Updated at 5:01 p.m. ET on 2018-02-21
Malaysia’s police chief has exposed plans by the ruthless Abu Sayyaf militant group to set up a base in the east Malaysian Sabah state following the arrest of 10 people who allegedly helped suspected terrorists travel to the group’s base in the southern Philippines.
Authorities uncovered the plans after multiple raids in the eastern Borneo state of Sabah from Jan. 25 to Feb. 6, Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement.
“Initial investigation from the 10 suspects arrested in Sabah showed there were attempts by ASG to set up a cell in Sabah,” Fuzi Harun said.
Officials arrested two Malaysians and three Filipinos during the first set of counter-terrorism raids on Jan. 25 and 26 in the coastal town of Sandakan, Sabah, Fuzi said.
“One of the suspects, a 39-year-old Filipino, had pledged loyalty to a senior leader of a terror group in the southern Philippines in 2000,” he said.
Fuzi declined to identify the Filipino, but said the suspect allegedly communicated with a senior leader of a pro-Islamic State (IS) group in the southern Philippines.
The suspect, Fuzi said, received instructions to assist several IS members in traveling to the southern Philippine province of Zamboanga, where they were expected to join a militant group.
Fuzi did not identify the nationalities of the IS members and it was not clear if they successfully reached their destination. Investigators believe the four other suspects were involved in the travel arrangements as well.
The safe passage would allow IS to bring in fighters from Southeast Asia to the southern Philippines for combat training, Fuzi said.
“The same terror cell could be used to launch attacks in Sabah in the future,” he said.
Fuzi did not provide more details on the suspects, but said they were between the ages of 33 and 50 and two of them worked as laborers while one was a boat skipper. One was unemployed and the rest illegally worked in foreign currency trading.
Counter-terror police also arrested three Filipinos and a Malaysian woman in Sabah’s Penampang district on Feb. 4, Fuzi said.
He said the suspects were mostly gardeners, but one of them was a 27-year-old man believed to be a trusted aide of a leader of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) based in Basilan in the southern Philippines, where Islamic militants have been operating for decades.
In another recent follow-up raid in Sandakan, Fuzi said authorities arrested a 49-year-old cab driver, a Filipino with a Malaysian permanent resident status. The cab driver and the other nine suspects were detained under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) (SOSMA) Act 2012.
Under SOSMA, Malaysian authorities can hold suspects up to 28 days without trial. The law replaced the Internal Security Act, which allowed for detention of up to two years without requiring authorities to present the suspect in court.
The arrests bring to 382 the number of people detained by Malaysian authorities on suspicion of links with terror groups during the past four years, according to a BenarNews tally.
Transit route for militants
Last month, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, chief of the national police’s counter-terrorist special branch, said Sabah has long served as a transit route for foreign militants, including from neighboring Indonesia.
“If they don’t transit from Sabah, they can go to southern Philippines directly from their home country. But it’s a long journey over the Sulawesi Sea,” he said. “So it is much easier to transit from Sabah.”
The coastal town of Sandakan provides ferry services to the southern Philippines, where ASG militants operate in remote villages. ASG is notorious for kidnappings, bombings and random attacks in the southern Philippines.