A court in eastern Malaysia sentenced two Indonesians and a Malaysian on Wednesday to 10 years in prison each after convicting them on charges of planning to commit terrorist acts in the nearby southern Philippines.
The Indonesians – Faisal (who uses only one name) and Ali Misron – were sentenced along with Malaysian Nor Azmi Zahyi after they pleaded guilty before Judge Ravinthran Paramaguru at the Kota Kinabalu High Court in Sabah state.
Faisal, 24, and Nor Azmi, 49, were arrested on June 15 last year in Sandakan, a local district that provides ferry services to the southern Philippines, authorities said, adding that Ali, 36, was arrested at the Sandakan airport later in the evening on the same day.
The trio was charged under Malaysia’s tough penal code and the court could have handed each of them a 30-year prison term, prosecutors said.
Nor Azmi changed his plea on Wednesday after having pled not guilty, while the two Indonesians pleaded guilty last month.
Prosecutors said the three had communicated through Facebook to meet at a mosque in central Sandakan before planning to move to Tawi-Tawi, an island-province in the southern Philippines.
From there, the three planned to travel up north and link up with pro-IS militants who were then locked in vicious fighting with Philippine security forces in Marawi city, investigators said.
In February, Malaysian authorities said they had exposed plans by the Abu Sayyaf extremist group to set up a base in Sabah following the arrest of 10 people who had allegedly helped suspected militants travel to the group’s base in the southern Philippines.
An ASG faction led by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged IS leader in the Philippines, laid siege to Marawi for five months, engaging security forces in a battle that left 1,200 people dead, most of them militants, according to Philippine officials.
Authorities said they had uncovered the plans after multiple raids in the Malaysian state on Borneo island, from Jan. 25 to Feb. 6.
Sabah has long served as a transit route for foreign militants, including from neighboring Indonesia, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, chief of the Malaysian police’s counter-terrorist special branch, said in January.
“If they don’t transit from Sabah, they can go to the southern Philippines directly from their home country,” he said. “But it’s a long journey over the Sulawesi Sea, so it is much easier to transit from Sabah.”
Malaysian officials announced the sentencing of the three men a day after Foreign Minister Anifah Aman met U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan in Washington. The two diplomats agreed to strengthen ties in key security areas in light of a “growing threat” posed by the extremist group Islamic State (IS), U.S. State Department officials said.
“As ISIS has lost territory in Syria and Iraq, the ISIS threat has evolved because battle-hardened veterans are attempting to return to their home countries or take the fight to other regions,” including Southeast Asia, a U.S. State Department spokesman told BenarNews, referring to IS by another acronym.
Roni Toldanes in Washington contributed to this report.