Malaysia-Philippine Frontier: Sabah Tightens Borders After Terror Attack in Jolo

Amy Chew
Kuala Lumpur
200826-PH-Jolo-attack-1000.JPG Filipino soldiers are pictured on the site of an explosion in Jolo Island, Sulu province, Philippines, Aug. 24, 2020.

Sabah is tightening its borders to prevent Abu Sayyaf Group militants from entering its territory in search of “safe haven” after this week’s twin suicide bombings in the nearby southern Philippines, the police chief in the Malaysian Borneo state told BenarNews.

At least 15 people were killed and more than 75 injured in the two explosions on Jolo Island that were carried out Monday by two widows of members of ASG, a pro-Islamic State extremist group, the Philippine military said Wednesday.

In an interview, State Police Commissioner Hazani Ghazali said “we have tightened up our borders, deployed our assets after the bombings.”

“We don’t want militant suspects to come over here to make Sabah their safe haven,” he told BenarNews, adding, “We are on the alert.”

According to security experts in the Philippines, at least three more female bombers are at-large in the restive southern region – including two daughters of an Indonesian woman who was involved in a suicide bombing at a church in Jolo last year – and the two women who carried out Monday’s attacks were each paid at least 3 million Philippine pesos (U.S. $61,750) ahead of the twin bombings.

Jolo town, where the attacks took place, is the capital of the island province of Sulu, which lies close to Sabah’s eastern coast. In the past, ASG members have fled to Sabah from the Sulu Islands to lie low during times when the Philippine military has conducted clearing operations against the militants.

In 2017, Malaysian police said they had foiled a plan by Abu Sayyaf to attack the closing ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur. From 2013 to September 2018, a total of 27 Abu Sayyaf members were arrested by police in Malaysia.

Hazani Ghazali, now the police chief of Sabah state, is pictured in 2018 when he served as head of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). [Handout photo from ESSCOM]
Hazani Ghazali, now the police chief of Sabah state, is pictured in 2018 when he served as head of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). [Handout photo from ESSCOM]

On the Philippine side of the border with Sabah, which is separated by the Sulu and Celebes seas, the military said it was hunting for other suspects linked to Monday’s attacks. They said the attacks were planned by Mundi Sawadjaan, an ASG operative and bomb maker who is believed to be the nephew of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the commander of the IS branch in the Philippines.

It is believed that at least three other female suicide bombers are roaming in the southern Philippines, according to Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a local think-tank.

“[They are] two Indonesians, daughters of the Jolo Cathedral bombers, and one Egyptian, the daughter of a female Egyptian bomber who died in September 2019,” Banlaoi told BenarNews.

In January 2019, an Indonesian couple, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, blew themselves up at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral, killing 23 people.

The couple were members of Indonesia’s IS affiliate, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), according to security analysts in that country. Philippine officials have said the married couple carried out the twin bombings under orders from Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan.

In Jakarta, a senior Indonesian counter-terrorism source confirmed that at least one of the couple’s three children was still in the Philippines.

“[T]he daughter of Rullie, is married … [and] is still in Philippines,” the source told BenarNews. He gave no other details.

ASG’s use of female suicide bombers is a major shift in the group’s tactics because women and girls come under less scrutiny than men, said Mimi Fabe, professor of financial terrorism and transnational organized crime at the Philippine National Police College.

Before the 2019 church bombings in Jolo, all the suicide bombers in such attacks carried out in the Philippines were male.

“The [latest] Jolo bombing was a strategy of the ASG to encourage more female suicide bombers among the locals … Because it gives a more chilling effect to our troops,” Fabe told BenarNews.

“[Also] the Muslim women do not undergo body searches, unlike the men,” she added.

Once a rare occurrence, there have been five suicide bombings since July 2018, including the latest blasts.

The two female suicide bombers in Jolo were each paid an estimated “3 million to 5 million pesos [$61,750 to 102,900],” money which is believed to have come from foreign sources, Fabe said.

“The money went to their families. In operations like this, the money is paid prior to the mission,” said Fabe, adding there was a need to look into the terrorism financing aspect of the latest terrorist attack.

“I expect more bombings since the ASG receives funding from abroad. Unless we disrupt the terrorism funding, more female volunteers will step forward as female suicide bombers,” she added.

According to Fabe, the two female suicide bombers were believed to have been “trained” by an Indonesian foreign fighter.

“There is a clear effort on the part of the funders and the terrorists to incite their women to engage in violent attacks,” Fabe said.

Sabah: Kidnappings, illegal entry

Meanwhile, Sabah has deployed assets from the navy, military, police, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) to beef up security along the state’s east coast, where abductions by kidnap-for-ransom groups, working in concert with Abu Sayyaf, have taken place sporadically.

“So far so good, we have no incidents,” said Hazani, who took over on Aug. 12 as police chief in Sabah after serving as commander of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), the agency that oversees security along the eastern Sabah coastline,

Hazani said at least one kidnap-for-ransom group had been eliminated this year and there were an estimated five groups still in operation.

ESSCOM, through its intelligence unit, was tracking down boat skippers who collude with illegals to enter waters of the Eastern Sabah Security Zone, according to a report by Bernama, the state-run news agency.

Its Public Action Division director, Terry Henry said the move was aimed at breaking the chain involving the entry of illegal immigrants into Sabah.

“This is towards ensuring our country, especially Sabah, is free of illegals,” Bernama quoted him as saying at the merdeka @ Kalabakan district community program organized by ESSCOM and the Tawau Information Department on Tuesday.

“Those found colluding with illegals and trying to harbor them could be jailed for up to five years or fined RM10,000 [U.S. $23,980] or both, if convicted,” he said.


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