Four Filipinos who fought alongside the Maute brothers in the southern Philippine city of Marawi in 2017 were among 13 suspected militants arrested in Malaysian Borneo last week, Malaysia’s police chief said Monday.
The national police’s counter terrorist unit also arrested suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Royal Sulu Force (RSF) in a two-day operation in Sabah state’s Semporna and Tambunan districts that ended on March 12, Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement.
“We detained 12 Filipinos and a local in the operation. Those arrested were believed to be either part of ASG, RSF or the Maute terror group and there were also those who were arrested for providing shelter to foreign terrorists hiding in Sabah,” Fuzi said.
Sabah has become a hiding place for suspected militants from the nearby southern Philippines, a police source who requested anonymity told BenarNews.
“At the moment there is no information that the group members are hiding in the peninsula, but there could be some. Sabah is their favorite location because it is close to the southern Philippines,” the source said.
“They have relatives here who can help them. The influx of migrants from the southern Philippines in Sabah is also a plus point for them. They lead a low-profile life there,” the source added.
The first arrests, on March 11, involved five Filipinos and a local man between the ages of 40 and 60 in Semporna, according to Fuzi.
“Four of the suspects are believed to have been involved in the Maute insurgency in the town of Marawi in the Philippines, in 2017. They were also involved in providing protection to Maute insurgents and other Middle-Eastern citizens hiding out in Sabah,” Fuzi said.
“As for the two other suspects, they are suspected members of the RSF, the group involved in Sabah’s Lahad Datu and Semporna incursions in 2013,” he said.
In February 2013, a band of about 200 armed men arrived in a flotilla of rickety boats from the nearby Sulu islands in the southern Philippines and occupied part of Sabah’s coastline for several weeks. Previous court documents showed that the band of 200 allegedly belonged to the RSF and had identified themselves as followers of the late Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed sultan of Sulu.
Seventy-two people, including 56 Sulu gunmen, 10 members of the Malaysian security forces and six civilians were killed in gunfights that spread over several weeks. The fighting ended when the remaining militants fled and returned to the Philippines.
Fuzi said the two suspects arrested last week had allegedly recruited new RSF members by selling membership cards to Filipinos residing in Sabah.
“Both the suspects fled to southern Philippines after the RSF’s defeat (following the Lahad Datu incursion). However, they slipped into Semporna again in November 2018 to reactivate the RSF’s activities in the state,” Fuzi said.
The RSF members said their goal was to gain control of East Sabah, according to the anonymous police source. In addition, the Malaysian suspect had allegedly provided shelter to the Maute insurgents, the source said.
Slipped into Sabah from Philippines
A second round-up on March 11 led to the arrest of five men and a woman – all Filipinos between the ages of 23 and 63, according to Fuzi, who said one of the suspects worked at a construction site and was an ASG member suspected of involvement in the Marawi battle.
The five-month Marawi battle ended in October 2017.
“The suspect slipped into Sabah in December last year, together with other members of the group, to escape from an operation by the Philippines military. The five others picked up had provided shelter to members of the ASG and the Maute group, who are still at large,” Fuzi said.
A 39-year-old Filipino construction worker who gave shelter to ASG and Maute group members was arrested March 12, according to Fuzi.
Police said the arrests followed six months of surveillance.
Since the beginning of the year, Malaysian police said they had arrested 26 terror suspects – 13 Filipinos, six Egyptians, five Malaysians, one Pakistani and one Tunisian.
Fuzi said police were confident they could trace and track the remaining ASG and Maute group members hiding in Malaysia.
He said police had also arrested 10 Filipinos who had no valid travel documents, and turned them over to the Immigration Department.