Sabah cross-border kidnappings: Agency grapples with security role

Sabah cross-border kidnappings: Agency grapples with security role
In full gear: Esscom security forces patrolling at Pulau Abal in Lahad Datu.

LAHAD DATU - The Eastern Sabah Security Command or Esscom was seen as a "solve all" to never-ending threats from Filipino gunmen operating in southern Philippines.

Set up in the aftermath of the bloody Sulu intrusion of Lahad Datu last year, many Sabahans hoped that Esscom would end cross-border crime in the east coast of the state. Their hopes, however, soon turned into disillusionment.

Four high-profile kidnappings of Malaysian, Chinese and Taiwanese nationals in seven months brought out the daggers from both sides of the political divide against the fledgling Esscom under director-general Datuk Mohammad Mentek.

The blame game and questions on the effectiveness of Esscom became the subject of much public debate, and the image of the integrated multi-agency security defence team took a battering because of the kidnappings.

Many might not be aware that Esscom, set up on April 1, 2013, is a coordinating agency of the Armed Forces, police, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and other relevant agencies to oversee Sabah's east coast security.

Though initially aimed at preventing border intrusions by armed groups like the occupation of Tanduo by Sulu gunmen, it soon added under its wings more responsibilities, including cross-border kidnapping, smuggling and other criminal activities in efforts to secure the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (Esszone).

Esscom's role is a "think tank" aimed at mapping strategies to put in place an integrated defence arrangement between the various security agencies to ensure that they do not overlap each other's duties in the border.

The command centre makes requests to fill various needs like housing, preparation of base sites, military vessels, manpower, firepower and radar, among others, to be channelled directly to serving security forces in the area.

Over the last 14 months, such strategic planning has helped strengthen Sabah's east coast security where many attempts by intruders - kidnap gangs, illegal immigrants and smugglers - have been thwarted.

A forward base, a more sophisticated sea radar system and assault helicopters are among equipment still needed to tighten the security in Esszone.

"We just can't cover the whole area. We are building up our intelligence through the respective agencies and working with coastal villagers to help us act quickly against these intruders," a senior Esscom official explained.

Asked if there have been chain of command issues among the uniformed bodies affecting defence planning in Esszone, the official explained that Esscom itself is not an enforcement agency but a coordination body that advises the security forces.

When Ops Daulat ended on June 29, 2013, Esscom took over by launching Ops Sanggah with two battalions deployed in Esszone under the command of the police General Operations Force and the army.

"Esscom has senior officers from the police, military, maritime agency and civilians. It was set up purely for coordination while the respective security organisations had their own line of command and controls to act in facing threats.

"Enforcement is done by the respective agencies. If a crime like kidnapping occurs, police have to do the investigations and follow up with action.

"Similarly, if it's the issue of illegal immigrants, the Immigration Department handles it, while smuggling is in the hands of the Customs department.

"There is no problem about chain of command," he said, adding that Esscom also has a rapid response tea

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