KL setting up naval bases off Sabah to quell militant threat

KL setting up naval bases off Sabah to quell militant threat
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein

Malaysia will establish naval bases off the eastern coast of Sabah facing the Philippines as it seeks to quell the threat of Islamic militants in the Sulu Sea.

This announcement comes as an open declaration of support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by a leader of Abu Sayyaf - a terror group headquartered in the southern Philippines - pushed the authorities into a state of high alert.

According to Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia will spend RM430 million (S$168 million) to upgrade a naval ship and a decommissioned oil rig into forward bases along the porous sea border which is regularly breached by illegal migrants. "If we are not careful, we may end up like Syria and Iraq," he was reported as saying by The Star yesterday.

Both bases are expected to be ready by April next year to protect the Sabah coast, which was the target of an invasion by Islamic militants from the Philippines last year.

A police clampdown earlier this year saw 19 Malaysians suspected of having ISIS links arrested - seven are due to be charged in court next month - but support for militants continues to grow.

One militant, who wanted to be known only as Abu Talhah, told The Straits Times that he had successfully made his way to Syria, where dozens of Malaysians were serving under ISIS, with more planning to join them.

"When we are not fighting, we use Facebook as a medium to spread news of our jihad," he said, confirming recent reports that ISIS was using social media as a recruitment tool.

Meanwhile, a video of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon declaring the militant group's support for ISIS has caused alarm after it went viral on social media.

The clip, which is available on video-sharing platform YouTube, is believed to have been released to build support for ISIS in South-east Asia.

Kuala Lumpur has stepped up monitoring of pro-ISIS and radical websites in response, reports said.

Abu Sayyaf is believed to be responsible for several kidnappings in recent years, including a raid on Sabah's Pom Pom Island on Nov 15 last year - in which they kidnapped a Taiwanese and killed her husband - and at least three abductions this year.

The Philippine Navy has created a special task force to go after Abu Sayyaf following the surge in kidnappings.

For its part, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim guerilla group in the Philippines, has ordered its 12,000 armed fighters to hunt Abu Sayyaf bandits and other militants linked to ISIS, the group's spokesman Mohagher Iqbal said yesterday.

"We see to it... that no outside elements are coming into territories under the MILF to create trouble," he said.

He added that the MILF is also helping the authorities to track down extremists from outside the Philippines.

These include Malaysian Zulkifli Hir, also known as Marwan, one of the world's most wanted and elusive terrorists, and his Singaporean counterpart Abdullah Ali, alias Muawiyah.

This article was first published on September 23, 2014.
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