Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have agreed to team up to counter a regional threat posed by Islamic State, the deputy Malaysian prime minister said Thursday amid reports that the eastern state of Sabah is a hub for IS activities.
Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi discussed the trilateral efforts after meeting in Putrajaya with outgoing Indonesian Ambassador Herman Prayitno.
“We will work together to hunt down terrorists and stop the IS ideology in the region,” Zahid said, according to the New Straits Times. “In terms of enforcement operations, we will no longer work individually, but will collaborate for this purpose.”
He said the leaders of the three countries – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – had all agreed to build trilateral cooperation against IS.
Speaking to reporters during his meeting with the ambassador, Zahid praised the neighboring country for cooperation in combating IS.
“We have discussed with them formally and informally, especially Indonesia. Indonesia is especially concerned about the involvement of a few Indonesian individuals in Daesh activities. Indonesia has also introduced very strict laws similar to what we have here,” he said in televised comments, referring to IS by a different name.
He also lauded Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for strengthening operations against terrorism.
The three countries share concerns about IS in the southern Philippines, where IS-linked militant groups are battling government forces. Apart from a series of maritime kidnappings of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors, carried out by Abu Sayyaf Group militants in the area, the IS-related security concerns appear to have now spread to the nearby Malaysian state of Sabah, on Borneo island.
This week, Malaysia’s police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said Sabah should be considered a hub for IS activities, pointing to its role as part of a triangle involving the three nations. The triangle involving Sabah, Indonesian and the southern Philippines allows IS to carry out its activities, including human trafficking, he said.
“We are always placing our antenna there to monitor their activities,” he said on Star TV.
On Monday, Khalid’s department announced it had uncovered a new IS cell and arrested four of its members – a Malaysian, a Filipino and two Bangladeshis – who allegedly planned to use Sabah as a transit point for sending IS fighters to the southern Philippines. They had received orders from two IS-linked militants based in the neighboring country, Khalid alleged.
Ramli Din, the commissioner of police for Sabah, said officers were monitoring several locations around the state for IS-related activity.
“We have identified several of locations in Sabah that are being used by the militants as a transit point before gaining access into the southern Philippines,” he said, according to the New Straits Times, but added that he could not disclose the locations for security reasons.
But Malaysia’s defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, disputed the claims made by police officials that Sabah serves as a staging ground for Islamic State activities.
“It’s not true. I don’t think Tawau is a transit center for Daesh,” the minister said as quoted in Berita Harian, a Malaysian news outlet, referring to a town on Sabah’s east coast.
“This is now a borderless world and when there are no borders, we do not require any transit point,” Hishammuddin added.
Representatives of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines met several times last year to establish a framework for maritime security cooperation, including joint patrols in their shared waters in the wake of kidnappings linked to Abu Sayyaf, which has aligned itself with IS.
Despite those meetings, joint patrols have not begun.
“I really hope we can do it in the near future,” Indonesian Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Wuryanto told BenarNews in November. “We feel a bit disgraced now [because] the kidnappings keep going on and on.”
Philippine President Duterte, who took office in June, announced that Malaysian and Indonesian security forces could pursue kidnappers into Philippine waters to rescue hostages.
On Jan. 16, Duterte told businessmen in Davao City that he had instructed the Navy and Coast Guard to bomb kidnappers who were trying to escape, referring to their hostages as “collateral damage,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.