ZAMBOANGA CITY – Malaysia said Sabah is being used by ISIS militants in crossing into the Philippines to establish bases and wage terrorism there.
Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun was quoted by Malay Mail on Thursday as saying that militants are looking for new bases to operate from because of attacks by allied forces on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq.
He said Sandakan City and Tawau town in Sabah are being used by militants to enter conflict zones in Southern Philippines and also in Rakhine Myanmar.
“We are aware that in Southeast Asia, Tawau and Sandakan are being used as transit points by militants to enter Southern Philippines and Myanmar. That is for South-east Asia. In European countries, we know they are looking at Balkan states such as Bosnia and a few other nations,” he said, adding that this was from intelligence gathering and the exchange of information with police agencies worldwide.
Harun said the police are closely monitoring the matter and arrests from time to time had been made to keep militants in check. “We are also monitoring social media to check the spread of Islamic State ideology,” he said.
The report also quoted Harun as saying that the number of ISIS militants are on the decline due to allied campaign. “At one time, there were some 45,000 fighters but now, we have been informed the numbers have dropped to 35,000,” he said.
In March, Malay Mail reported that the police arrested 9 people with suspected links to an African-based terror group behind alleged plans to launch large-scale attacks in several countries. It said two of the suspects, an Egyptian and a Tunisian national, are believed to be fighters with the Ansar Al-Shariah Al-Tunisia, which is part of the al-Qaeda terror network operating in North Africa.
The two, aged 21 and 22, came to Malaysia as a transit point with the help of 7 others, five of them Egyptian nationals and two Malaysians, who provided lodgings and paid for other expenses including plane tickets to the country.
Harun’s statement coincided with President Rodrigo Duterte’s warning that ISIS and Abu Sayyaf militants may be targeting Zamboanga and told foreigners to stay away from there.
Citing a credible intelligence report, Duterte, addressing participants in the 7th Union Asia Pacific Regional Conference in Pasay City, said: “There’s a certain place which I would not recommend to anybody to go there, not just as yet, is Zamboanga. Some Europeans go there for the bird watching and they are captured and eventually they are decapitated even after the payment of ransom.”
“It is the ISIS actually. It used to be the Abu Sayyaf. Now it’s an Abu Sayyaf territory. They do nothing but to kill and destroy,” he added.
But Duterte may have confused Zamboanga City to Tawi-Tawi province when he said that some Europeans birdwatchers were kidnapped and eventually decapitated by militants.
There had been no kidnappings of foreign birdwatchers in Zamboanga City but in February 2012, Abu Sayyaf militants under Hajan Sawadjaan and suspected Moro National Liberation Front members kidnapped two European wildlife photographers Lorenzo Vinciguerra, from Switzerland; and Ewold Horn, 54, from Holland, in the coastal village of Parangan in Panglima Sugala town in Tawi-Tawi.
Vinciguerra had escaped from his guards and recovered by soldiers in December 2014 after he allegedly killed one of his guards – Juhurim Hussien – with a bolo. The fate of Horn is still unknown.
Philippine authorities blamed the Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in the twin suicide bombings of a Catholic cathedral in Jolo town in Sulu province early this year. The attacks, carried out by an Indonesian couple, had killed and injured dozens of people, mostly soldiers guarding the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on January 27.
The attacks on the church occurred 2 years after hundreds of Abu Sayyaf and pro-ISIS militants and civilian supporters took over Marawi City in Lanao del Sur province. The city was recovered by troops after 5 months of house-to-house and close-quarter battle that killed and wounded hundreds of soldiers, militants and innocent civilians trapped in Marawi.
Duterte’s warning came after ISIS suicide bombers struck churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed over 300 people on Easter Sunday.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said security is tight in the city and assured locals that police and military forces are in heightened alert. “We heightened the security in the city of Zamboanga and we continue to maintain a heightened level of alert as a pre-emptive measure following the Sri Lanka bombings,” she said.
Police said it is maintaining a high level of alert in Zamboanga, especially in places of worships, according to its spokesperson, Captain Shellamae Chang. (The Zamboanga Post)
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