The Indonesian couple who killed 23 people in suicide bombings in the southern Philippines in January travelled there with the help of two Indonesian nationals based in Sabah, Malaysia, police said Monday.
The Jan. 27 twin bombings at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, were among the worst acts of terror in the Philippines in years. The attacks, which injured more than 100, took almost a year of planning, Philippine authorities say.
They allege that the bombings were planned by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who took over as IS leader in the Philippines after Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the battle of Marawi nearly two years ago.
In July, Indonesian National Police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo identified the suicide bombers as Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, a married couple deported from Turkey in 2017 after they allegedly tried to cross its border to enter IS-controlled territory in Syria.
Malaysian authorities declined to specify when Rullie and Ulfah entered Malaysia, but said the couple hatched their plans within a month of getting to know suspected extremists Mohd Ali Suhari, 21, and Marwan Harun, 25, both Indonesians based in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
“With the help of Ali and Marwan, Rullie and Ulfah took a boat ride to Sabah and from the east coast city of Semporna, they took a speedboat to the southern Philippine and later to Jolo,” Malaysia’s counter-terror chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told BenarNews.
The Indonesian couple became acquainted with Ali and Marwan through their son-in-law, Andi Baso, (alias Zikri or Radit), who travelled with them to the Philippines and is believed to be there still, Ayob told BenarNews.
The two other men, who had been living in Malaysia for years without proper immigration documents, were both arrested – Ali on May 26 and Marwan on July 10, Ayob said.
They face charges of providing assistance to suspected militants trying to enter the southern Philippines via Sabah. They were also believed to be responsible for tracking the movement of funds for IS-linked groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, he said.
Ayob noted that Malaysian authorities had previously crippled militant cells that used Sabah as a transit point to penetrate the southern Philippines.
The Malaysian counter terror unit was working with counterparts in Indonesia and the Philippines to tackle terror activities that affect the region, Ayob said.
“It is not easy as we have a porous border to deal with,” he said.
Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington and an expert in Southeast Asian security issues, said Sabah has become an important transit hub for foreign militants trying to get into the southern Philippines after IS’s military defeat in Syria and Iraq.
“Additionally, some of the most important terrorist cells arrested in Malaysia have been in Sabah,” Abuza said in an analysis published recently in The Maritime Executive. “All of this points to the fact that Sabah is not only the crux of Malaysia security, but regional security as well.”