Malaysian police said Monday they exposed a new Islamic State (IS) extremist cell that planned to use the eastern state of Sabah as a transit point for sending IS members to the Philippines.
The nation’s police chief, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said officers from his department discovered the cell after arresting four people – a Filipino man, two Bangladeshi men and a Malaysian woman – during counter-terror raids in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 13 and 19. All of the suspects are being held under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act 2012.
The cell received orders from a former lecturer at Malaya University who allegedly became a militant in the southern Philippines, Mahmud Ahmad, and Isnilon Hapilon, a former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group who leads IS Philippines, the Islamic State’s affiliate in that country, Khalid said in a statement.
“With these arrests, the special branch crippled a new Daesh terror cell that planned to make Sabah a transit point for terrorists from Southeast Asia and South Asia to infiltrate into Philippines to join a terrorist group under the leadership of Mahmud and Isnilon,” he said, using another term for IS.
“Aside from Mahmud, two more Malaysians, Darul Islam Sabah member Amin Bacho and Joraimee Awang joined the cell which has a base in Marawi City, Mindanao,” Khalid said in a press statement that did not include the names of the four suspects arrested since Jan. 13.
Isnilon leads al Harakat ul Islamiyah Basilan, one of three southern Philippine militant groups that have pledged allegiance to IS and make up IS Philippines, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a BenarNews contributor who directs the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Mahmud, a former lecturer in the university’s Islamic Studies faculty, joined IS militants in Southern Philippines in January 2014, The Malay Mail Online reported.
While not naming those captured since Jan. 13, Khalid described the first suspect, the cell’s chief recruiter, as a 31-year-old Filipino watch seller who was arrested in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
“The suspect who has pledged allegiance to Mahmud was instructed to recruit and organize new Daesh members from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and ethnic Rohingya to enter Southern Philippines to join the terror group in Marawi City, Mindanao,” he said.
The second suspect, Khalid said, is a 27-year-old Malaysian woman from Selangor who was recruited by the first suspect through social media in early January. Khalid said she was arrested along with the first suspect in Kota Kinabalu after taking a flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Jan. 13.
“They were planning to fly to Sandakan before traveling to Southern Philippines,” he said, adding that the woman said she was planning to marry her recruiter.
The two remaining suspects are Bangladeshi men, age 27 and 28. The salesmen were arrested in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 19, Khalid said.
“Both men have been recruited by the first suspect and planned to join the group led by Mahmud in Southern Philippines,” he said. “They have connections to IS cells in Bangladesh as well.”
Since 2013, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 260 IS suspects, of those 66 have since been freed, according to recent government figures.