 2017.
In a statement Friday, the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs said Kazali had been working during the past decade in Johor Bahru, where he became acquainted with and provided financial assistance to Akel for his trip to Syria. The funding continued even after Akel had reached Syria.
As Kazali became increasingly radicalized, he saw IS fighters as righteous individuals fighting for the good of Muslims worldwide, according to the ministry.
“At Akel’s urging, he took a bai’ah (pledge of allegiance) to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was conveyed to Akel via social media,” the ministry said. “He also agreed to join Akel in Syria when invited by the latter to do so on several occasions; he did not, however, act on it as he was not ready to leave his life in Malaysia behind.”
Singapore officials said they had also detained Hazim Syahmi Mahfoot, who befriended Kazali in May 2018 and allegedly was influenced to join IS.
Fuzi said a second suspect, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi cleaner, was arrested Dec. 19 in Selangor. Police believe the suspect was recruiting individuals in Malaysia to join the IS.
“The third arrest was made on Jan.10, in Sepang, Selangor, involving two locals, both age 38,” Fuzi said. “Both suspects, who worked on a plantation in a foreign country, had been deported home from their country of employment for supporting IS in Syria.”
The police chief said one of the suspects allegedly channeled funds to another Malaysian fighting for IS in Syria.
The fifth suspect, a 21-year-old Filipino construction worker, was arrested on Jan. 19 in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah.
“The suspect is a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and had illegally entered Malaysia in March 2018,” Fuzi said, adding it brings to 39 the number of ASG members arrested since 2017.
A 26-year-old housing contractor from a South Asian country was arrested in Puchong, Selangor, on Jan. 28, according to the police official. He did not name the country.
“The suspect had provided shelter to an individual from a South Asian country, who had been listed in the Interpol’s Red Notice, for being involved in various acts of crime and terror,” Fuzi said.