Malaysian authorities have arrested at least 10 people in the eastern state of Sabah suspected of leaking information about regional security operations to Abu Sayyaf militants and other criminals based in the nearby southern Philippines, Malaysia’s police chief said Friday.
The suspects who were arrested Thursday night are believed to have passed on classified information to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other armed groups that have carried out multiple kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors in local seas in recent months, Malaysian media quoted Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar as saying.
The suspects were caught through a joint operation that was still underway on Friday by Sabah police and personnel from a regional military base, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), according to Khalid.
“Those arrested were civilians, residents of Sabah and individuals from the southern Philippines,” he said.
He did not rule out the possibility that some Malaysian security personnel could have played a role in passing on sensitive information about ESSCOM operations to Abu Sayyaf and other criminal gangs, according to reports.
“I am not denying it. There is a possibility,” Khalid told a news conference at Royal Malaysia Police headquarters.
The Filipinos who had entered Sabah without proper papers could be charged for flouting Malaysia’s immigration laws, he added. All of the suspects who have been arrested could be charged with violating the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act of 2012 (SOSMA) for allegedly passing on sensitive information, Khalid said.
On Sept. 28, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said a leak might exist where classified information about ESSCOM activities had been passed on to enemies of the state, the New Straits Times reported that day.
“I am not accusing anyone but it is not impossible for information to be passed to our enemies,” the Malaysian news outlet quoted Zahid as saying.
“They [enemies] are also aware of the assets required by [ESSCOM] and its related enforcement agencies may not be complete, thus the strengths and weaknesses are well-known,” Zahid said, according to NST.
Sabah’s eastern coastline, where ESSCOM is based, lies close to the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines and a region of the neighboring country where six Malaysian sailors and two Indonesian sailors remain in the custody of Abu Sayyaf or other southern Philippine militant groups that have taken people hostage and held them for ransom.
ESSCOM, the regional security command, was created in the aftermath of an incursion in February 2013 by 200 fighters who crossed into Sabah and identified themselves as the Royal Army of Sulu and followers of a self-proclaimed sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, who has since died. Seventy-two people were killed in fighting that broke out between Malaysian security forces and the armed intruders.
This week’s joint crackdown by state police and ESSCOM also took place amid a stepped-up military offensive launched by the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has vowed to crack down against Abu Sayyaf in the country’s far south.
Last month, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced that the government intended to boost security in eastern Sabah to ward off potential threats posed by the Middle East-based extremist group that calls itself Islamic State (IS) as well as by Abu Sayyaf and other southern Philippine militant groups.
ASG, a loose network of militant groups that pledged allegiance to IS, has collected millions of dollars from kidnappings in recent years, according to online reports.
This year alone, Abu Sayyaf has collected at least 354.1 Philippine million pesos (U.S. $7.3 million) in 2016 from ransoms paid for hostages, Philippine-based news website Rappler.com reported.
ASG has beheaded at least three men in the last year when ransom demands were not met. Two Canadians were executed in April and June and a Malaysian man, Bernard Then, was executed in November 2015.
Meanwhile, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have held a series of meetings aimed at improving security for sailors in the region. The neighbors have discussed the need for joint maritime patrols to halt kidnappings by ASG and other groups in the Sulu and Celebes seas that separate the countries, but have not yet launched those patrols.