Police forces from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei will work with Interpol to catch foreign militants trying to infiltrate their common borders, when they launch a two-week joint operation Wednesday, officials said.
The nations will use a database of 75 million people, including suspected terrorists, provided by the France-based International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).
“Asia, like every region in the world, has been and continues to be a target of terrorists,” Harald Arm, Interpol’s director of operational support and analysis, told reporters Tuesday during a media event in Sandakan, Malaysia, kicking off Operation Maharlika.
“Maharlika” means “free man” in ancient Filipino.
All four nations share territory on Borneo island, which lies close to the southern Philippines where fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) were locked in a five-month battle with government forces in the city of Marawi until last week. More than 1,200 people were killed since fighting broke out on May 23.
“Operations such as Maharlika are one of the ways in which Interpol works for member countries to help them secure their borders and prevent the movement of terrorists and materials that could be used in attacks,” he said.
The operation would be crucial in streamlining efforts among member countries, Arm added.
“Interpol database contains 75 million records and, in 2016, some 3 billion checks were made,” Arm said. “Today, Interpol database is being checked 200 times per second.”
He said access to the Interpol database would allow the participating nations to obtain information on terrorism activities in the region.
More than 1,200 people were killed in the fighting in Marawi. The battle broke out when Philippine forces moved to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who was also the declared chief of the IS branch in Southeast Asia.
He and his fighters were backed by foreign militants, including citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia, the Philippine military said. Hapilon was killed during the last days of fighting, as was Mahmud Ahmad, a top Malaysian militant leader and former university professor.
The fighting, which included daily bombing runs by the military, devastated the scenic lakeside city of 200,000 people.
Gadgetry and databases
During Maharlika, the four national police forces will carry out operations within their respective territories with training and equipment support from Interpol, said Zulkifli Abdullah, who directs the Malaysian police’s Internal Security and Public Order division.
The effort aims to prevent foreign militants from moving within the region, he said.
Interpol will provide equipment that contains data on individuals, allowing law-enforcement officials to check a person’s criminal record on the spot, he said.
“We will know whether the person is wanted in the country or elsewhere,” Zulkifli said.
The operation, Zulkifli said, is to cover airports, sea and land borders. Results are to be discussed during a meeting of government representatives at the end of the year.
“We can’t talk in specifics about how the operation is going to work. We can’t disclose our operation,” Zulkifli told reporters.
Zulkifli said the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) would be the main focus of the operation in Malaysia.
“If the operation is successful, we will review it and may continue it in the future. If there’s a cross-border entry of foreign terrorists, we will share the information in real time,” he added.
Earlier this month, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines launched the Trilateral Air Patrol (TAP), to bolster a similar maritime effort that aims to rid their shared borders of threats from IS-linked extremists.
“No country is safe from the clutches of Islamic State. But today we have sent a signal that if you touch any one of us, we will face you head-on together,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters during the TAP’s launch in Subang, Malaysia.