The counter-terrorist special branch recently arrested eight suspects including a man who allegedly recruited children in the Philippines to join Abu Sayyaf, a pro-Islamic State (IS) militant group that operates in the country next-door, Malaysia’s police chief said Friday.
Only one of the eight in custody is a Malaysian while six of the foreigners were identified as Abu Sayyaf members, according to police. None of the suspects were named in a statement released by police.
A 35-year-old Filipino suspect and his 46-year-old accomplice were captured together in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah and were active Abu Sayyaf members, Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun said.
“These two men from the Southern Philippines were detained Nov. 8. The suspect worked as a laborer while his accomplice was a technician,” Fuzi said in the statement. “The 35-year-old was a child recruiter and an active Abu Sayyaf member. He helped find children and trained them to carry arms.
“In battles between the Abu Sayyaf and Philippines army, he turned the children into human shields,” Fuzi added.
Philippine officials could not be reached to confirm the Malaysian police chief’s allegation.
Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, who heads the Malaysian police’s counter-terrorist special branch, said he had no information about children.
“The number of children recruited is unclear because it happened in the Philippines,” he said.
“We are gathering as much information as we can,” he said, adding that police were in the early stage of their investigation.
Last year, Philippine media reported that militants recruited children to join a five-month siege of the southern city of Marawi that ended in October 2017 when military forces reclaimed it and drove out pro-IS militants. The militants had taken control of Marawi in May 2017 and kidnapped some children to slow troop advances against them, according to Philippine media.
The battle, which killed more than 1,200 people – mostly militants, according to the Philippine military – ended following the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf senior commander and the acknowledged leader of IS forces in the Philippines, as well as other pro-Islamic State leaders.
‘They assimilated well’
A source, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the two suspects were arrested before they could carry out their plan to travel 100 miles (160 km) to Sandakan, a town in Sabah, before fleeing to the nearby southern Philippines.
Initial information received through intelligence reports showed that the 35-year-old, while in Sabah, had recruited seven people between the ages of 18 and 25 to join Abu Sayyaf, the source told BenarNews.
“Seven that we know so far, but we believe there were more,” the source said.
The source said the suspect and his accomplice would approach people they worked with to recruit for Abu Sayyaf.
“No one would suspect that these people were involved in terror activities as they assimilated well with the community. They kept a low profile to avoid unwanted attention,” the source said.
Fuzi identified the Malaysian arrested as a gold trader who was captured at the nation’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, at the end of October.
The 30-year-old had allegedly transferred funds to Malaysian IS terrorist Akel Zainal to finance his activities, police said.
Fuzi said one suspect, a Filipino who was arrested on Nov. 10, allegedly served as a top aide to an Abu Sayyaf leader in Basilan, a province on the main southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
“Our investigation revealed that the man we picked up was a commander of the militant group led by Furuji Indama,” Fuzi said.
Police arrested three Filipinos in Sabah on Nov. 1, according to Fuzi, who added that all were suspected members of Abu Sayyaf.
He said all three were involved in kidnap for ransom from islands surrounding Sabah. One of the suspects was identified as a skilled firearms maker for the Abu Sayyaf militants.
The eighth suspect, who was arrested in Sabah on Nov. 12, was identified as a 60-year-old Filipino who worked as a night market trader. He allegedly provided a hideout for a terror suspect, according to the statement.
All eight are being held under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012.
Ayob said the situation in Sabah was safe.
“Everything is under control. There is no need to panic despite the many arrests in Sabah. It shows that our intelligence operatives are doing their work to ensure no unwanted incidents,” he told BenarNews.
“There is no reason to be panic over the numbers of arrests. Just like many operations in the [Malaysian Peninsula], the police are looking to stop these terror activities from happening,” Ayob said.
Despite his assurance, Ayob said he could not disclose more information about the foreign suspects.
“I have limited information for now because it is still early in investigation,” he said.