5 IS-linked Filipino Militants Killed in Sabah Shootout, Malaysian Police Say

Ken Chang
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
2021-05-18
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5 IS-linked Filipino Militants Killed in Sabah Shootout, Malaysian Police Say Sabah state Police Commissioner Hazani Ghazali (left) and other officers display weapons used by suspected Abu Sayyaf Group militants in a deadly standoff with police, May 18, 2021.
[Ken Chang/BenarNews]

Malaysian police said Tuesday that they killed five suspected members of Abu Sayyaf, a pro-Islamic State militant organization based in the southern Philippines, during a shootout in Sabah while a local cell had stepped up recruitment among undocumented immigrants.

The gunfight in Beaufort, a district in western Sabah, occurred more than a week after police arrested eight Abu Sayyaf suspects and 29 others from the same area in the Malaysian state on Borneo Island after a tip from Philippine authorities, Sabah Police Commissioner Hazani Ghazali said.

“Yesterday’s follow-up operation by the Criminal Investigation Division successfully shot dead five more Abu Sayyaf members hiding in a makeshift house in a mangrove swamp in Beaufort,” Hazani told a news conference.

The 37 people arrested on May 10, including eight women and 21 children, were still being held by police in Sabah, he said.

“We believe that from this operation we conducted in combination with the Royal Malaysia Police Sabah and intelligence from ESSCOM, we were able to cripple an Abu Sayyaf cell that was hiding in Sabah and was in allegiance with Daesh or IS [Islamic State],” Hazani said, referring to the Eastern Sabah Security Command.

The five suspects who were shot dead had evaded arrest in the other operation earlier this month, by escaping into a mangrove swamp, only to return to the same location days later, police said.

The suspects were said to have been involved in bombings and shootouts with Philippine marine security personnel at the Bud Bawis Complex in Panamao, Sulu, in 2011, 2018, 2019 and November 2020, Hazani said.

They were among militants who, according to the Philippine military, had escaped to avoid getting caught in Sulu, a nearby province made up of islands in the far-southern Philippines.

“We suspect that there are still remnants of the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] or other Daesh- affiliated groups and their sympathizers hiding in Sabah,” Hazani said.

On Monday, the suspects opened fire on police around 11:30 a.m. after hiding out, the police commissioner said.

“One of the men opened the door and started to shoot at the police officers. His accomplices also started shooting and attacking [officers] with machetes,” Hazani said.

“Police returned fire, killing the five men inside.”

According to Hazani, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other Islamic State (IS)-linked militants snuck into Sabah after a crackdown by authorities in Sulu.

“Sabah has become a safe heaven and a place to recruit members to support ASG among the illegal immigrants in Sabah,” Hazani said about thousands of Filipino migrants in the border state.

“The West Coast and inland areas [of Sabah] are now the hiding places of members of this terrorist group because in these areas it is a little peaceful compared to the East Coast, which has ESSCOM that actively runs operations [there].”

Police believe that local sympathizers are helping these militants, he said.

The dead militants include Mabar Binda, the group’s sub-leader whose elder brother Sansibar Bensio was one of those arrested in the May 10 raid. The two were wanted by Philippine authorities for their suspected involvement in gunbattles with security forces and kidnappings of foreigners, Hazani had said earlier this month.

The other slain suspects killed were ASG members Abhirham Samsula (also known as Samsed), Jurakhdam Binda (also known as Jura or Abu Jar), and Alsimar Sukarno, who is from Jolo in the southern Philippines, Hazani said.

All their identities were confirmed by Philippines security agencies, except for one of the five whose identity remains unknown, the Sabah police commissioner said.

“His identity is unknown, but we suspect he is from the same group, Abu Sayyaf,” said Hazani.

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Sabah a 'transit point' for foreign militants

Meanwhile, ESSCOM commander Ahmad Fuad Othman said surveillance operations on ASG suspects had begun in March in Silabukan, a town in Lahad Datu district.

Units from Joint Task Force Sulu had alerted their counterparts in ESSCOM, Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., the chief of the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command, told BenarNews earlier this month.

“We have cross-border sharing of information with our counterparts in the Philippines to track the [Abu Sayyaf] group’s movements,” Hazani said.

Malaysian police operations against the ASG illustrate the critical role that cross-border and inter-agency sharing of intelligence play in countering the activities of such militant groups, said Ramli Dollah, a regional security expert.

For instance, in 2017, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia launched trilateral patrols aimed at preventing acts of piracy and kidnappings at sea along their common maritime boundaries.

In January last year, Malaysian security forces launched an operation codenamed “Ops Gasak,” when they began checking immigration papers of people suspected to be working as “lookouts” for kidnap-for-ransom gangs.

One such crime involved the kidnapping of five Indonesians who were believed seized within Sabah’s territorial waters on Jan. 16, 2020, by suspected ASG members.

“Ever since the Sabah authorities intensified the implementation of ‘Ops Benteng’ to check the activities of illegal immigrants in the state especially in the east coast of Sabah, the only place these militants can hide is in the West Coast, including in remote areas in Keningau and Beaufort,” Ramli told BenarNews.

Malaysia started the operation codenamed “Ops Benteng” in May 2020 to ensure that border security was strengthened as part of efforts to contain COVID-19.

Sabah has long been a transit point for foreign militants from Indonesia heading to conflict zones in the volatile southern Philippines, Ramli said.

“It is not a new issue. Even during the existence of Jemaah Islamiyah and Darul Islam in the early 2000s, for example, Sabah had indeed become the main route and transit point between Indonesia and Southern Philippines,” said Ramli, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Heritage at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

“Similarly, during the conflicts in Ambon, Poso, Sambas and Maluku in Indonesia, Sabah continued to be a transit point for such groups.”

Nisha David contributed to this report from Kuala Lumpur.

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