Malaysia’s police chief on Friday announced the arrests in Sabah state of two Indonesians and a Malaysian suspected of planning to cross over by sea to join Islamic State-linked fighters battling military forces in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
Counter-terrorism officials, who are on heightened alert against possible militant attacks, arrested the three men a day earlier in Sandakan, a coastal town in the eastern state, where there are ferry services to the nearby Southern Philippines, Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar said.
“We believe the three were trying to gain safe passage to Marawi city in the southern Philippines,” Khalid told reporters in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The suspects, whose names Khalid did not disclose, were taken into custody under Malaysia’s Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act of 2012, he said.
During their arrests in Sabah, counter-terrorism officials seized three “Rambo” fighting knives from the suspects, the police chief said.
“They wanted to use the weapons on police if they got arrested. Luckily, they failed to use them,” Khalid said.
The arrests occurred during business hours near a mosque in Sandakan, bringing the town’s downtown area to a standstill as residents filmed the police operation on their mobile phones.
“Glad that police are proactive and able to take action before any bad incident happens,” Chan Tzun Hei, a community development officer in Sandakan, told BenarNews.
Earlier this year, in announcing the arrests in Sabah of a Filipino, two Bangladeshis and a Malaysian woman as suspected members of local IS cell, police chief Khalid warned that Islamic State planned to use Sabah territory as a transit point for sending its fighters to the southern Philippines.
The announcement of Thursday’s arrests came a week after Malaysia’s defense minister proposed a special meeting with his counterparts from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to discuss what he described as a threat to all five countries by the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made the remarks as he visited Cotabato City, which is located on Mindanao island where battles between IS-linked militants and Philippine military forces have raged for more than three weeks in Marawi city. The militants in Marawi have been backed by fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and other regions, Philippine officials said.
The fighting, which broke out on May 23, has alarmed governments across Southeast Asia, with officials expressing fears that the ultra-radical IS might set up a stronghold in Mindanao, potentially threatening the region.
Foreign fighters have entered Mindanao and linked up with local extremists by using “back channels” in the Sulu and Celebes seas near the boarders of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, according to Philippine officials.
Third Indonesian picked up
Khalid also said that, in a separate incident on Monday, counter-terrorism officials foiled an attempted attack against authorities by arresting another Indonesian man at the Slim River in the state of Perak, about 100 km (62.5 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur.
“The suspect who came in on a valid travel pass had wanted to launch an attack against Royal Malaysian Police members,” Khalid told reporters, declining to provide details.
He said the four suspects had odd jobs and were aged between 30 and 48.
Since 2013, Malaysian authorities have arrested 310 people suspected of having IS links, of whom 66 have since been freed, according to government figures compiled by BenarNews.
Authorities remain vigilant in their efforts to hunt down other IS militants and sympathizers, Khalid said.
“The police will continue to intensify operations against terror elements,” he said.
Southeast Asia Games
Khalid said authorities were also on heightened alert, bracing themselves for possible terror threats during the 29th Southeast Asian Games, a multi-sport event involving 11 countries. It is scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur, from Aug. 19 to 31.
“We are not just talking about threats from Daesh, but also any form of threats from any entities that may jeopardize our nation and [the] SEA Games,” he said, using another name for IS.
Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia contributed to this report.